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In praise of Bill Skarsgard's brilliant performance as Pennywise


IT CHAPTER TWO delivers a host of scares across its generous running time. But the film's true sense of horror remains anchored in actor Bill Skarsgard's realisation of Pennywise the clown.

The dreaded Stephen King entity is famously credited with having damaged the clown industry, and it's not hard to see why. Embodied by Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries, the role has now been brilliantly re-imagined by Skarsgard for a new generation.

Here's why both IT and IT CHAPTER TWO owe their sense of creeping menace to Skarsgard's terrific performance.

IT CHAPTER TWO movie poster


Until the publication of Stephen King's weighty novel IT back in 1986, clowns had enjoyed a relatively easy ride. Sure there had been the occasional disturbance (serial killer John Wayne Gacy dressing up in clown make-up), and the odd film had exploited the fear (Tobe Hooper's Funhouse from 1982).

King, however, tapped into something primal, and quite brilliant. Rootling around for a monster that would terrify a wide spectrum of age groups, the author settled on a clown as the primary disguise of his latest creation, Pennywise. He cited that clowns had always been sinister, but could not have foreseen the colossal pop culture impact his novel would have.

IT the novel brilliantly plays on the notion of clowns as duplicitous: what is that make-up attempting to physically conceal, and what are the motivations behind that make-up, particularly as far as children are concerned? When combined with the brilliantly simple Billy Goats Gruff technique of Pennywise lurking in a storm drain, it's little wonder King's fertile imagination sent the world into paroxysms of fear.

Pennywise became increasingly notorious with the release of 1990 mini-series IT. British actor Tim Curry, a chameleonic presence famous for the likes of Rocky Horror and Legend, disappeared into the role of the cackling monster, swivel-eyed and gravelly of voice in a manner that was truly skin-crawling.

Although the mini-series has dated quite badly, the power of Curry's performance has only increased over time. The most notorious sequence is surely his introduction, when he lures poor Georgie Denbrough towards the storm drain as per King's original novel. When news of a big screen adaptation broke, inevitably people questioned an actor's ability to top Curry's groundbreaking role.

In 2016, it was announced that Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard would be taking on the role of Pennywise in director Andy Muschietti's IT movie. (Will Poulter was assigned to the part when original director Cary Fukunaga was on board.) Skarsgard is the son of famed actor Stellan (Mamma Mia!) and brother of Alexander, (True Blood), and at the time was perhaps best known for his role in cult supernatural TV series Hemlock Grove.

It's when one looks at Skarsgard outside the Pennywise make-up that his transformation becomes all the more remarkable. Ordinarily, the actor cuts a youthful and handsome appearance, and yet there's also a subtly unusual, aquiline quality present in his features.

These contradictions resonate in his portrayal of Pennywise: here is an actor who is able to embody both the childlike qualities of the character, and also the monstrous essence of a hideous being masquerading in human form.

This is further amplified by the brilliance of his make-up and costume: blood red lines stretch up his face, horribly revealed in the first IT to be the outlines of his mouth. Meanwhile, the hair recedes to emphasise his babyish, oversized head, and his Pennywise suit is adorned with bells that jingle in a deceptively innocent manner.

Whereas Tim Curry brought a superbly grounded quality to Pennywise, more akin to the murderous psychopath on the street corner who happens to be disguised as a clown, Skarsgard magnificently brings a more alien quality to the character.

The fear of Curry's portrayal was grounded in something recognisably human; when watching Skarsgard, we're always reminded of the horrible joins between Pennywise the monster, and his human facade.

It's when these joins come apart that Skarsgard's performance properly bursts into life. It's a performance rendered with all manner of brilliantly unpleasant nuances, namely the wonky eye that suggests a flesh and blood persona that hasn't quite stuck the landing.

He also drools incessantly when his prey are terrified (a line in the book, although not in the movies, is that fear "salts the meat"), and this dramatic device is used as a shorthand as to how much Pennywise relishes hunting his prey.

Then there's the voice. Whereas Curry deployed a quasi-New Yorker accent that was raucous and blackly comic, Skarsgard peppers it with more variety. During the pivotal scene with Georgie, it's lilting and light, all the better for luring his prey in. As the Losers begin their fight back against Pennywise, it transforms into a feral bark as the outward persona begins to crack and reveal the evil beneath.

