When a little boy named Georgie reaches down into a sewer drain in the middle of a rainstorm to retrieve his paper boat, we already know what’s going to happen. We know there’s a clown down there named Pennywise, who’ll tempt Georgie with a cotton-candy fantasy of a carnival that’s nearby and easy to get to, if he’d only just come down into the sewer. We know of the havoc that Pennywise, also known as It, will wreak on the other kids in town, including Georgie’s older brother, Bill, who’ll spend much of the next summer trying to kill what murdered his little brother. And we know of all the secondary fears—of lepers and mummies and nighttime ghouls—It will leave in its wake, customized nightmares for luring and frightening his preferred victims: children.
We already know all this because it’s the collective nightmare that It, Stephen King’s massive 1986 novel, invented. The nightmare only got worse in 1990, when It was materialized for us on television, by the unpredictably kooky and strangely frightening theatrics of Tim Curry. Now, the story’s back, with a new film directed by Andrés Muschietti (Mama). It must be tough to make a movie based on a story that’s seeped so far into so many of our bones. Muschietti’s flawed but fun movie doubles down on what made It so memorable to begin with, to the extent that that’s possible. King’s novel was, after all, well over 1,000 pages. Much of that isn’t here.
But the good stuff still is. Pennywise is back, of course, and so is the group of so-called Losers—Bill and the six outcasts he calls his friends—that anchored the original story as much in the bonds of childhood friendship as in the terror of this predatory, otherworldly clown. It’s the same basic story. The setting is the late ’80s, in a quaint Maine town called Derry, where kids have been going missing for a year. Eleven-year-old Bill and his best friends Eddie, Richie, and Stanley are outsiders because of who they are. Bill stutters, Stanley and Richie are Jewish, and Eddie is a painfully fearful hypochondriac. It’s summer, which ought to be fun, but the boys are being terrorized by an unspeakable presence, a clown that seems to be able to manifest as their worst fears. Scaredy-cat Eddie is preyed upon by a pus-covered leper, for example; Bill receives a visit from his dead baby brother. Gradually, they befriend other outsiders: Mike, who’s picked on for being black; Ben, a fat nerd; and Beverly, who hit puberty earlier than the other girls and is called a slut at school. These kids are haunted by Pennywise, too—to say nothing of their real-world terrors, like Beverly's predatory father, or Mike’s memories of losing his parents in a fire.
It’s a story about friends, and being young, and being stupidly fearless. These are kids who walk into the dark house on the corner, not around it. The movie is dead set on reminding us, sometimes with humor and otherwise with a grimace, that the kids of the ’80s were also, by today’s standards, problematic. This is a movie in which the bullies hurl insults, like “faggot,” and in which a middle-aged man earnestly and unironically flirts with a teenage girl—politically incorrect details we tend to airbrush from our memories of the era, but which nevertheless live on in ’80s movies, like the rape joke in Sixteen Candles, not to mention Long Duk Dong. Much of It plays like a soft rebuke to the PG-ified boyishness of Stranger Things (with which it actually shares one cast member, the bespectacled Finn Wolfhard). Then again, Stranger Things is a bit of an It rip-off, to begin with.
It’s endearing, in a way—you almost want the new It to keep being a silly teen movie about growing up during a realistically unsheltered ’80s. But then we’d have to miss out on what Pennywise the clown, one of the great horror villains, has in store. And the answer is: too much and not enough. The Pennywise imagined by this new movie has changed with the times—meaning, he’s got a few new CGI tricks. That delightful grimace is back, and so is that irksome laugh and the violent sense of humor. As played by Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise is even more unhinged than we remember, and is it possible that his forehead is even bigger? He’s got a “Back on my bullshit” vibe I kind of love, even if what’s villainous about him seems somehow diluted. It’s a Pennywise who, though mischievous, is a little less clever and fun—a little less of a clown—than before. He’s bigger, but not badder; at his worst, he feels like a distraction from what this story is really about.
