It comes as no surprise that the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s “IT” is terrifying — at least not to those familiar with the novel or mini series. There’s enough agonizing, creepy moments and imaginatively rendered incarnations of supernatural villain Pennywise to occupy some unsettling dreams for at least a night or two after seeing it.
What might surprise you, however, is how downright touching the film is. By the end of the movie, you’ve been through the ringer with the Loser’s Club, a group of seven friends, and you might want to reach through the screen to give them a big hug.
Directed by filmmaker Andy Muschietti, “IT” is a throwback, in many ways, to classic 1980s horror movies like “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Poltergeist.” It’s scary, for sure, but manageably so and does not sacrifice plot or character development for predictable scares or for the over-the-top gore of more contemporary horror films.
With a movie that focuses almost exclusively on the seven teenagers at the core of the story, the casting will make or break the film. Fortunately, the strongest element in the movie is the young actors who give vivid, note-perfect performances. If you’ve read the book, you’ll be pleased to know that Richie (Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike in the Netflix series “Stranger Things”) runs his mouth constantly, that Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) stutters, and that Ben (a delightful Jeremy Ray Taylor) is a sensitive poet.
The standout actor, however, is Sophia Lillis, who plays Beverly Marsh, the lone female member of the club. Her nuanced portrayal gives Beverly depth as both a tough cookie and a vulnerable soul, who has survived things that, in some ways, are worse that a demonic clown.
The other main character, of course, is iconic baddie Pennywise, who first appears in the movie to Georgie, Bill’s little brother, in a highly memorable (and gruesome) scene involving a storm drain and a paper boat. The various incarnations Pennywise takes, from a disease-riddled corpse to the freakiest clown ever, each have their own unique scare factor.
The art direction of “IT” is another of the film’s strongest points, from the 1989-specific posters on the kid’s bedroom walls, to the terrifying Neibolt Street house where they have their first group encounter with the monster.
As played by Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise is much more viscerally disturbing than Tim Curry’s take on the monster in the 1990 TV miniseries. There’s plenty of gallows humor in his portrayal, sure, but every time he appears on screen, you’ll likely want to brace yourself for impact. He looks great, he sounds great, and he’s really scary — even if the monster’s closing scenes are a bit underwhelming.
It’s not just Pennywise that’s funny, either. Late ’80s pop cultural references are dropped in at various points to lighten the mood. In a way, “IT” offers much of the nostalgia-heavy vibe of recent pop cultural phenomena like Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which openly lifted a number of King story elements for its tale of another supernatural creature terrorizing a group of small town kids.
The small town in this case is, of course, Derry, which King based on Bangor. Bangorians and Mainers will get a big kick out of all the little Bangor references peppered throughout the film. I won’t give most of them away here, but suffice to say there’s lots of them, including a somewhat goofy version of the Paul Bunyan statue.
There also are echoes in the film of another King story, “Stand By Me,” in the group dynamics between the members of the Loser’s Club. Their adolescent longing, their foul-mouthed banter, their loyalty to one another feels real and unforced.
The pacing of the film lags a little bit though — particularly in the middle third of the film. At two hours and 15 minutes, “IT” is rather long for a horror movie, a genre that thrives when the scare-to-exposition ratio is slim.
“IT” is legitimately scary, though not so much that teenagers won’t flock to see it. “IT” is a film that could conceivably be watched by a group of brave 14- and 15-year-olds during a sleepover — kids about the age of those in the movie. Once you look past the scares, the blood and the clowns, “IT” is a story about friendship. In that way, it’s an oddly heartwarming film.