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Review: ‘It’ Brings Back Stephen King’s Killer Clown


The new film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” stars Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the clown.

Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros.

Late in the summer of 1989, the marquee of the downtown movie theater in Derry, Me., advertises “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.” This is an accurate period detail, and also a declaration of kinship, if not outright homage. “It,” Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King, belongs in the same tradition of small-town terror as Wes Craven’s “Nightmare” franchise, though the question of influence has a certain chicken-and-egg quality. Pennywise the clown, the designated predator in “It,” (played by Bill Skarsgard) is, like Freddy Krueger, an avatar of deep childhood fears. And like Freddy, he’s also the literal, lethal manifestation of the evil of the world. As such, he has the potential to spawn endless sequels. He’ll be back.

Or rather, he is back. Mr. Muschietti’s “It,” written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, represents a second trip to this particular well. Mr. King’s novel, published in 1986, was adapted for network television in 1990. The new movie, a skillful blend of nostalgic sentiment and hair-raising effects, with the visual punch of big-screen digital hocus-pocus and the liberties of the R rating, still has the soothing charm of familiarity. The gang of misfit ’80s kids who face down the clown and the deeper horror he represents evoke both the middle school posse of the recent TV series “Stranger Things” (there’s some overlap in the cast), but also the intrepid brotherhood from “Stand by Me,” surely one of the all-time top five Stephen King movie adaptations.

We can argue about the others — I’m happy to make a case for John Carpenter’s underrated “Christine” — but this “It” doesn’t quite ascend to their level. Nonetheless, the filmmakers honor both the pastoral and the infernal dimensions of Mr. King’s distinctive literary vision. Derry, with its redbrick storefronts and its quirks and kinks, seems like a genuinely nice place to live in spite of the fact that its citizens, children in particular, turn up missing or maimed at an alarming rate.

The supernatural nastiness embodied by Pennywise is abetted and to some extent camouflaged by the ordinary human awfulness that also afflicts Derry. In addition to menacing clowns, phantasmatic lepers and spooky paintings come to life, the town is home to an ugly assortment of bullies (the worst one played by Nicholas Hamilton), gossips and abusive parents.

Against these forces — the banal and the diabolical alike — “It” assembles a squad of early and preadolescent ghostbusters as varied as an infantry platoon in a World War II combat picture. The leader is Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a melancholy, thoughtful boy whose little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), has been spirited down a storm sewer by Pennywise. Bill’s comrades — they call themselves the Losers’ Club — include a nerdy chatterbox (Finn Wolfhard) and a germ-phobic mama’s boy (Jack Dylan Grazer), plus a Jewish kid (Wyatt Oleff), a black kid (Chosen Jacobs) and a new kid (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Also a girl, Bev (Sophia Lillis), who becomes part of a sweet, alliterative romantic triangle involving Bill and the new kid, whose name is Ben.

Like many real kids — even in 1989, even in Maine — they have filthy mouths. They also experience the freedom and peril of growing up in the days before cellphones, bicycle helmets and helicopter parenting. What’s scary about “It,” for them and for the audience, is also fun. The group ranges freely through the forests and fields around Derry, playing detective until the forces of darkness stand revealed with slimy tentacles and multiple rows of sharp, ravenous teeth.

That isn’t a spoiler, but it’s a bit of paradox. The non-clown essence of It, an H.R. Gigeresque vagina dentata type of deal, is far less scary than Pennywise, with his fluting voice and red balloons, and the other specters that seem to spring from tender young psyches. As creature design has become easier and more elaborate, thanks to digital techniques, it has also become less imaginative. Movie monsters resemble one another more and more, and movies of distinct genres feel increasingly trapped within the expected. The climactic sequence of “It” sacrifices horror-movie creepiness for action-movie bombast, staging a big fight in a cavernous space. We might as well be looking at superheroes.

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