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The monster in IT is unfathomably evil, an immortal shape-shifter who terrorizes its young victims until they are weak enough to be eaten alive. Given such a creature, expectations might be that Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel would be punishingly scary and disturbing. One of the film’s pleasant surprises is that, in terms of scares, it is relatively tame. Like a haunted house or other circus attractions, its horror sequences are have the right mix of surprise and familiarity. But for all its shocking imagery, IT is more successful as a coming-of-age story—aided by a talented cast of unknowns—with the monster serving as a stand-in for our collective loss of innocence.
An early sequence establishes just how scared we should be. During a rainstorm, a young boy named Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) loses his paper boat in the gutter. Peering into the gutter, Georgie meets Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a menacing clown who manipulates and needles Georgie until he is close enough to devour. The first sight of Pennywise comes with the requisite of crash of strings that accompanies every jump scare, and yet the timing is such that his glowing eyes are not unexpected. Georgie’s fate is a foregone conclusion, so Muschietti creates tension around anticipation, not fear. In all the horror sequences that follow, including those in a sewer and a haunted house, Muschietti frames Pennywise and his many forms around this tamer form of anxiety. This means the action and set pieces are way more fun than the typical horror film.
After Georgie’s disappearance, the story settles around the summer of 1989 in Derry, Maine (a favorite setting of King’s books). Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is reeling from guilt, while his best friends want nothing more than an ordinary, carefree summer. Two things get in the way: the monster terrorizes each of the kids—exploiting their deepest, darkest fear—and since the kids are all low on the middle school social hierarchy, older bullies chase them at every opportunity. The bullies are especially cruel to the overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), going so far as to carve letters into his belly. The kids eventually recruit Beverly (Sophia Lillis) into their gang, and of course all the boys develop a crush on her simultaneously. Prepubescent desire notwithstanding, they all realize that the same monster has been scaring all of them, and that they are stronger together than apart.
If many horror films have a story in service of scares, IT is a horror film with scares in service of its story. The script spends a lot of time with the kids, who nickname themselves “The Losers Club,” finding considerable chemistry along the way. There are languid summer afternoons—filmed with a muted hew of nostalgia—with the kids riding their bikes and goofing off, and the actors are effortlessly plausible so that it is a pleasure to share their fun. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Richie (Finn Wolfhard) provide comic relief as motor-mouths whose favorite words have four letters—one thing IT gets right is how, among 12-year-old boys, the “your mom” jokes are practically nonstop. Still, the real stand-out is Lillis, who plays Beverly. Her character is more vulnerable than others—the script suggests her father abuses her—and Lillis captures that quality, with the growing confidence around boys who “like like” her.
Amid the camaraderie and plentiful f-bombs, the monster needles the kids. Skarsgård is effective as Pennywise, using his lanky body and exaggerated, over-pronounced delivery to highlight his character’s uncanny nature. Muschietti films Pennywise so he is inhuman, using camera techniques like heightened speed and garish cinematography so that all his appearances are jarring. The monster’s other forms are frightening, too, like when Mike (Chosen Jacobs) sees the ashes of his dead parents, or when Beverly’s bathroom sink turns into a geyser of bile, discarded hair, and deep crimson blood.
Still, Muschietti avoids realism so that he can easily shift the tone back toward an observant human comedy. Sometimes the juxtaposition is brazen: the Losers team up to clean Beverly’s bloody bathroom while The Cure’s playful “Six Different Ways” provides the soundtrack. Another team-building scene involves the Losers throwing rocks at their bullies. The monster threatens the bond of young friendship—a frequent topic of King’s books—and so the climax’s chief concern is not the depth of the monster’s power, but whether the Losers trust each other enough to see their mission through. That concern is how IT rises above its genre, with actual stakes and drama.
King divided IT into two parallel sections, with the Losers as kids and as adults who are in their early 40s. This version truncates that story, focusing only on the kids, since adding the other timeline would be too unwieldy for a feature film. It is a shrewd decision, adding a timeless sense of nostalgia to wash over the story. Muschietti also jettisons plotlines that would not work cinematically, such as a protracted group sex scene with the seven kids (yes, you read that correctly). Fears and phobias can be an albatross, since kids are at an age where they cannot see the link between vulnerability and trust. Few coming-of-age films handle these ideas with such sensitivity and grace. That IT pulls it off, alongside a freaky-ass clown with a gaping maw of razor sharp teeth, is a downright impressive achievement.