Hollywood has adapted dozens of Stephen King novels and short stories into scary good (Cujo), scary great (The Shining), or scary stupid (Dreamcatcher) feature films. Now, rising with a shark-toothed grin from the dank gutters between Misery and Salem’s Lot comes It (★★★½), a chilling glimpse at the monsters, real and imagined, that dwell all around us.
The monster known as It is the evil, indefinable something that skitters about the sewers beneath the seemingly normal town of Derry, Maine. Most often appearing in the terrifying form of demented, yellow-eyed clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), It invades the nightmares, the daydreams, even the waking lives of the town’s children. Those tormented either die or disappear.
One such disappearance, six-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), incites his older brother, Billy (Jaeden Lieberher), to investigate the highly suspicious vanishings that plague the town. A smart, gangly stutterer, Billy is something of an outcast at junior high, where he hangs out with a wisecracking gang of similarly put-upon friends, collectively known as the Losers.
King’s story has been re-set from the novel’s ’50s milieu to the 1980s, but the Losers still lead an endearingly old-fashioned boys’ life of biking around town for Goonies-style adventures. Were it not for the insidious air of doom and despair, they might have happy childhoods, or at least ordinary ones.
They’re bullied at school and all over Derry, but that’s nothing compared to what It has in store for them. Latching onto their tender psyches, the creature stalks each of them disguised as their deepest fears, with Pennywise the clown as the monster’s favored face. In his wilted doll’s clothes and shock wig, bearing a perpetually hungry mien and a gruesome habit of biting kids’ limbs off, Pennywise alone sends shudders down one’s spine.
Skarsgård glowers with the best of them, and brings an unnerving impishness to the part. Less sinister than Tim Curry’s frightening take on Pennywise for the 1990 TV mini-series, Skarsgård’s clown is more insistent than mean-spirited. He just desperately wants to play, by twisting Billy’s and the other Losers’ minds, then chowing down on their bodies and souls. (Come to think of it, that’s pretty mean-spirited.)
Director Andy Muschietti delivers frightening imagery — like a puddle of blood where a kid once stood — and taut suspense amid set-piece after set-piece of each Loser being chased by his or her demons. From the oozing leper who scrambles after excitable hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), to the deluge of blood that engulfs budding teenager Beverly (Sophia Lillis), each kid features in their own tale of terror.
The lone girl among the crew, Bev stirs up a bevy of emotions for Billy and the new Loser in town, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). The boys’ rivalry for her affections is rendered with touching nuance, highlighting the element that often separates King’s horror stories from the pulp they inspire: character. Not simply the people, but the place, this creepy, wooded town of Derry, is imbued with a sense of history.
Muschietti delineates each character we meet in Derry with sharp and genuine specificity. Also, thanks to the teasing rapport between Lieberher, Grazer, Taylor, and Finn Wolfhard as foul-mouthed jokester Richie Tozier, Billy and the Losers are fun company.
Much like the boisterous, swimming hole-loving gang in the 1986 King adaptation Stand By Me, the young actors register a recognizably real friendship. It’s painful to see them suffer at the hands of Pennywise, or the brutal pack of bullies led by knife-wielding hooligan Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). But even the bully gets bullied, as Henry suffers alarming cruelty inflicted by his dad.
Abusers and bullies are the real monsters in Derry, a town overflowing with stern or downright sadistic dads. The darkness of domestic and sexual violence cuts through this community the same way It traverses the sewers from block to block, house to house. None of the monstrous special effects deployed to portray Pennywise’s gaping, razor-toothed maw can match the horror of Beverly’s leering dad (Stephen Bogaert) sniffing his daughter like a feast.
Unfortunately, several of the film’s best jump-scares have been spoiled in the trailers. Thankfully, the added context of the Losers’ daring fellowship, and the tension that precedes or follows every scare, embellish moments that are already familiar from the studio’s massive ad campaign. And, despite a pace that grows repetitive in the long run, there remain a few surprises that bode well for It‘s second film chapter.
As promised by an end credit, the sequel should tackle the portion of King’s voluminous tome that deals with the adult Losers’ return to Derry, thirty years older and wiser. Until then, fans can ponder the purpose of best-selling authors and other clownish monsters who fiendishly feed off their fears.
It is rated R, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, September 8. Visit Fandango.com.
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