Too often, Hollywood plays horror addicts cheap—serving up cheesy sequels, worn-out setups, lousy scripts, so-so acting, overblown special effects and uninspired direction. It, the new horror movie from Stephen King’s 1,138-page 1986 novel (later squeezed into a 2-part miniseries), is an outlier.
If you’ve read King’s book or seen the 1990 TV version, you know the setup is terrifying simplicity itself. Once every 27 years or so, a shape-shifting entity descends on picturesque Derry, Maine, often taking the guise of a walking nightmare named Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who snatches unsuspected children and preys on the fears of the town’s kiddie population. The new movie version, like its predecessors, focuses on seven preteen kids, the self-named Losers’ Club, who set out to challenge Pennywise and face their own fears in the process. The adults, when they surface at all, are freakish, neurotic, monstrous, oppressively needful things.
While King’s novel begins in the 1950s, this film version almost has a fetish for the recreating the late ‘80s. The book is about many things: trauma, regret, paradise and innocence lost, the monsters raging within us and outside of us. Unlike the TV movie, though, this one doesn’t deal with the characters’ unraveling and psychological aftermath once they’ve grown up (although a second It is planned). A classy, careful, beautifully shot memory/adventure film, this one sinks or swims on the young cast’s chemistry, on the nostalgic pull of its setting, on its characters’ often filthy, laugh-out-loud adolescent humor. It clearly and unapologetically hearkens back to Stand by Me crossed with Goonies, crossed with John Hughes, let alone the obvious: Stranger Things, which itself borrows liberally from the work of Stephen King.
By focusing only on the first half of King’s sprawling book, It mostly reduces the kids to types we’ve met before in books and movies: the overly-coddled germaphobe (Jack Dylan Grazer); the insecure, potty-mouthed horndog (scene grabber Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things); the sensitive, guilt-ridden leader (Jaeden Lieberher, exceptionally good) who has lost adorable little brother; the token black kid with the hardass father (Chosen Jacobs); the sweet, mercilessly bullied chubby kid (Jeremy Ray Taylor); the nervous bar mitzvah boy (Wyatt Oleff). Every once in awhile, the source material, director, screenwriters and young actors break through, and we glimpse kids we know now, once knew or might have been. Then there’s the cool outcast girl with the bad rep (wonderfully played by Sophia Lillis, who looks like an adolescent Amy Adams) with whom the guys fall in love, not knowing that, at home, she must deal with a skin-crawlingly twisted father (Stephen Bogaert).
They’re a fine bunch to go hunting for the freakish Pennywise, played with twitchy smiles, wagging eyebrows and unnerving skill by Bill Skarsgard, despite his being buried under extreme makeup and inheriting a role probably owned for life by the great Tim Curry. Still, we’re treated to some gorgeously realized scare moments: Pennywise materializing like a demented, hulking Disney character out of a projector, Lillis’ blood-soaked Carrie-style bathroom scene and the scorched, headless thing chasing the overweight kid through a fluorescent-lit library basement. Andres Muschietti (Mama) directs with smarts, heart and delicious R-rated malice, working from a mostly faithful though sometimes exposition-heavy screenplay by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga (who had been announced in 2012 as the helmer of It). The movie earns its R-rating less by bloodletting than by long, slow buildups, creepy shadows and half-glimpsed things that go bump in the night in sewers and derelict old houses. That’s a good thing.
As much a triumph as the movie is, though, you might leave the theater wondering not whether this It is as rich, strange and terrifying as the novel or the old TV miniseries, but whether it’s up to the sky-high standards of Stranger Things.