In Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, falling asleep brings upon the greatest boogeyman of our time, Freddy Krueger. To avoid death you’ll need to drink some coffee or down some caffeine pills. Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep. This is where Andy Muschietti‘s adaptation of Stephen King‘s IT is even more threatening. While the two films draw many similarities, it could be argued that IT is even more terrifying.
IT opens in October of 1988 with two brothers, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) and Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), respectively, building a paper boat together. Georgie heads into the rainstorm only to have his boat float down a sewer where he’s instantly introduced to Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). Skarsgård’s Pennywise is both inviting and mortifying (here’s a clip), the kind of clown you would feel okay talking to only to realize he probably has a sinister agenda after taking a balloon from him. Georgie, apparently ignoring his better judgment, reaches in for his boat only to have Pennywise transform into a toothy monster that rips off his arm and drags him into the sewer. IT announces itself right out of the gate, promising to be an unapologetic and vicious horror film where everything is at stake.
It’s now the summer of 1989, and the Loser’s Club (Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff) are kids trying to be kids; they’re riding their bikes, fighting off bullies, playing video games at the arcade, and making constant dick jokes. Through a series of events, they are eventually aligned with the chastised Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), bullied new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and local outcast Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). While IT will always be remembered for Skarsgård’s haunting Pennywise performance, this Goonies-eque ensemble is what elevates the film to horror greatness. Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga‘s screenplay carves out colorful and relatable characters that feel like an eclectic mix of those in “Stranger Things” and The Sandlot. It’s heartbreaking each and every time they have to go up against Pennywise or even the town bullies.
This is where IT is a real punch to the gut; these poor kids are not only dealing with horrible situations within their own household, but they also have violent bullies cutting and beating them up, and a fucking demonic clown tormenting them around every corner. It doesn’t take long for Loser’s Club to realize they’re all seeing their worst fears come to life, with of course Richie’s (Wolfhard) being clowns. While Freddy Krueger needs his victims to be asleep, Pennywise has the luxury of stalking the kids any time he wants. Piling on the family drama and bullying, these poor kids are trapped and backed into a corner. This allows Muschietti to assault the audience with scares relentlessly.
Because Pennywise can appear at any time, the audience is on constant edge. While Richie offers some comedic relief, it barely allows the audience a chance to breathe before the next confrontation. Touching on themes of rape and abuse, Pennywise continues to play up the Loser’s Club’s worst fears and is unrelenting. There’s never a dull moment with this clown who is working as hard as it can to scare the living shit out of his victims. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a horror icon for the ages. There’s evolution to his character as he slowly transgresses into a demon, all while continuing his petrifying clown act. In fact, his performance is so mind blowing that it’s almost wasted in the second half of the film when Pennywise becomes more demon than clown.
The biggest win, however, is that Warner Bros./New Line Cinema spent a ton of money on IT, which all shows on screen; the locations and massive set pieces have just as much character as the film’s evil clown. Muschietti turns Pennywise’s decrepit house into a horrifying maze of terror, transforming IT into one of the scariest haunted house movies you’ll ever see. Beep beep, indeed.
While IT isn’t a perfect movie it still achieves horror greatness on so many levels. The flick clearly follows the same beats as Elm Street and manages to deliver equal frights all of these years later. And for the first time in a long time, someone has a made a children’s horror film that feels dangerous, which is that nostalgic sweet spot that we’re all craving right now. A timeless horror gem worthy of repeat viewing, IT is an instant Halloween classic that will haunt audiences for years to come.