Thanks for the recently released trailer, fans finally got their first good look at the new upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Needless to say, there’s a lot of anticipation for the movie, with It being a highly beloved horror novel and its previous adaptation, a 1990 made-for-TV mini-series, not quite living up to full horrifying potential of the source material, despite being a cult classic in its own right. This Andrés Muschietti-helmed modern version is a chance for King’s 1,000-plus page original work to be realized in a way befitting of the terror people felt when reading the book.
Along with getting a look at some of the more familiar landmarks of the story and many of the lead characters, the thing many fans were most curious to see was this version’s Pennywise the Clown. Like most iconic horror stories, the monster is the main attraction, so there’s an enormous curiosity (and some apprehension) for how the designers and producers have gone about realizing their iteration of the clown creature. Stills released previously showed a him in a greyed out costume, keeping the puffy red hair, looking menacing in a particularly staged way. As promotional materials they were fine, but they gave little indication of how this Pennywise would fit in the mechanics of the story. It plays as a very gradual build, and to gauge whether or not this vision of Pennywise would work, he needs to be seen in motion with the backdrop of 1989 Derry, Maine to judge.
From the opening of little Georgie getting kidnapped to the projector scene, the footage is satisfactorily chill-inducing. There’s emphasis given to the more conventional scares as well as the psychological ones with the recurring red balloon, playing to fans of the source material and current mainstream sensibilities. But therein lies some cause for concern, as through-out what’s shown, Pennywise’s grey garb and obviously-a-bit-demonic manner doesn’t leave much room for mystique.
The novel is a winding mystery set across a lifetime, told through multiple accounts of a gang of kids growing into adulthood as this whatever-it-is terrorizes their town. A shape-shifting inter-dimensional being of some sort, the “it” of the story is mostly seen as a clown. Clowns are naturally scary, and It uses that to create a particular blend of psychological terror and anxiety that Pennywise is at the core of. He appears sparingly, building a sense of foreboding as to what he is, and his appearance is key to the unsettling ambiance that surrounds him. After each encounter the characters are left asking themselves what they just saw: what was that thing? Could it have really been a clown? No way, man – clowns are weird, but a clown haunting you with magic powers? Grow up.
The 1990 mini-series tried to keep this intact. Campy as it is in retrospect, Tim Curry’s performance and look as Pennywise in the ABC special was an attempt to keep a semblance of the idea that when Pennywise appeared as a clown, he was believably a clown that kids (somewhere) would be attracted to. In an interview with Yahoo!, the producers explained that the inspiration was Lon Chaney from The Phantom of the Opera, and that initially the look contained a good deal of prosthetics. Bart Mixon, the Special Makeup Effects Supervisor, explained, “I wanted him to look like a living cartoon.”
Curry was against the use of heavy prosthetics, and after a couple of test applications someone suggested using just clown make-up and the fake teeth, which turned out to be a winning combination. Curry had embodied the role at that stage, and letting his acting and screen presence do more of the heavy lifting allowed for a more natural horror to form around Pennywise. Aside from the teeth, the only only prosthesis was a bulbous forehead to give a subtle yet noticeable supernatural aspect.
By contrast, our new Pennywise leaves a lot less to the imagination. The dull-coloured period costume, bold blood-red hair and neo-goth eye make-up are immediate indicators of something devilish and untoward. Bill Skarsgård is practically unrecognizable – more a man-shaped place-holder for the concept design than his own spin on the clown-king of nightmares. The design looks good in the trailer when the circus-themed fiend is meant to be scary, both to the audience and the characters, but he’s not necessarily meant to inspire fear every second he’s on-screen. Unnerving, yes; outright scary… not so much.
As Mixon puts it: “The important thing was to make sure Pennywise looked like a friendly clown. This creature is trying to lure children in, so he’s not going to be a monster at first. He’s going to be enticing.” It’s the lack of this in the new adaptation that raises a red flag. As an icon, Pennywise as he’s seen in the mini-series and described in the novel can be read to symbolize so many different things: profound anxiety, mental illness, sexual molestation and other childhood traumas. And they all work because the evil made flesh is built on a simple premise – something innocent and meant to inspire comfort being and doing the exact opposite. The new design is arguably missing this pathos.
There is something to be said for getting to the good stuff. This new It is going to be its own two-hour film, with a second part scheduled to be made following the adult counter-parts of the characters as they set out to kill Pennywise once and for all. That’s not a lot of time, and given that most people in the audience will already be familiar with the property, it’s reasonable to amalgamate the more involved elements down to their baseline ideas – skip the middle-man and go straight to a clown menace tormenting the children without any doubt as to it being a thing of pure evil. What it lacks in psychology, it can still make up in raw fear, relying on the the assertion that nobody trusts clowns and that this thing will still find a way to get to its victims even if they don’t trust it. That’s a risky deviation from how King’s story manifests fear, but such is a by-product of new adaptations and one that could serve as a way to keep the story relevant for a new generation.
It certainly can’t be said that this first trailer didn’t resonate with people – the two-and-a-half minutes of footage set a record for most views for a trailer in a single day at 197 million globally across the multiple official sources that uploaded it. The like/dislike bars all skew positively too, so those aren’t hate-views. People are excited to see one of King’s definitive works on-screen and they’re enthused with how it looks so far. However this It fairs, an audience is watching, so this new clown better have something worth seeing up his sleeve.