Stephen King is a master at personifying fear. Whether it’s with haunted hotels in The Shining, or rabid animals in Cujo, or even with female puberty in Carrie, King always finds a way to scare us in the most unorthodox of ways. Most horror writers are content with scribbling in the clichés of the genre (the teenagers that have sex dies first, group gets picked off one by one, female survivor is the only one to live at the end) and calling it a day. But like a literary sadist, King feeds off of his readers and their absorption into his material. And like any skilled predator, he likes to play with his prey.
In It, Stephen King gives us his most terrifying personification of fear yet in Pennywise the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgard), an omnipotent apex predator who comes out of hibernation every 27 years to feed off of children’s fears. If you were terrified of clowns before, you don’t even want to see what Pennywise is like. This is a creature that can take the appearance of any fear that you possess, from decapitated corpses, to zombies, to even paintings. If you can think it, Pennywise can be it.
His victims mostly consist of one group of children who dubbed themselves “The Loser’s Club.” Their leader Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) lost his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to the clown months ago during a rainy afternoon. One by one, the kids meet Pennywise and his many different forms as he terrorizes them using their own fears against them. As they continue to learn more about Pennywise and the history of Derry, the Loser’s Club decides to unite together and put an end to Pennywise’s villainy once and for all.
One of the most terrifying things about It is that we don’t even know what “It” is. Throughout the film, we see Pennywise use different approaches to terrify the children and to make them more susceptible to his manipulation, but even after finishing the film we still don’t get a clear idea of who or what he is. Maybe that’s the point. When we’re confronted by a threatening force, do we really care about what it’s supposed to be? Are we more interested in the facts surrounding our fears, or are we only caught up in surviving them? I thought about the animals in the natural food chain while watching this movie. When a gazelle is face-to-face with a lion, does he care about what exactly is hunting him, or is he more concerned about getting out alive?
In that sense, Pennywise does not inspire fear like his horror icon counterparts (Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, etc.) but rather embodies it, filling it with our own emotions, anxieties, and perceptions of fear and subverting them against ourselves. Bill Skarsgard, who is the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Thor), demonstrates an impeccable understanding of Pennywise and appropriately embodies the madness and bloodlust that a being like him would possess. Any other actor who would have taken on the role might have mistaken Pennywise as evil or insane. Skarsgard rightfully doesn’t make that inference because Pennywise is not human like any of the kids are in this movie. To human beings like us who possess moral compasses and value of life, we obviously see Pennywise as an evil that must be destroyed. But to Pennywise, a natural predator, there is just his meal and the meal he’s having after that. If beings like Pennywise are beyond concepts such as right and wrong, does that mean that he’s still quote-unquote “evil”, or is he immune to such labels because of his ignorance to the concepts? Circling back to the lion metaphor for comparison, is the lion evil for killing the gazelle, or is he only acting off of his instincts?
These are endlessly complex concepts here made simple by director Andy Muschietti, who years ago helmed the eerie and unusual horror film Mama. In It, Muschietti smartly juxtaposes human nature with that of a predator’s nature, and in that sense asks us if these two concepts can exist in the same society. After seeing the film, I’ll admit I have no answer to his query. I just know that I’m terrified of Pennywise and that I never want to see him again. That is, until the sequel comes out a few years from now.
Technically, the film is immaculate. The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (2003’s Oldboy) is smooth and calculated, following the action while never getting distracted by it. The child actors all give passionate performances, with Lieberher demonstrating the most layers as a kid grappling with the guilt and grief of his brother’s death. And the makeup work done on Skarsgard is among the best I’ve seen in years. I actually saw Skarsgard earlier this year in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde. Yet in the first moment when he appears on-screen as Pennywise, I didn’t even recognize him.
As always, I don’t like all of the violence and the trauma that these kids go through, and some scenes I think would be difficult to stomach even for adults. And of course the kids swear it up in typical R-rated fashion, as if they’re trying to meet the F-word quota by the end of the month. Yet none of these things change the thoughtful concepts being explored here, the scares that the film builds up to, or the great demonstration of acting and art on display here. Take caution while watching It: you don’t know which of your fears Pennywise will use against you.