'It' sends in the clown for satisfying scares
Hefty Stephen King adaptation tries a little too hard, but young ensemble carries viewers over the long haul
Did Stephen King and Tim Curry ruin clowns for everyone? Jokey, garishly painted bozos have always been unnerving, especially for little kids. But with the 1990 miniseries based on King's novel It, the "scary clown" motif seemed to go into overdrive in pop culture.
Curry's characterization of the monstrous Pennywise became iconic, and probably haunts audiences who were children at the miniseries' debut. The ABC It otherwise left little impact, but filmmaker Andy Muschietti seeks to amp up the terror with his R-rated, epic-length film. The big screen version of It tries a little too hard to scare its viewers but still takes them on a fairly satisfying funhouse ride.
It begins in 1988 with a young boy (Jackson Robert Scott) floating a paper boat down the street on a rainy day in small-town Maine. The boat goes into a drain and is caught by a figure (Bill Skarsg̴rd) who introduces himself itself as "Pennywise the Dancing Clown." The clown uses the boat as bait until the boy gets too close, and then it reveals an inhuman row of fangs.
Cut to the last day of school in the following year. Stammering but gutsy Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) hopes that his younger brother will be recovered, but his adolescent buddies, all social misfits, focus on having fun over summer vacation. Ultimately Bill and six other misfits band together as "The Losers' Club," some of whom are sketchily drawn, like bespectacled, big-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard of "Stranger Things," Netflix's hit homage to King books like this one).
The Losers gradually realize that their hometown has worse problems than a few psychotic teenage bullies. Not only have multiple kids gone missing, but the Losers find themselves stalked by a clownish apparition that leaves ominous balloons as a calling card. Under Bill's leadership, they eventually resolve to stop Pennywise lest it pick them off one by one.
The thing about the original book is that It is enormous, up to 1,000 pages, depending on the edition. King cuts back and forth between the characters as kids and grown-ups, recounts the town's bedeviled history and uses Pennywise's shapeshifting abilities to draw connections between childhood fears, adult anxieties and classic movie monsters. Muschietti and his screenwriting team only adapt half the book, but even at a 135-minute running time, It feels rushed and overstuffed.
For instance, The Losers' lone female member, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), suffers from mean-girl gossip and the attentions of her grotesquely pervy father, while being part of a romantic triangle between Bill and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight new kid. It awkwardly shifts between the tones of sweet puppy love, suspenseful monster fights and the traumatic threat of sexual abuse.
While some of the themes feel undigested, It excels with its moody art direction, with spooky set pieces involving a flooded basement, a slideshow turned supernatural and a room of antique clown dolls. As Pennywise, Skarsg̴rd's makeup, alien physicality and mannered delivery all prove effective and unsettling; his line-readings suggest he's studied every actor who ever played The Joker.
But the film puts Pennywise on display early and often, leaving little to the imagination and emphasizing jump scares over suspense. If the film had half as many Pennywise appearances, It would be probably twice as scary. Fortunately, the film's young ensemble prove likable enough to carry the audience over the bumpy bits. Watching It can feel like spending more than two hours in a clown-themed Netherworld attraction, which is definitely too long. But It also provides some friends to see you through, even if clowns give you the creeps.
It. 3 stars. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Stars Bill Skarsg̴rd, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis. Rated R. Opens Sept. 8. At area theaters.