It is hard to accurately gauge when the term Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, was first coined. But what’s in no doubt is that 2017 is the year it’ll reach its gaudy, red-nosed pinnacle. And, yes, we are factoring in last year’s bizarre Killer Clown craze that saw people across the US, Europe and Australia terrorised by weirdos playing dress-up. Case in point: the trailer for the new adaptation of IT, based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, is officially the most viewed of all time. Yes, you read that right. Bigger than The Lord of the Rings, or Fifty Shades of Grey. Bigger even than Star Wars. Not bad for a dog-eared old horror paperback.
“IT was a dream project for me,” says the director of this autumn’s mega-smash-in-waiting, Andy Muschietti. “As someone who loves making scary movies [he made the terrific Mama in 2013], I have always been fascinated by fear, and probably the time when you’re the most terrified is when you’re a child watching your first horror movie. It’s a feeling you won’t have again for the rest of your life, so it’s become a bit of a chimeric quest for me to bring that sensation back.”
In real life, it was Charles Dickens, of all people, who first birthed the concept of the Scary Clown. Previously the pranksters had appeared in most cultures – pygmy versions made the Egyptian pharaohs chuckle; in ancient China it was YuSze, a court jester so influential he was the only man able to rib Emperor Qin Shi Huang over his daft plans to paint the Great Wall; in Ancient Rome the clown was a bumbling fool known under the collective term of stupidus. Dickens first noodled with them in 1836’s The Pickwick Papers, basing the character of a sad off-duty clown on the undisputed king of London’s clown scene, Joseph Grimaldi. Dickens was so fascinated by him, he would even, a year later when Grimaldi died penniless and wretched, tortured by a broken body disabled by years of pratfalls, edit his tragic memoirs, a tale of personally suffering pain to make other people laugh. The tears of a clown, indeed.
As for this new movie, it may have taken a while to finally crawl out of the sewer of development, but its timing couldn’t be any better. Just as the hit series Stranger Things borrowed so heavily from both the original novel and the Tim Curry-starring TV series from 1990, so will this reap the rewards of that show’s success. Essentially Stranger Things: The Movie, It focuses on a Goonies-like bunch of US smalltown kids and their battle with a terrifying evil. (One of those kids even being Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard.)
That terrifying evil is, of course, personified by Pennywise, the haunt-your-waking-dreams-scary dancing clown with a penchant for red balloons and dragging children down drains and into a place where “You’ll float too”.
And if Curry’s take was astonishingly creepy, this new one is even more so. Played by heartthrob Bill Skarsgård (son of Stellan, brother of Alexander), Pennywise here is more charismatic, more deadly and, well, a lot younger. That decision, to cast someone in their 20s not their 40s was, in fact, first made by IT’s previous director, and existing screenwriter, Cary Fukunaga (True Detective), who cast The Maze Runner’s Will Poulter. But when both departed, new director Muschietti knew he had his man as soon as he walked in the room. “I wanted Pennywise to have this look, where one of his eyes is going off in a different direction,” he says. “I mentioned this to Bill, thinking we’d do it in post. He said, ‘Well, I can do that.’ And he did it right there!”
“Bill is amazing,” smiles producer Barbara Muschietti. “[His performance] stays with you. It’s very difficult for me to look at a drain now, and not think of Pennywise lurking…”
IT is in cinemas from Thursday September 7.