- IT: Andy Muschietti's silver screen remake leans toward the early chronology of King's 1986 novel.
We first encounter Pennywise — a shape-shifting, homicidal monster in clown form — during the opening minutes of "It." Bill Skarsgård plays Stephen King's most iconic villain in whiteface, with a daub of red on his nose and two tendrils of red that rise from the corners of his mouth past the center of his eyes like a pair of slinky devil horns. It's a good look, and touched up with some CGI that lets his eyes wander (float, really). It's a new take on the clown, who doesn't seem to be in control of his mind or his body. As he stands in a storm drain, oblivious to the water gushing in, he seduces a little boy — Georgie, brother to Bill, central hero of the story — to reach in for a paper boat that has outpaced him. Georgie, of course, reaches down. The clown takes off his arm, then drags the child into the sewer.
"It" has to do a lot of things, having sprung from King's 1,100-page 1986 epic about an unnamed, widely ignored presence in the small town of Derry, Maine. The story pulls together seven friends who as young teens stood up to the monster; then, as the thing recedes and returns on a longstanding 27-year-cycle, they return as adults to fight it again. The first "It" adaptation ran in 1990 (yep, 27 years ago) as a two-parter on ABC, where the effects and the language were a mite constrained. This go-round, set in 1989 and directed by Andy Muschietti ("Mama"), also has to be a coming-of-age tale, to set up a sequel for the adults' return, and to satisfy the range of notes that fans of an 1,100-page doorstop of a novel expect to see.
But, mostly, the film needs to scare the hell out of you. The monster in "It" likes to wait until kids are alone and then present as real their greatest fear, or something close. With seven protagonists and a handful of bullies to torment, the movie has to run through scares at a savage pace, without time for so much as a psych-out along the way. Gentle, heavy Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) sees a headless kid who died in 1908. Smartass Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, of "Stranger Things" fame) just worries about clowns, poor thing. Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) is haunted by a creeptastic painting at his synagogue. Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) keeps seeing replays of his family dying in a fire. Asthmatic neatnik Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) sees a lurching, melting leper. Fierce, kind Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis, in a star turn) gets a bathroom full of blood. And brave, stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher, the "Midnight Special" kid) keeps seeing his dead, rain-slickered little brother. They're all gut-level frights, visceral and barbed. You will writhe in your seat.
Where the movie stumbles is keeping the balance between the raw, we're-all-gonna-die, "Stand By Me" tone and a sort of "Goonies"-esque kids against the crooks sense of stakes. Pennywise is admittedly a strange character to build around: He's a psychotic monster from an unexplained dimension (we see you, "Turtle" references) who still seems to get his jollies by psychologically tormenting children. Does he always want to kill you? Can he always? The mechanism isn't clear, which muddles the tone. At times, things veer corny, and not in a good way. Complaining that "It" should've been darker (there are some really ugly, dark moments in this 2-plus-hours) seems masochistic, yes. But in waters this grim, where children are dragged into sewers to be maimed and eaten, you don't want a cheap way out.
For the good, though? If you grew up scaring yourself into insomnia by reading King's nightmare fuel, this feels true enough to the spirit of the book. If anything, it veers darker, in at least one sense. The adults in this depiction of Derry are, with rare exception, utter heels. They're oblivious to their own kids' fear and pain, and they paper over missing child posters with ... more missing child posters. This is a tour through the worst sort of childhood, where grownups are deaf to your pleas – if they're not outright predators themselves. Monsters seem real when you're young, and to the extent they are, they grow and flourish when adults are as thoroughly, willfully checked-out as the townsfolk of Derry. They are the opposite of woke – all the scarier because they, not the kids, are us.