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‘It: Chapter Two’: In Praise of Pennywise

A brief tribute to Stephen King’s most terrifying creation ever — and how it makes ‘Chapter Two’ a superior sequel

David Fear Sep 06, 2019

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise in "IT Chapter Two". Photo: Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros.

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Here’s everything you need to know about It: Chapter Two, the sequel to the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s epic coming-of-age horror story. It is long. Very long. It is a much better movie than the first one. The kids have been de-aged in flashbacks to resemble their youthful selves from the original. (Listen, you try making a two-part franchise with kids who can sprout two inches and drop their voices a full octave over a single summer!) The upgrade to the adult version of the “Losers Club” — now played by Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James McAvoy, and others — makes the story feel less like a faded copy of other films and TV shows that have cannibalized King’s work in the name of homage (looking at you, Stranger Things). It’s as much about trauma, healing, and making peace with your past as it is about jump scares. The ending is…well, it’s the book’s ending, which, y’know, yeesh.

Oh, and the clown? Yeah, the clown is even more fucking terrifying this time around. Seriously.

When King conceived It, he admitted that the idea was to write an epic book featuring, in his words, “all of the monsters.” The vampire, the werewolf, the mummy — the entire stable of vintage Universal horror, bump-in-the-night fodder. But he needed one character outside this old creature-feature canon, “a binding, horrible, nasty, gross creature.” Something, the author imagined, that would inspire a sense of fear and revulsion on sight. “What scares kids the most?” he asked himself. The answer, of course: Clowns. Thus was born Pennywise, circus-centric chomper of children, destroyer of innocence, the most name-recognizable King creation this side of Cujo, and the single most horrifying thing the author has ever dreamed up. The monster-mash idea quickly went away. Who needs Frankenstein when you have a fucked-up clown?

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And with all due respect to Tim Curry, whose portrayal of Pennywise in the 1990 TV miniseries scarred a generation, it’s Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård’s interpretation of this fright-haired bogeyman that has made the character iconic. His introduction as a voice and a pair of glowing eyes beckoning a little boy to come closer, closer, closer to a sewer grate channeled the book’s mix of Grimm’s Fairy Tale and gross-out horror flick. Now, in Chapter Two, we get an even more off-the-leash Pennywise from him, one that ups the drooling and the singsong voice and the rancid, perverse giggling. When he lures a little girl into his trap under the bleachers, you see Skarsgård go from dopey to dreamlike to slightly demented, before finding the predatory sweet spot of sympathetic vulnerability. Then out spring the fangs, and you see every childhood nightmare come to life.

King’s greatest works have always revolved around finding a primal-fear button and brutally mashing it, and Pennywise was his phobic masterpiece in pancake makeup. On the page, he read like a precisely pitched blend of Freddie Krueger and Ronald McDonald. Onscreen, he feels like he’s burrowing into your psyche. “There were points where I felt like I was going insane,” Skarsgård said in 2017 after playing the role the first time. For Round Two, he succeeds in making viewers feel they’re going insane — which makes him the perfect King nightmare for 2019. Accept no psycho-clown substitutes.

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