Pennywise, or as my wife refers to him “don’t talk to me about that fucking clown” is in a lot of ways a modern take on the menace archetype made popular by movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Jeepers Creepers. Like Freddy Krueger, Pennywise The Dancing Clown has an origin story that’s tucked away deep in the town’s lore. Both Pennywise and Freddy get a sense of their victim’s fears that are in turn used against them, stalking their victims for multiple cycles, wearing them down until they’re ready to make their move. And like Freddy, Pennywise has a persona that’s far bigger than the film he stars in.
Let’s break this down a bit because this is a sub-genre I really miss in horror movies and I’m so excited to finally get something at this high quality. Okay, so the concept of preying on your victim’s fears isn’t anywhere near new. It’s been executed to varying degrees of success over years. Actually, while we’re comparing I’d argue that the weakest part of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was that bizarre ending where after Home Alone-ing the life out of Freddy, Nancy finally defeats him by turning her back and telling him she isn’t afraid anymore. I saw that movie in the 80’s, and I still can’t get over how strange and out-of-nowhere that was. In fact, if anyone is privy to how this makes canonical sense in Freddy’s lore, tweet at me, please.
Anyway, back to Pennywise. When we’re first introduced to him in the sewer, I was worried he looked too much like actor Bill Skarsgård to be creepy. Don’t get me wrong the Skarsgårds are creepy in their own right, but Pennywise should be terrifying on a level few of actors should be able to match. Thankfully my fears quickly disappeared because our time with Pennywise is handled deftly throughout. Usually, as a creature’s screen time clocks up the mystery behind it goes down. But for with Pennywise, we’re never left quite comfortable. Let’s be honest, part of this is because clowns can be terrifying in their own right, but more importantly, it’s that we still know so little about what Pennywise actually is. The film gives us some hints and touches on it, but we’re never given a solid answer.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your frame of mind) what Pennywise actually is, is shrouded in mystery, perhaps only Stephen King knows for sure, but I’ll dig into a bit of lore because as with all things that serve the beam it’s pretty fascinating. The creature we call Pennywise the Dancing Clown is not actually a clown. This is simply its clown form. Let me reiterate that for the folks that weren’t paying attention. IT chooses to look like a clown because it wants to fuck with you, oh and it wants to attract children. IT is actually an ancient entity in King’s universe that has existed for billions and billions of years in the undiscovered void outside the universe called the Macroverse. This is where things get a little wacky. IT doesn’t actually have a true representation in our physical world. As far as we know IT’s true form is called the Deadlights. The Deadlights when seen, will drive it’s victims insane. When Pennywise opens its mouth to make Beverly float, it puts her body in a stasis by showing her… the Deadlights. This means when Pennywise opens it’s mouth it’s revealing a portion of it’s true cosmic form to take it’s victims. These types of details are what makes IT so strange and otherworldly.
In fact, Pennywise may not even be one of a kind. If you’ve read through The Dark Tower, which touches on almost all of King’s stories in one way or another, you’ve come upon Dandelo, an emotional vampire of sorts that weakens his victims through laughter (as opposed to fear like Pennywise). Now, the actual connection was severed somewhat after King came out and said there is no relationship other than both creatures coming from the same void, but those that read (and finished) IT know that when Pennywise dies, in the end, he leaves behind eggs. Some Tower Junkies believe those eggs came to produce the offspring we now know as Dandelo. Of course, this is all a healthy handful of head-cannon but for King fans, these types of connections are too delicious to resist.
Still following me? Good, because my wife, a card-carrying Constant Reader will have my head if I screw up King’s lore. Even without these background details, Pennywise succeeds at personifying into the living embodiment of fear for your average 13 year old. Whether it’s directly stalking them or using its abilities to create apparitions, those kids were terrorized throughout the runtime and it was so satisfying to watch.
One of my favorite scenes is when Ben is in the library researching the history of Derry and things start to go…. wrong. Next time you watch it, keep an eye on the creepy old librarian lady in the background while Ben starts flipping pages. It’s unsettling and creepy and there isn’t really any pay off for it, it’s just one of those things that you either notice or don’t, but somehow that makes things creepier. The way director Andy Muschietti bends reality when Pennywise is near is brilliant and I won’t have anyone tell me otherwise. Whenever things got quiet for our Losers, I found myself on high alert waiting for a god damn red balloon to drift into the frame, signaling shit was about to go down. That type of effective storytelling is what takes IT from good to a great.
It’s these types of scares that really struck a chord with me. While IT has a TON of jump scares, I found myself really getting creeped out by these quiet, subtle moments that didn’t draw much attention. Another example is the TV show that’s on when Beverly walks into her house. That one’s a bit more obvious, but it doesn’t make it any less scary. One of the more big scares that by all accounts should have been dumb as hell was when the kids are looking through the projector and Pennywise shows up to create havoc. That first scene was all over the trailer, Pennywise’s face showing up as the projector goes berzerk was a cool effect. But it was the moment IT comes out of the screen that should have come off goofy as hell, and maybe it was for some people, but I really thought it was bold filmmaking. Exposing your creature in such a way is a risk and in my opinion, it totally paid off.
I think the other reason Pennywise works throughout the film is that we’re given all these variations of IT, which keeps us on our toes. What Pennywise conjures up for these kids is equally horrifying and when the goal is to create fear and not simply kill we’re left to see the emotional aftermath of IT’s attacks. Their stress, fear and tension buildup does so much more for a horror film than a high body count ever could. And listen, kids are scared of stupid things. I used to be scared of this statue of a Knight we had in our house. Don’t get me wrong it was terrifying, but there wasn’t any actual reason to be scared of it other than it personified my terrors and stalked me in my dreams, but I digress. The point is kids are scared of a variety of things. Sometimes, it’s a creepy painting, other times its hobo with leprosy. Pennywise turns these fears against these kids over and over again and the variety in scares are high ranging and satisfying. The fact that most of the kids are terrorized multiple times just sat really well in my cold dark heart.
It’s these types of ideas that make IT unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time. I’m usually satisfied with one good idea in the average horror movie these days. The sheer range of scares and the high-quality execution easily make IT my favorite horror movie of the year so far. Pennywise has the potential to do for the menace sub-genre what Freddy did before but with modern ideas of what we love about horror movies today. I sure hope chapter 2 lives up to the hype. Pennywise is the modern menace you shouldn’t miss.