Stephen King’s It: Derry of 1989 depicts a whole world gone wrong
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Things are simply wrong here. It looks like a nice place to live. People are going about their daily business. The storefronts and homes are clean and neat. Children run and play. The sun shines. The trees sway.
But there’s something rotten beneath this veneer of normalcy. Tempers flare explosively, shocking vulgarity trickles from the mouths of those who smile so politely, and the strong behave with hideous cruelty toward those they should protect. There are decent people here, but they may be the most troubling of all. They’re the ones pretending none of it is happening.
This is the world of Derry, Maine, the quaint small town in Stephen King’s It, where life comes at you slow – but death moves lightning fast. (The film opens on Sept. 8.)
This ugliness in Derry is not the fault of the townsfolk, exactly. They are under the sway of a pig-eyed, wispy-haired creature with jutting teeth who takes glee in pushing their buttons of fear, anger, hatred, and hopelessness. He nourishes himself on it.
And he is very well fed.
The creature is a clown who calls himself Pennywise, but really, it has no name, no face. It is an eternal, shapeshifting evil that lurks within the sewers of the town’s underworld, just as its spirit lurks in the dark chambers of the hearts and minds of Derry’s residents.
But It is not exactly hiding.
Bill Skarsgard (Netflix’s Hemlock Grove) takes over the white-face and blood-red grin of Pennywise from Tim Curry, who memorably played the part in the 1990 TV miniseries. The challenge, according to director Andy Muschietti (2013’s Mama) is that the clown is so in-your-face.
“He is present. It’s not like one of those movies where you can hide the monster,” the filmmaker says. “He’s front and center, he does his show, and he has an act. He is a clown.”
It’s just that … Pennywise is really entertaining himself, taking the form of whatever frightens his prey the most, but always defaulting to the shape of this unsettling harlequin.
“It truly enjoys the shape of the clown Pennywise, and enjoys the game and the hunt,” says Skarsgard. “What’s funny to this evil entity might not be funny to everyone else. But he thinks it’s funny.”
The key to bringing King’s most iconic villain to life? “Keep it weird,” Muschietti says. “It’s weird all the time. Pennywise does things that make absolutely no sense, but they’re very disturbing because of the weirdness.”
The only threat to Pennywise are The Losers, a group of misfit kids who’ve been neglected, picked on, or abused — sometimes by their own families, but more often by the thugs who rove their schools and streets.
The Losers are the only ones who can see It, the only ones who can defy It, and they are the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable people in Derry: One of the only black kids. One of the only Jewish kids. A girl who is beaten (and maybe worse) by her father. A class clown. A hypochondriac. A heavyset boy. A stutterer whose little brother is one of Pennywise’s recent victims.
“I have to live with my own fear, and I don’t really talk to people, so I don’t have to get hurt by them,” says Sophia Lillis, who plays the only girl of the group, Beverly Marsh. But among these outcast boys, she finds hope.
Chosen Jacobs, who plays Mike Hanlon, one of the only African-Americans in Derry, says they all have similar isolation: “He grew up the outsider because of racial tension, which separated him. And that makes him really appreciate when someone says, ‘Hey, I like you for who you are.’”
Within this monster story, there’s a friendship story. Alone, the Losers would be easy to pick off. But they are stronger together than anyone – or any thing – could possibly imagine.
That would be Pennywise’s worst fear.