There’s a reason that Stephen King’s 1986 novel about a demonic clown who terrorizes a group of children is called “It” and not “Him.” In King’s tale, which is now a feature film, it’s not the bogeyman, but fear itself — that ephemeral, foglike, ungraspable emotion — that haunts its pages. Oh, there’s a monster in the new movie — you’d have to be living under a rock not to have caught a glimpse of Pennywise the Dancing Clown in your Twitter feed lately — but he (or, rather, it) is never one thing, taking on the form of whatever scares you the most.
Pennywise’s journey from page to screen came in fits and starts. Originally, Cary Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) was set to direct a two-movie version of King’s book about a shape-shifting entity that most often appears in the form of a circus clown. But when the budget was cut, Fukunaga stepped aside to let director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) take over, with writer Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”) tweaking the script that Fukunaga had put together with Chase Palmer. It’s impossible to know what was lost or gained in the process, but this first chapter of the saga is nothing to be ashamed of. If it doesn’t rewrite the rules of horror, it calls attention to them, in a manner that is not just flamboyant, but also baroque.
Call it a symphony of orchestral meta-horror, an elaborate waking nightmare in which you, as the dreamer, are constantly reminded of what the film is trying to do, and yet are powerless to stop it.
Set in 1989 in the town of Derry, Maine, the story takes place against a backdrop of dismal, blue-collar misery. Although the main protagonists are a group of seven innocent teenagers on summer break, the all-too-grown-up world they bump up against is one of economic decline, hopelessness and moral rot. Chronic, violent bullying, sexual abuse and miscellaneous adult misbehavior ranging from verbal haranguing to neglect are pervasive in a grimy universe of slaughterhouses and decaying ironworks that seems perpetually under-lit, as if it’s hiding something.
If the film is trying to suggest that everyday life is much scarier than the literal monsters that Hollywood likes to dream up — and I’m not sure it isn’t — that would make for one heck of a subtext. As it is, that idea is a mere whiff here: an unsettling, and unanswered, question that lingers in the air like an unpleasant odor. King has described “It” as his most personal novel, which should raise concerns about his own childhood.
The inciting action of the story is the disappearance of Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), a small boy who vanishes, quite gruesomely, down a storm drain in the first 10 minutes after encountering the aforementioned Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Why Georgie stops to talk to some creep hiding in the sewer, instead of running home to Mom and Dad, is odd, but no real mystery: Pennywise isn’t there to scare Georgie, but you.
And he — or, rather, it — will.
Georgie’s older brother (Jaeden Lieberher) and six of his pals, known as the Loser Club, go looking for the missing boy in a town that, we soon learn, has a missing-persons rate six times the national average. The members of the search party are, as is often the case in movies about children, initially more easily recognized as shorthand types than as individuals. There’s the fat kid (Jeremy Ray Taylor); the black kid (Chosen Jacobs); the Jewish kid (Wyatt Oleff); the asthmatic weakling (Jack Dylan Grazer); the smart mouth (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”); and the girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis).
To its credit, the screenplay eventually fleshes out these stock characters nicely. By the end, they feel whole, well-rounded, worthy of our sympathy and concern. They’d better be, considering there’s a second movie planned about them as grown-ups.
And concern they get. Not only are they being stalked by a devil in face paint, but they’re also being persecuted by a psychopathic older teenager (Nicholas Hamilton). And Beverly — Lillis is the film’s most delightful discovery — appears to be the victim of paternal incest. A fiend in the waterworks? What else you got?
Over the course of a somewhat overlong 2 hours, 15 minutes, “It” throws the book at them, culling tropes from the catalogue of movie horror, including an abandoned house, a well, a flooded cellar, a possessed bathroom sink, zombies, paintings that come to life, ominous messages written in blood and an antagonist with a telescoping jaw, a la “Alien.” These aren’t just tricks pulled from a director’s toolbox of worn-out cliches, but an arsenal that comes from the clown himself, who tailors his scares to each victim’s deepest fear. If the filmmakers haven’t seen a few too many horror films, Pennywise certainly has. (Inside jokes include a movie marquee advertising “Nightmare on Elm Street 5.”)
Of course, all this may or may not be real, as the kids ultimately have to figure out. The idea of an entity that doesn’t just feed on fear, but that carefully curates it, like the sadistic program director of a Halloween film festival, may not be exactly new. It is, however — like “It” itself — surprisingly effective.