REVIEW: Kids Do It, Clowns Do It, Even Hick New England Towns Do It

It is very long for a horror movie (135 minutes), yet covers only half of the Stephen King novel it’s based on, yet is full of half-mentioned details that seem to have been crammed in hurriedly. I guess it’s fitting that a nostalgic tale set in a childhood summertime would seem both eternal and not long enough, and feature a carnivorous sewer clown. (Your childhood summers may have been different from mine.)

Scary? Yes, when it wants to be, and often bloody and murderous, though not as much as the novel prescribes or the R rating would have allowed. Directed by Andy Muschietti (Mama) from a screenplay credited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), and Gary Dauberman (Annabelle), this adaptation, rather than inspiring deep-seated terror, tends to be frightening in the carnival funhouse sort of way. But it’s also about childhood friendship and coming of age in a manner that makes it a slightly less gross companion piece to Stand by Me.

The first part of King’s 1986 novel was set in the summer of 1958. That’s been updated to 1989 (nostalgia stops being lucrative if you go TOO far back), which now seems about as quaint as the ’50s did then, especially in the small Maine town of Derry. Here we meet a group of too many 13-year-olds, more than the film needs or has the wherewithal to develop, personalitywise.

Their leader is Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a sensitive boy with a stutter whose little brother went missing last fall, which happens to a lot of Derry children on account of the carnivorous sewer clown (though nobody knows that’s the reason; they just think, “Huh, lots of kids disappear here, weird”). Then there’s Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a motormouth who we eventually realize is supposed to be a germaphobic hypochondriac; Richie (Finn Wolfhard), another motormouth but with eyeglasses who we eventually get is “the smart-aleck”; and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), the Jewish one.

But wait, there’s more! There is also a fat kid, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who has a crush on outcast Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose father is a pervert. And there’s also a black kid, Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who’s homeschooled and has to kill sheep with a bolt-gun as part of his stepfather’s business. All seven children are self-described “losers,” which is doubly true when you consider that at least two of them (Mike and either Richie or Eddie) are extraneous to the movie’s plot. On the other hand, the kids have a potty-mouthed rapport that rings hilariously true from what I recall of being a 13-year-old boy. They may be interchangeable or unnecessary, but they’re likable, normal kids.

The film’s title character, played by Bill Skarsgard, is an ancient evil entity that lives in Derry’s sewers and generally takes the form of a circus clown. Pennywise, as It calls itself, is a chilling mixture of levity and menace (just like a real clown), but It can apparently shape-shift into anything It wants, appear or disappear at will, and make people hallucinate.

It feeds on children, though not as wantonly as you’d think. All of the “losers” have a run-in with It at some point. Sometimes It appears in the form of something previously established as something a particular child is afraid of, but that’s not consistent. It is likewise unclear what Pennywise’s limitations are. Each of those run-ins could have resulted in the child’s death but didn’t. It either couldn’t finish the job for reasons the movie doesn’t explain, or else It only wanted to terrorize them, not kill them (also without explanation). At any rate, the kids realize they’ve all had sightings of the same thing and set out to destroy it, like you do.

When the movie focuses on these primary concerns, it’s a shivery, armrest-gripping good time. Thanks to excellent makeup and Skarsgard’s insidious performance, every moment with Pennywise is at least unnerving, often terrifying, and the kids’ fear is palpable. Muschietti directs these sequences with assured skill.

That clown isn’t the only evil presence in Derry, though. There are a lot of freelancers, too, including Beverly’s dad (Stephen Bogaert), Eddie’s mom (Mollie Jane Atkinson), and a trio of bullies (two more than the story needs). All of these people eat up screen time without contributing to the larger themes, and their interactions with the main characters are among the details that got shafted in the adaptation. The situation with Eddie’s mom — who for some reason is wearing an amazingly fake-looking fat suit that only covers her upper body and makes her the shape of a refrigerator — is glossed over in a few lines of dialogue (why even bother?); the bullies’ vicious cruelty seems random and unmotivated; and Beverly’s dad’s atrocities have been obscured to the point of undermining the points they were supposed to have made about Beverly’s psychology.

But the degree of difficulty in adapting a hugely popular and very lengthy novel into a film that respects fans’ attachment to the source while appealing to the uninitiated is immense, and It mostly pulls it off. The trims and elisions that would have made it a better movie would have betrayed the readers, many of whom are as nostalgic about the book as the book is about Stephen King’s childhood. Hey, for a King horror novel to be turned into a movie that isn’t terrible is noteworthy on its own.

Grade: B-

Eric D. Snider lures children into the sewers of Portland, but only so they can help the Thenardiers steal money from dead soldiers. 

Eric D. Snider has been a film critic since 1999, first for newspapers (when those were a thing) and then for the internet. He was born and raised in Southern California, lived in Utah in his 20s, then Portland, now Utah again. He is glad to meet you, probably.

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