In the mood for some lurid fun? “It,” freely adapted from the 1986 Stephen King blood-curdler, ranks toward the top of the totem pole of his work translated to film over the past 40 years.
It presents the primary themes of King’s work — kids in crisis, useless (or worse) parents, woman-hating men and other dark visions of the human psyche — with unusual vigor and flair. Its terrors are well-crafted sleight of hand with robust theatricality. A nightmarish tale of children besieged by a devilish, murderous clown, it is genuinely frightening and unexpectedly comical. If a blood-gushing horror film were to mate with a whacking good screwball farce, this would be the gripping, R-rated result.
Set in the bucolic town of Derry, Maine, circa 1988, “It” has a certain throwback charm. Derry, the site of historic disasters the locals don’t discuss much, is visited by an old goblin in greasepaint, a freakish looking clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).
When 6-year-old Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is out in a rainstorm playing with a paper boat affectionately made by older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher from “Midnight Special” and “Book of Henry”), the downpour sends it skittering down the street gutters. In his rain poncho, Georgie races behind, both thrilled and troubled that Bill “will kill me” if he loses the toy. Then it nosedives into a storm drain, and the all-too-friendly Pennywise appears beneath the curbside grating, offering to return the treasure if Georgie will join him in the sewer.
We are not surprised when the child disappears down the drain. The jolt comes from Pennywise abruptly dragging him in, piece by piece, leaving a large bloodshot stain in the street. That is the first gory image in a crimson-soaked film that will make Carrie’s prom and the Overlook Hotel elevators look like shaving cuts.
After a period of mourning, Derry moves on from Georgie’s vanishing. After all, this is the kind of thing that happens in town, almost like clockwork every 27 years. But Bill isn’t ready to give up that easily. He pulls his three eighth-grade friends into searching the sewers’ swill with him.
Cautious Stan (Wyatt Oleff), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and foulmouthed wisenheimer Richie (Finn Wolfhard of the Netflix series “Stranger Things”) think that investigating stormwater mixed with sewage is a gross delusion, but at least they can hide there from the school’s violent senior bully, Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) and his knuckle-dragging chums. Plus, they’ve been seeing ghastly things that can’t be explained, and mystery loves company.
Henry’s aggression drives some new outcasts to Bill’s “Losers’ Club.” Chubby new student Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) joins, as does Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a home-schooler whom Henry thrashes, in all likelihood, just because he’s black. Finally there’s Beverly (already stunning star of tomorrow Sophia Lillis), accused of being fast and loose by her mean girl classmates.
The film follows Pennywise’s strategy to divide and conquer the kids, gradually building the case that our greatest fear is fear itself. They’re all hallucinating nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror from their phobias, and Pennywise feasts on the childish panic he creates. And there’s dread aplenty. When’s the last time you saw gross-out shots of lepers and maggots in a studio film?
“It” is attuned to how scary crazy-eyed people can be in real life, parents in particular. This is no family-friendly film. Almost every young character deserves help from Child Protective Services for some kind of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. A forceful, empathetic performance by Lillis makes Beverly, a plucky, scrappy junior teen, emerge as the film’s action heroine, a varsity league Katniss Everdeen.
Director Andy Muschietti (who made the disturbing “Mama”) keeps us from watching through our fingers because there’s too much fun between the group’s trips to hell. He lets his seven child actors develop memorable individual characters while they deftly juggle dialogue that is remarkably funny, albeit foulmouthed. He’s sharply attentive to every minor character, making the town pharmacist a sad-sack standout, and allowing Skarsgard to make Pennywise a leering, capering echo of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
King’s timeline, which cut the novel to and fro across decades, is smoothed and simplified, allowing us to follow the young characters’ growing feelings for each other while setting the stage for “It: Chapter Two,” a sequel when we will meet them 27 years later. It will be interesting to see how prepared they are for the rematch after this carousel of traumas, or even who survived, but I’ll miss these kids.
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for violence/horror, bloody images, and language.