A whole generation was saddled with a clown phobia thanks to slumber party screenings of the 1990 miniseries of Stephen King’s “It,” starring Tim Curry as the creepy killer clown Pennywise. In hindsight, the miniseries is more goofy than terrifying, and the jacked-up, R-rated feature film version hits screens just in time for a new generation to develop a healthy fear of murderous men in white face paint.
Despite its dated ’90s quirks, the miniseries is strangely engrossing for its raw depiction of adults demolishing their childhood fears. The childhood that King depicts isn’t one of innocence, but of violence, abuse, brutality and neglect. The new “It” latches onto that theme, predominantly by eschewing the adult portions and focusing entirely on the kids’ story, which takes place during the summer of 1989.
Director Andy Muschietti has cast a wonderful group of actors to play the pubescent warriors who face off against Pennywise, including Finn Wolfhard from “Stranger Things,” Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff. The lone girl, Beverly, is played by Sophia Lillis, a plucky combination of Molly Ringwald and Mia Farrow.
Bill Skarsgard steps into the oversize shoes of Pennywise, one of Curry’s most indelible roles. And the young Swedish actor, son of Stellan Skarsgard, totally nails it.
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Skarsgard has Pennywise’s line delivery down pat, his combination of cajoling and creepy enhanced with large, glowing eyes boring into your soul. It’s such a great performance that you wish Muschietti had eased up on the CGI and just let Skarsgard do the talking.
That tendency is an indication of the issues at hand in “It.” The scares come fast, furious and digitally enhanced, when they could have been more effective paced out, slowly building with the surreal imagery that follows Pennywise everywhere he goes. Though the story is changed in parts, it is mostly faithful to many of the set pieces of the original miniseries, just with more numbing digital enhancement.
The most disappointing story changes surround the character of Bev. In “It,” the camera leers at her youthful body, presents her as a sexual object to be gawked at by young boys and grown men alike, which doesn’t sit well when she’s also a victim of implied sexual abuse by her father. It’s a star turn for the talented and fiery Lillis, but sadly, her character becomes a damsel in distress needing to be rescued.
Ultimately, “It” works not because of its supernatural scares (though there are some good jumps), but because of the characters at the center of this tale. An R-rating allows for the kind of potty-mouthed humor endemic to teenage boys, and “It” is genuinely, laugh out loud funny, often more than it’s terrifying, especially thanks to Wolfhard, who plays the loud-mouth Richie, and Grazer as germaphobe Eddie.
This is a monster that can’t be contained by any rules or logic, and that’s frustrating. Fears and phobias aren’t always tangible, but Pennywise makes it so. If only the film had slowed down a bit to give room to the character most likely to imprint himself on a generation.
Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images and language.