It Knows What Scares You: Classily mounted, heartfelt, goosebump-inducing "It" should make Stephen King proud

It (2017)
135 min., rated R.

Expectations were as high as a child’s lost balloon for this feverishly anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror tome “It,” so it’s a pleasure to report that this R-rated, studio-backed cinematic treatment meets and then surpasses them. Although there was already a 1990 TV miniseries that can be fondly remembered most for Tim Curry’s creepily jolly Pennywise, there was plenty of room for improvement. Adjusting the time period of King’s 1950s-set story to the summer of 1989, streamlining the narrative structure, and refusing to soften the macabre, explicit nature of the material (except for his mature decision to omit a final orgy scene, which was, uh, for the best), director Andy Muschietti (2013’s “Mama”) brings forth his own commanding vision while complementing and retaining the essence of the original text. It must have been a daunting undertaking, but everything clicks: the casting is pitch-perfect across the board, the period-specific details are authentic without becoming parodic, the scares are effectively executed, and the telling of King's sprawling, 1,138-page source material (or at least half of it) is economically conceived and thematically rich. A coming-of-ager about the woes and anxieties of being a kid in a looking-glass town damned by an an evil entity, “It” is elegantly mounted, classically confident, adult-minded, goosebump-inducing and never without a beating heart. Out of the slew of Stephen King adaptations to choose from, this is decidedly one of the very good ones.

In 1988 in the small Maine town of Derry, the last moment between stuttering 13-year-old Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) and little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) was making a paper boat together for Georgie to take out in the rain, only for Georgie to go missing. A year later, as soon as school lets out, Bill and his three best friends, wisecracker Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic mama's boy Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and nervous rabbi's son Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), spend the early days of summer trudging through Derry’s sewer system because Bill still believes brother Georgie to be out there somewhere. The "Losers' Club," as they call themselves for feeling like misfits, eventually find new members in chubby new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who spends his days reading up on the cursed town of Derry; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a cool, tough outsider who doesn’t fit in with the other girls and has a rough time at home with her abusive father; and the homeschooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who's still haunted by the death of his parents and can't cut it working at his grandfather's slaughterhouse. If they can fend off mullet-haired bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, maybe they can conquer anything. As these kids come together, they discover the same dark, shapeshifting force is tormenting all of them, taking the shape of whatever fears them and usually taking the form of a balloon-toting clown named Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). “It” dwells in the sewers of their hometown, where the disappearance of children has become an unfortunately regular occurrence, and comes around every 27 years to prey on children. Can they beat “it”?

Pennywise will certainly be getting many horror fans floating into the theater, but “It” wouldn’t be what it is without relatable, fully realized characters who are always in the forefront and collectively share a warm, close-knit underdog camaraderie. The script, credited to Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga (2015’s “Beasts of No Nation”) and Gary Dauberman (2017’s “Annabelle: Creation”), is rather expansive and densely constructed but tightly edited with each scene given a clear purpose and providing room to breathe for its seven protagonists. Hardships, such as bullying, abuse, and racially motivated violence, could have felt like clichés, but each one is executed with enough specificity and truth to be fresh and compelling; seeing where most of these kids come from and the adolescent pains they experience are almost horrific enough before a certain clown gets sent in to terrorize and feed on children. As the parents are either absent or subject their own kin to varying degrees of abuse, this lucky seven have nowhere to turn but to each other.

With such sharply drawn people, who all have distinct personalities, hormone-driven curiosities and personal struggles, the horror moments frighten and unnerve all the more. A number of stupendously devised set-pieces do not leave one wanting, starting with the chilling exchange between yellow-slickered Georgie and Pennywise in the storm drain after he loses his paper boat. From the way Andy Muschietti tensely stages this interaction, as well as little Georgie’s startlingly grisly demise that's only witnessed by a neighbor lady's cat, he displays a classy mise-en-scène and then bravely pulls no punches. An off-kilter painting of a spindly woman who looks like one of Guillermo del Toro’s creations comes to life for Stan. Ben gets chased in a library by someone or something he sees in the archival records. The germaphobic Eddie encounters an infected leper. A messy blood explosion out of Beverly’s bathroom sink is another humdinger, recalling the gallons upon gallons of plasma to saturate an entire room since Johnny Depp’s demise in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The spooky, ramshackle Neibolt Street House that these friends enter is also a nightmarish funhouse of “scary,” “not scary,” and “very scary” surprises. As “It” leads to a final showdown between the "Losers' Club" and Pennywise in Derry’s sewer system, the film carefully reels back the over-the-top, seemingly unfilmable elements that plagued the 1990 telepic (remember that chintzy-looking arachnid in the adult section?) and approaches it as a vivid child’s nightmare brought into reality.

