Up until the age of maybe six or seven, I was afraid of the basement. I would stand at the top of the staircase in my old house, frozen in a state of fright as I gazed down into the shadowy abyss for minutes at a time. When the lights were off, I always thought there was something looming in the dark depths of downstairs. If someone wasn’t accompanying me in the basement, whether it be the broadest of daylight shining through the window or the gloom of the late evening, I would sprint upstairs upon hearing the slightest creak. It wasn’t until I turned eight that I began to shake off this fear and realize there was nothing waiting for me but another set of rooms to feel safe in.
Watching It, director Andrés Muschietti’s newly released modern adaptation of Stephen King’s clown-terror masterpiece, instantly returned all of my childhood fears to memory: the basement, the anxiety of trying something new that seems impossible, and the monsters in my closet. It made me remember all of that and for a moment, made me feel this childlike naiveté again.
And that is exactly what It seeks out to do.
It is a film that is designed to show what it’s like to confront every childhood fear and ultimately overcome them. Whether it be a zombified swarm of abducted children, a haunting ghoul from your nightmares or the image of watching your parents burn alive at a young age, all of these fears are manifest in Pennywise (played by Bill Skarsgård), the sadistic, shape-shifting clown terrorizing the quiet town of Derry (shot in Port Hope, Ont.).
The film follows a group of seven children, who call themselves “The Losers,” as they try to piece together a string of missing children cases in their unsuspecting little town. Their journey begins when Bill, the group’s leader (played by Jaeden Lieberher, the star of 2016’s Midnight Special), crafts a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie on a rainy day. He instructs Georgie to go play with his boat outside, and so Georgie lets it sail down the heavy streams of rain flooding the roads outside their house. When Georgie’s boat falls in the gutter, we are given our first glimpse of Pennywise, the entirely over-the-top clown who serves as equal parts horror and parody. Pennywise offers to return Georgie’s boat, but instead bites one of his arms off and drags him through a washed-out pool of blood into the sewer system.
What comes next for Bill and his friends Richie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhead), Ben, Mike, Eddie, Stanley and Beverly, is a search for Georgie, whom Bill believes to still be alive, and all the other missing children of Derry. Along the way, they are all treated to individual encounters with Pennywise, both as a clown and in the form of their most hideous fears. It’s not solely Pennywise who makes the film’s narrative effective, but rather the other overshadowing anxieties and demons, both inner and outer, the children must combat on their paths to adulthood.
Rather than being completely consumed with the children and their war with Pennywise, the film evenly shows battles between Beverly and her sexually abusive father; Eddie and his overbearing, hypochondriacal mother; Ben and his case of “being the new kid”; and Bill and his unthinkable task of grappling with the harrowing idea that his younger sibling might actually never come back. All that, coupled with the children trying to escape the bloodthirsty, watchful eye of their psychopathic high school bully, Henry Bowers, is enough for easy investment into their lives.
If it weren’t for these side stories, the character development of “The Losers” would probably fall flat. But it doesn’t, not one bit. And because of that, you find yourself rooting for these younger versions of yourself, the kids who aren’t ready to let the pressures of everyday life completely overwhelm them. The movie is as much a horror movie as it is a coming-of-age tale set in a quaint, suburban town.
All of this isn’t to say the movie isn’t scary. It definitely has memorable moments. I caught myself on several occasions whispering “oh shit” to myself in shock and breathing faster than what is usually recommended. My accompanying friend, who is as stereotypically afraid of horror films as anyone, described It as “extremely tense start to finish.” The scares are balanced throughout, with humour coming in bursts from the children (particularly Wolfhead, playing the wiseass friend who is both admirable and annoying) as they react accordingly to the screwball situation they’ve found themselves in. The only aspect that drags the film down a tad is the unavoidable cheesiness that comes along with making a film revolved around ’80s kids.
Their story isn’t done either, as a sequel to It is planned to drop sometime in 2019. We haven’t seen the last of Pennywise, or his obscenely massive forehead. For now though, as a movie based off one of the most terrifying monsters ever created by horror guru King, it’s refreshing to see that the bonds formed by relatable kids are what truly make It the genre-binding story it came to be.