Kids get scared of the most irrational things. Creepy basements, ugly paintings, black-and-white photographs, clowns. We form fewer irrational fears as adults, but when we re-encounter something that scared us as a kid, we often can’t help but get a little nervous (for what its worth, I still get anxious around aquariums and in the fish aisle of the supermarket). But the key to most of these fears is that they’re imaginary, that our mind outsizes them into terrifying monstrosities. Stephen King’s novel It may be about four hundred pages too long, but it taps into the reader’s imagination just enough to let it take some hints of fear and grow them into pure terror. The reliance on imagination presents a challenge for the film adaptations, where everything must be made literal, and the new It doesn’t always rise to the challenge. But it spins up some macabre fun along the way.
The first act of It mostly lives up to the worst expectations of a horror remake. The opening scene, where little Georgie meets a clown by a sewer grating, is shockingly brutal but inelegant, and that the goriness involves a small child is a bit much (indeed, a few people walked out immediately). Afterwards, as Our Gang of summer-lovin’ kids individually encounter all-to-real manifestation of their fears, It devolves into jump scares with little originality in terms of design (outside of a fantastically creepy painting come to life). However, once the gang comes together, starting by investigating a very clearly haunted house, It really finds its groove and becomes something like a Sam Raimi version of The Goonies.
Anchored by Bill Skarsgard’s performance as a Pennywise the Dancing Clown who indeed dances (and some mostly good CGI), the middle act presents a series of innovative grotesqueries that occasionally scare but consistently amuse. Not coincidentally, this point is also where class clown Richie Tozier (played by Stanger Thing’s Finn Wolfhard) suddenly clicks. Tozier is an annoyance in both the novel and the first movie, a character who is funny because the writer said so rather than actually being funny, but here Richie really works, in a natural, juvenile way. Once It starts having fun with the concept and lets loose, it becomes an absolute joy. And even though It makes no bones about it being the first chapter of a planned two-parter, the first film tells a complete tale and stands on its own as a bloody, R-rated version of Stand By Me.
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Starring Jaden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, and Bill Skarsgard
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)