As an example, check out the infamous fridge scene in which he taunts Bill (Jaeden Martell) over killing his younger brother, while preparing to make a snack out of the injured Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). This was in fact the first scene Skarsgard shot with the young cast, and their horrified reactions were reportedly genuine.

Combine all this together and you have a monstrous performance for the ages, one that's completely redefined an iconic character. Just take the moment during the aforementioned storm drain scene when Pennywise begins laughing with Georgie about the circus, only to abruptly stop.

One can read this as Georgie's fear dissipating, meaning Pennywise has to redouble his efforts to scare him, or maybe Pennywise is using the unexpected pause to discombobulate the boy and further enhance his sense of terror. It's a deceptively subtle performance from Skarsgard, one that cuts through the movie's more obvious jump scares and loud moments.

Little wonder that the scariest moments in IT CHAPTER TWO, arguably, are the ones where Skarsgard's performance is allowed to speak for itself. Despite the myriad CGI manifestations of Pennywise's persona (Mrs Kersh; the killer Paul Bunyan statue et al), it's Skarsgard's organic and profoundly unnerving turn that sticks with us long after the film has finished.

The scene under the bleachers is a classic example, Pennywise luring a young girl away from her family via the magic of a firefly. Director Andy Muschietti's staging deserves praise here, too: the camera remains deceptively still as we close in on an area of shadow, before Pennywise's gloved hands and then his face hove into view. It's a fabulously creepy moment and, in the midst of a movie laced with boo shocks, a pleasingly subtle one.

The blood-red lighting of the scene helps throw emphasis on those Skarsgard tendencies we've already highlighted, namely the eye and the voice. But the actor also digs deep to suggest a Pennywise who has become far more manipulative and self-aware in the 27 years since the Losers Club defeated him. This time, he plays the child at her own game: recognising she has a birth mark and is ostracised for it, Pennywise creates a sense apparent empathy by claiming his own appearance makes him an outsider, too.

We of course can see the nasty end result coming a mile off, but Skarsgard's deceptive and eerie turn draws us in regardless. He's equally good during the more overt moments: taunting the older Richie (Bill Hader) over his "dirty little secret" as he floats towards him on balloons (there's also a subtle accentuation of red in Skarsgard's make-up during this scene).

And beneath all of this, at the end of both IT movies we get a sense of an ancient celestial being coming to terms with fear for the first time. During the climax of chapter one, Skarsgard does a tremendous job of suggesting a creature who has no more fear to throw at his prey, convulsing and gagging in a manner that suggests this is a brand new sensation for Pennywise.

At the end of IT CHAPTER TWO, when the resurgent Losers activate their shared bond and shrink Pennywise into a shrivelled state, it's Skarsgard's facial expressions that sell it, rather than the CGI. As the horror saga draws to its close, the actor really sells us on the premise of an ancient being finally meeting its end – for the first time, one suspects Pennywise is being consumed not only with his own fear, but a grudging sense of respect for those human beings who have defeated him.

It's a monstrous portrayal that, somehow, is laced with the sense of something recognisably human – fear, it seems, is something felt by all creatures both on this planet and beyond.

So, what next? Is this the end of Skarsgard's career-defining turn as the famous Stephen King creation? One would imagine so – IT CHAPTER TWO is the resolution to a King book that has no sequel, although Andy Muschietti is reportedly planning an IT supercut that will interweave both the child and adult narratives a la the novel. He also plans to incorporate deleted scenes from both movies and shoot some brand new sequences from IT CHAPTER TWO.

It remains to be seen how much Pennywise footage will float to the surface. Skarsgard has himself said he's open to playing Pennywise again in IT CHAPTER 3 – like it or lump it, he's going to be associated with the role for a long time yet, so all-consuming and memorable is his portrayal.

Across two IT movies and four hours of back-to-back scares, it's Skarsgard who ensures this epic horror saga remains real enough for both the characters and the audience.

Can't wait to see the movie again? Then click here to book your tickets for IT CHAPTER TWO and tweet us your thoughts on Bill Skarsgard's performance as Pennywise @Cineworld.