Revisiting Derry: How Last Year's Horror Breakout 'IT' Is Better The Second Time Around

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The horror adaptation gets better each time you watch.

Director Andy Muschetti and the cast and crew of IT have said in the past that they wanted to hit three targets with last fall’s ambitious adaptation of the Stephen King novel. Their self-composed litmus test for success included what they called the three H’s: humor, heart, and horror. The film, which broke records to become the highest grossing domestic horror movie of all time (as well as the all-time highest-grossing September release), pulls off this tonal trifecta and then some.

IT is also an ideal movie for rewatching. With each new viewing, Muschetti’s vision for the saga becomes clearer, small moments feel richer, and variations from the source material start to feel (mostly) bearable. The film is finally coming to Bluray and DVD this week, complete with deleted scenes and featurettes focused on King’s Derry mythology, the child actors playing The Loser’s Club, and Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise.

Under the surface, IT is a story about facing fears, growing up, and friendships that transcend time and circumstance. Yet it would be nothing without the titular homicidal clown, a demonic, shape-shifting centerpiece who transforms what could have been a simple coming-of-age story into a collective fever dream with deadly high stakes. In the 1990 miniseries, Tim Curry’s Pennywise was creepy verging on campy. In the 2017 version, Skarsgard and Muschetti put their own spin on Pennywise–he’s now more akin to body-distorting Freddy Krueger than Curry’s circus clown–with gloriously freakish results.

The first viewing of any horror film involves a certain amount of bracing oneself–for jump scares (IT really only has two), gore (the first scene is the most disturbing), and a cathartic end to the uneasy feeling that anything could happen. By these standards, IT is only a decent horror movie. Many of Pennywise’s tricks involve using the Losers’ fears against them, and since we aren’t thirteen years old, we can only be so scared by buckets of blood and weird paintings. For this reason, lots of genre fans had the same initial question about the film: is it a good movie, or a good horror movie?

Multiple viewings reveal that the answer’s an unequivocal yes to both. When given the chance to watch the film without the anticipation of the unexpected, Muschetti’s masterful use of fear–ours and the Losers’–becomes apparent. Skarsgard is a force of nature as Pennywise, a drooling, wall-eyed, ageless cryptid who thinks children taste best with a jolt of fear in their veins. He stomps, dances, chases, appears and disappears at will, and–wait, is he using a decaying Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) as a ventriloquist dummy?! Muschetti writes Pennywise’s early scenes to feel like a series of leisurely taunts for the clown, punctuated within the story structure by more lighthearted sequences between the Losers, who in the light of day dismiss their dreamlike encounters with It as imagined.

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The steady drumbeat of horror and humor comes to a crescendo in the film’s most unnerving scene, which comes about two-thirds of the way through. In an extended sequence of overwhelming It-curated scares, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and Richie (Finn Wolfhard) explore an abandoned house on Neibolt street, Pennywise’s purported lair. Skarsgard uses his entire body here, untangling from a pretzel-like position in an abandoned fridge before waltzing melodramatically toward a broken-armed Eddie, inhaling deeply to smell the boy’s fear like it’s meat on the barbecue. His laugh is unhinged as he teases Eddie and faux bites at his arm–he’s quite literally playing with his food, and performing a weird inversion of a game (‘I’m gonna get ya!’) that parents play with toddlers. When confronted by Bill, who has managed to find his way out of a maze of horrors with mind-over-matter instincts, Pennywise gleefully squeals, “This isn’t real enough for you, Billy?” These were apparently the first scenes Skarsgard filmed with the child cast, who were kept separate from him until that point in order to gain an organic onscreen reaction. Even without the added authenticity of actual scared-shitless kids, Muschetti and Skarsgard’s all-in work on the Neibolt house scene makes it the most terrifying Pennywise has ever been–on page or screen.

When all is said and done, the kids learn a classic Stephen King lesson. Their mutual support and vulnerability–requirements for pushing away massive fear, and not just in the haunted fictional town of Derry–stops Pennywise in his tracks. The beast has no power over child sacrifices who refuse to give any piece of themselves to it. Parts of the book’s ending are controversial, and the latest adaptation rejiggered plot points–think Beverly’s (Sophia Lillis) damsel-in-distress moment–in a way that won’t satisfy everyone. Still, IT crammed an impressive amount of the 1100 page book’s characterization into a well-rounded film that never feels bloated.

IT may not be as dense and rich as the book it’s based on, but it’s still a full course meal, with background details, bits of improv, and symbolism aplenty to sustain fans until the arrival of part two in 2019. Aside from killer musical cues (this is a horror movie that somehow managed to make perfect use of both Young MC’s “Bust a Move” and XTC’s “Dear God”) and thoughtful choices in everything from costume to score, there are also character details indicating that Muschetti’s on the right track when it comes to telling the Loser’s Clubs’ stories faithfully.

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For fans of the book and miniseries, it’s as important to nail the distinct personalities of each kid as it is to get Pennywise right. Although some Losers get more screen time than others (Mike is woefully underrepresented, and most of Stan’s line are in deleted scenes), each one is given quirks and moments that reveal a lot, often without calling attention to themselves. When the other kids throw down their bikes, careful and deliberate Stan (Wyatt Oleff) stops to put the kickstand of his up. Courageous Beverly is the only Loser who doesn’t volunteer to stand guard at Neibolt to avoid going inside. And Eddie, strong for the first time after throwing out his placebo medicine, ignores his watch’s alarm reminding him to take it, instead taking the hands of his friends one last time before the summer ends.

IT is King’s most-discussed book for a reason. It contains multitudes, and though it doesn’t match the complexity of the book, the new adaptation does too. It’s an epic adventure and a personal tale of grief. It’s adult terror and teen-boy comedy. It’s about a single summer but also about a lifetime. And yes, as promised, it’s got humor, heart, and horror.

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Bay Area freelance writer, podcast producer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast.