This occurred to me after I saw an image of Ellie Kemper today. Expressive, toothy grin. Proven ability to play a character who’s so impossibly cheerful it seems as if they’re from another world. She even has the red hair. Just let her play up the gleefulness until it’s unsettling, throw in some Kubrick stares, and I’m confident she could come off as perfectly menacing Pennywise the Clown.
I’m not one to suggest “gender swapping” characters at random, or just because it seems like the thing to say. I am, however, one to believe that certain characters needn’t be gender exclusive. There’s nothing particularly male about Pennywise. “It,” after all, is very much an “it.” Psycho clown, abominable pregnant spider, wolfman, mummy, incomprehensible eldritch being from another dimension. It can be anything It cares to be.
Pennywise being a man is, at absolute most, secondary to it being a creepy clown. And a part of It being a “creepy clown,” at least in screen, is that It looks a lot like a genuinely happy, friendly clown, who’s getting a kick out of doing horrible things.
Some years ago, in my article about The Blair Witch project, I called out the fact that It and Poltergeist seemed to make adult coulrophobia sort of trendy. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, or that people who legitimately have this phobia should be ridiculed for it, but I do think it’s one of those things that other people commandeer because it somehow sounds cool nowadays to say, “Clowns are so creepy.” No, they’re not, and sometimes the more deliberately “frightening” they are, the sillier and, well, more clownish they end up being.
This, for instance, is not at all scary.
And neither, really, is this.
The most recent high-profile “scary clown” in pop culture came from American Horror Story: Freak Show, and “Twisty the Clown” has a design trying so hard to be scary he looks more like some sort of “edgy” Juggalo cosplayer. A hulking maniac wearing a human scalp over his head and a fake giant mouth to cover his shotgun-erased jaw doesn’t need the clown motif to be ostensibly menacing. It’s like giving Leatherface a clown outfit and face paint, as if the human-skin-headgear, chainsaw and homicidal childishness didn’t make him threatening enough.
Similarly, the new Jared Leto take on The Joker for the upcoming Suicide Squad isn’t even a clown anymore. He looks like the leader of some goth-metal-worshiping, heroin-freak street gang from the movie The Warriors.
I point all of this out because people seem to forget that what made Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise so iconic is that he often looked like this.
If you were unfamiliar with the miniseries or novel, you might think he was delivering a harmless, misguided PSA about wearing shower shoes or something. He looks like the host of an 80’s Saturday morning kids show: Pennywise’s Playhouse. This picture of Pennywise has a lot more in common with the three goofy, mugging, Seussian clowns two pics up than that picture of the snaggletoothed fang monster with a colorful ‘fro. I can absolutely see Ellie Kemper exuding this kind of affability onscreen.
This guy that they actually picked for the part, meanwhile…
…look, hell, Bill Skarsgard might knock it out of the park*, but on first sight he gives me that Leto Joker vibe. Like he’s going to show up as Pennywise with “Deadlights” tattooed in cursive on his forehead.
I’d rather have the Tim Curry / Ellie Kemper type. Someone whose smile seems a little too big when you look at it for a few seconds. A little too friendly. Someone who appears sincerely happy, yet also looks like they’re up to something.
Yeah. That’s the face of someone who’s genuinely thrilled to be giving out a bunch of blood-filled balloons.
*Update: This was written before the first It trailer was released. Given what we’ve seen now and what the filmmakers are going for, Skarsgard certainly wasn’t the wrong choice for Pennywise.