Plenty of horror films have interesting concepts for their villains, and IT has one of pop culture’s more menacing villains in the form of “IT,” or Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Considering the character is mostly remembered from Tim Curry’s portrayal in the 1990 miniseries, it’s not surprising that creating a theatrical take on the story of IT would happen. But one aspect that makes a horror film stand out is how it treats its protagonists. For an audience looking for something more than a way to satiate their appetite for cheap scares, creating well-rounded characters is vital. And while IT does considerable work in bringing a new version of Pennywise to life, the film excels in focusing on its group of young victims who have to learn how to face their fears in order to defeat a creature who feeds on those fears. In doing so, IT sets itself apart as one of the better studio horror films in recent history.
In 1989, the town of Derry, Maine has undergone a rash of disappearances. Among those who’ve gone missing: Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), whose older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is certain that the sewer system has something to do with Georgie’s disappearance. When he’s not trying to figure out what happened to Georgie, Bill fights off bullies with his friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff). As the boys begin to encounter a malevolent entity who appears as a clown who calls himself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), they find their deepest fears being exploited. The boys team up with Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), forming “The Losers Club” as they attempt to stop Pennywise and the disappearances in Derry.
At 135 minutes, IT runs for roughly an hour less than the whole 1990 miniseries, but also only focuses on the first half of Stephen King’s iconic story. This gives IT plenty of time to establish the young characters as individuals and a group. Some of the kids get more characterization than others (Stan and Mike draw the short straws here), they all seem like actual friends beyond anything having to do with Pennywise. And it must be said: the actors here, who outside of Jaeden Lieberher are all relative newbies, are phenomenal. They make each of their characters feel real, which is a noteworthy accomplishment for a film that spends most of its time with them.
In establishing the kids as well-rounded characters, director Andy Muschietti also ensures that the film isn’t 135 minutes of pure horror. That’s not to say the film isn’t capable of pulling off some intense scares, because it is. But the film is surprisingly funny, with the interplay between the kids coming through as them essentially being dicks to one another. The film also touches on traumatic events that aren’t supernatural, but can be equally damaging, whether it’s through Bill’s attempts to process his grief or Beverly fending off the advances of her father. In those latter moments, IT finds its most skin-crawling moments of true horror.
By keeping such a focus on the Losers Club, the film does hold back on its use of Pennywise. Muschietti knows how to set scenes that induce dread, and there are a few moments in particular where Pennywise gets a shot in that will likely spook audiences. But the film doesn’t really delve into who Pennywise is, so it’s hard to get invested with him in comparison to the kids. My guess is that it’s intentional, in part to help maintain a focus on the Losers Club, and in part because keeping Pennywise in at a distance gives the filmmakers the option of diving into the character further in the essentially inevitable IT: Chapter Two.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the aspects of the film that’s stood out to me the most since the first trailer dropped: the work of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, whose previous work includes Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, Stoker and The Handmaiden. Between his work and Muschietti’s, these two have created a film that is both gorgeous and chilling visually. It helps perpetuate a sense of dread over the entire film, which makes some of the film’s more creepy scenes still feel organic to the events surrounding them.
For audiences who are expecting, for some reason, a film that features Pennywise visibly running amok for over two hours, they’ll likely be disappointed. For audiences who want something more, though, IT delivers by focusing on the Losers instead of Pennywise. IT still has the power to scare its audience, but it earns its scares by giving its audience more.