It has always ultimately been a story about childhood fears. That’s how it read for me as a teenager, anyway, because it tapped so brutally into my own. I remember being particularly struck by the prologue to the strand of the novel set in 1984, a very early chapter in the book that recounts the murder of a gay man named Adrian Mellon. He’s beaten up by three men and thrown over a bridge into a canal, where he dies. As a kid, this was terrifying for being eerily reminiscent of a real murder I’d grown up reading about, that of Charlie Howard, a 23-year-old gay man who died on July 7, 1984, after being assaulted by three men and thrown over the State Street Bridge, in Bangor, Maine, and drowning. This is a story I’d heard cited often, in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shepard, as an essential earlier example of a hate crime—and as something of a cautionary tale, or so it seemed to me, about coming out of the closet. The parallels between the book and the real-life incident were uncanny and undeniable but for the actual cause of death. In real life, Howard drowned in that canal. In King’s book, witnesses see a clown. But the initial violence, the attack by three men, was the same.
It was only this week that I learned King’s character Mellon was, in fact, directly based on Howard—just as the fictional town of Derry is based on Bangor, where King lived for five years at the time of Howard’s death. It was a memorable event: King even contributed to a retrospective on Howard’s death published by the Bangor Daily News in 2014. In retrospect, it couldn’t be more appropriate that the story King decided to rip from the headlines and rewrite as one of the signature crimes of Pennywise—a villain who preys on childhood fears—should be one that was the source of my own childhood fears. Mellon’s murder wasn’t one of Pennywise’s tricky illusionary traps. It was no mummy, leper, or bathroom sink spouting blood. It was real. Too real and too much for me as a kid—which strikes me, today, as an appropriately creeped-out reaction to King’s book, because this is precisely the kind of fear the book is about. The murder of Adrian Mellon will potentially be what kick-starts the new movie’s promised sequel, as, in the book, Mellon’s murder is part of what draws all the Losers back to Derry as adults. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that.
On the other hand, I can’t wait to see what the next movie makes of who these people are, which in Muschietti’s adaptation is a little more archetype-driven and a little less personal than the rich world of King’s original. There’s just not enough room. Each of the seven Losers is equipped with his or her own home life and personal hang-ups; each is susceptible to the bespoke forms of terror Pennywise uses to lure them one by one. It’s a lot to cram into one movie, which seems to be part of what’s taken so long for this adaptation to reach the big screen in the first place. Cary Fukunaga worked with New Line Cinema to develop the project from 2009 to 2015 before walking away over creative differences. Afterward, he told Variety that the story he wanted to tell, which would have taken its time to flesh out the world of Derry and the lives of the Losers, just wasn’t the movie New Line wanted to make. “What I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters,” he said. “[But New Line] didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares.” He later confessed: “I’m not sure if the fans would have liked what I would have done.”
To its genuine credit, Muschietti’s movie adds up to something decisively more than just archetypes and scares, though how much more is up to you. I can’t help but be curious about what mischief Fukunaga, a director with an artful sense of creep, had in store—but I’m perfectly content with the movie we got, which is, among other things, a fine tribute to studio horror’s capacity for old-school, handsomely budgeted frights. It the CGI spectacle will never get to me as much as It the tactile, grimacing clown, but that’s not to say the CGI scares don’t earn their keep. Seeing Pennywise unfurl himself from within a cramped refrigerator, or crumble seemingly into bits, is a delight. But is anything as scary as a room full of clowns?
It wouldn’t be half as enjoyable without its charismatic young stars, who, alongside the deliriously aggro Pennywise, carry the entire movie. Jaeden Lieberher, an increasingly familiar face (he was the star of last year’s Midnight Special and this year’s disastrous The Book of Henry), is a particular standout, playing Bill with sensitive clarity. Sophia Lillis, as Beverly, is another star in the making; she brings Beverly to the screen with a rare ease, a mature presence among so many dweeby boys. The movie ends with a blood pact to return to Derry should It ever come back. It, the movie, will most definitely be coming back. So, I suspect, will we.