September 20, 2017

Watch: What Stephen King's Pennywise Can Teach Us about Character Introductions

Pennywise screen shot
There's more to It than you might think.

It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. Or so the old song says. As it turns out, that adage is remarkably true in the way Pennywise the clown, the dark center of Stephen King's It, is introduced to us, both in the 1990 miniseries and the current theatrical release. Nelson Carvajal, known to some as the Sultan of Splice, has taken it upon himself to lay the older intro alongside the current version, and the (nicely spliced) comparison tells us quite a few things, or at least offers some points to store away.

Lighting

Lighting can make a tremendous difference in the way a character, in particular a scary character, is received. In the 1990 miniseries, the presence of Pennywise in the sewer is all the more terrifying because the day itself, in which little Georgie runs along, chasing a paper boat along a rainy gutter, seems to be bright and full of possibility. In the 2017 version, we almost expect something awful to happen because the sky, and the world in general, looks so dark.

Sound effects

Back in 1990, clowns still had some novelty when they popped up in horror films (with thanks to John Wayne Gacy, as Carvajal points out), and so when director Tommy Lee Wallace decided to put carnival music behind Pennywise's first appearance, the effect was all the more eerie. Andy Muschietti's 2017 version takes a different approach, capitalizing instead on the "there's-something-in-your-sewer-and-it's-coming-to-get-you" effect, driving home the intent with a percussive musical blast when Pennywise first appears. Both moments are scary, but in very different ways.

Engagement

Because 1990 is further away than many people might think, the miniseries has, for lack of a better word, a more old-fashioned feel to it. While the 2017 film shrouds Pennywise in shadow and projects him into the scene with all the best technology the 21st century has to offer, back in 1990, Wallace could terrify us by simply presenting a clown, talking, in broad daylight, in a sewer. The low-key thrill of the 1990 version bests, in many ways, the same moment in the 2017 film, even though they share many of the same lines of dialogue.

Which scary moments in film can you think of that benefited from an unorthodox approach by the director? Terrify us in the comments!        

Your Comment

6 Comments

I disagree, the original version is quite camp which diffuses any sense of real dread. The "older is better' argument doesn't work here as the newer version is more disciplined in my opinion. Plus the highly disturbing (spoiler) 'bite' in the 2017 version set the tone and sense of dread wonderfully for the rest of the film.

September 20, 2017 at 11:20AM

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Matt Carter
VFX Artist / Director / DP / Writer / Composer / Alexa Owner
454

The introductions in both films have their problems. The old version is of course very dated, but has some interesting choices. (E.g. time of day; Music etc.)
The new version feels generic and less ambivalent, but is more effective regarding horror. Problem is, the introduction in the new version sets a level of threat and graphic violence, that is never again reached throughout the rest of the movie...

Nevertheless, that is a very lazy "video essay" by todays standards. Really nothing to write home about regarding form or content/hypothesis.

September 20, 2017 at 11:44AM

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Dave
8

I think this doesn't reflects any difference. Actually, I get what he say about contrast in the daylight with rain and the killer clown, but that is something I don't like actually, is not clear, since the whole miniseries is convencional terror for the period.

September 20, 2017 at 4:32PM

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Randall Flagg
DP and techie
89

I completely disagree with this video essay. I do not think the old one holds up at all. In fact, the 'daylight' aspects of the 90s version is a huge turn off to me all by itself. To me it just looks weird and off as though they set up a bunch of rain machines but did not care to match any sort of lighting structure. It looks cheap to me because its a heavy downpour in broad daylight (that doesn't come off as odd or spooky or anything either, just cheap television).

Additionally, the 2017 Pennywise does a much better job of giving me the sense that something is off here. The 90s version plays the 'strangers are dangerous' card because that was a big deal back then. But in the 2017 version, Skarsgard does an exceptional job of doing that WHILE taking it one step further. He gives the sense that something isn't right or even of this world (because Pennywise actually isn't of this world). Georgie should just walk away from Tim Curry. It seems as easy as, "you are a stranger, I can't talk to you", because Curry's performance is much more human and the repercussions of just walking away don't seem any different than dismissing an actual stranger. The lighting and shooting in the 2017 version makes it seem as though there is some universal disruption going on here. Georgie is actually rooted in that spot and can't turn away like the sense of dread you get that immobilizes you or keeps your mind racing as you ask yourself "what am I even experiencing here". I perceive it as this otherworldly terror (without even knowing what he is at this point in the movie) that you DO NOT want to turn your back to out of immense fear. It is much more engaging in this way (and yes the weather and mood plays a big part of this too).

Just a few reasons the 2017 one is more compelling to me.

September 21, 2017 at 1:55PM

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An evening shower can sometimes result in the phenomenon of golden sunlight streaming through during a downpour. These types of showers are pretty curious occurrences, and I think its use in the first film helps with tone. However, I can see how it might feel like a lazy effect if you've never experienced it first hand.

September 21, 2017 at 3:37PM, Edited September 21, 3:39PM

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Scott Youngblood
Sr. Multimedia Developer
139

Hmmm. Where to start. I think they both missed the opportunity for true horror. A stranger to a child really can be a terrifying experience. And the fact that true psychopaths are truly fearless these days, there was an opportunity for the true hunger of Penny Wise to come through and the sheer-ingrained terror of the child to ooze out. But, oh well it wasn't my film to shoot.

September 24, 2017 at 5:40AM

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Jim Perez
Filmmaker
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