With an ensemble piece like this, director Andy Muschietti makes sure to spread the wealth of screen time to each cast member. Like the group of friends in “Stand by Me" (another Derry-set Stephen King adaptation), “The Goonies,” “Super 8” and, most recently, Netflix's “Stranger Things,” these seven kids are likable and extremely charismatic, whether they’re busting each other’s chops or just sticking together, and the performances are all wonderful. Proving to be an intuitive natural after receiving lead roles in four feature films in just three years, 14-year-old Jaeden Lieberher (2016’s “Midnight Special”) is the film’s main emotional anchor, poignantly painting Bill’s heartbreak of a young boy who lost his younger brother and refuses to believe he’s gone for good. By his side are four other standouts: newcomer Sophia Lillis is superbly affecting as Beverly, the Molly Ringwald of the group, who retains a strength in spite of her poor school reputation and awful life at home; Jeremy Ray Taylor is endearing and brings so much empathy to Ben, who takes the brunt of Henry Bowers' bullying and shares feelings with Bill for Beverly, as well as a closeted soft spot for a certain ‘80s boy band; and both Finn Wolfhard (Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), as the trash-mouthed Richie, and Jack Dylan Grazer, as the fanny-packed Eddie, provide much-needed levity with their cheeky, profane sarcasm.

Wisely, the malevolent, elusive entity known as It is left a mystery, even if the monster's modus operandi is pretty clear. Although It's most frequent form is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, it is an otherworldly manifestation of every child's most primal fear with the power to manipulate others to do its vicious bidding. Never caught imitating Tim Curry’s iconic portrayal but putting his own creative stamp on evil incarnate, Bill Skarsgård makes for an indelibly chilling and fiendish Pennywise that coulrophobics will have trouble keeping him out of their nightmares. Without flooding every scene, Pennywise is deliciously and judiciously used, and from the way the actor is made up to every choice he makes in terms of playfully sinister vocalization and physical movements, Skarsgård’s Pennywise will deservedly go down as one of horror cinema’s freakiest monsters next to Robert England’s Freddy Krueger.

Technically vital and aesthetically artful, the film is graced with Chung-hoon Chung’s sumptuously atmospheric cinematography, Claude Paré’s lovingly textured production design (keep your eyes peeled for the local moviehouse marquees), and Benjamin Wallfisch’s unsettling score, leavened by the sweet use of The Cure’s “Six Different Ways," MC's "Bust a Move" amusingly playing on a boombox when the boys first see Beverly in a bathing suit, and a music cue to New Kids on the Block. Aside from one glaring use of CGI where the "Losers' Club" finally stand up to Henry Bowers in a stone-throwing fight, the special and make-up effects are largely practical, with CGI fleetingly and seamlessly used as enhancements, and more effective because of it. The floating balloon in the opening Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema logos is also a playfully inspired touch.

At two hours and fifteen minutes, "It" is assuredly paced and never feels longer than two, and it's still only the first chapter. Unlike the novel and the miniseries, this film opts to focus on the characters as children, and sure enough, the closing credits do begin with the title card, "It: Chapter One," to prepare one for more to come. That the film was pre-planned to be split into two chapters doesn’t feel like a cynical or self-indulgent gambit, a la Peter Jackson's “The Hobbit,” because there is actually more story to tell and one can hardly wait to see Bill, Ben, Beverly, Richie, Eddie, Stan and Mike take on their fears once again as adults. Before one goes on a tirade about Hollywood’s lack of original ideas and penchant to remake everything for financial reasons, “It” is that rare instance where a filmmaker respects the source material and just wants to turn out the best possible film he can with a lot of care, craft and talent. If he’s not already, Stephen King should be awfully proud. 

Grade: A -