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Pennywise, pound terrifying – ‘IT’

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Stephen King is one of the best-selling, most-celebrated novelists of his generation. He’s written dozens of books over the past few decades; all have their merits, but there are a few that have achieved a sort of general consensus as the best of the best.

One book that lands on almost every King lover’s list is “IT,” King’s 1987 novel about a group of kids living in the Maine town of Derry and their battle against an unknown evil, one that haunts their childhoods and beyond.

And now, that evil is screeching across the silver screen.

The book has received the screen treatment previously – a 1990 television miniseries – but never before had this massive, intricate, terrifying tale received the full-on cinematic treatment.

This “IT,” directed by Andy Muschietti from a script adapted by Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman, is an exceptional page-to-screen translation, a visceral and gut-wrenching horror story filled with unrelenting tension and delicious frights that tells its own tale while still maintaining a fierce and loyal devotion to the underlying spirit of the original.

In the late 1980s, the town of Derry is in the midst of a spate of unexplained disappearances. Kids are vanishing without a trace and no one knows how or why. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher, “The Book of Henry”) lost his little brother during a fierce storm and has never given up his quest to figure out what happened, even after everyone else has abandoned hope.

Bill’s part of a group of friends – a self-styled “Losers Club” featuring trash-talking chatterbox Richie (Finn Wolfhard, TV’s “Stranger Things”), asthmatic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer, TV’s “Me, Myself and I”) and overly-nervous Stan (Wyatt Oleff, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) – that has banded together in the face of the relentless bullying of Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, “The Dark Tower”).

The Losers Club adds some new members – new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor, “The History of Us”), misunderstood rumor target Beverly (Sophia Lillis, “37”) and homeschooled outsider Mike (Chosen Jacobs, TV’s “Hawaii Five-0”) – as the sinister truth about their town rears its horrifying head in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard, “Atomic Blonde”), a monstrous creature with unfathomable power that stalks the children of Derry … and has for centuries.

As they go to war against a foe that only they can truly see, Bill and the rest have only one another to rely on. Their friendship is their greatest weapon; they have to hope that the love they have for each other will be enough to overcome the evil hatred that powers Pennywise and break Derry free of this sinister cycle.

“IT” is a scary movie, to be sure, with a lovely balance between slow-burn atmospheric frights and jump-scares that leaves the viewer off-balance in the best possible way. Fear is a fundamental facet of the narrative, so finding diverse ways to render it is key to the film’s success. Muschetti’s feature directorial experience might be limited, but he’s got a knack for scares – he uses all of the tools in his aesthetic toolbox to great effect.

Scares aside, however, what makes this film truly shine is the focus on the relationship dynamics between the kids at its core. The spirit of childhood friendship is front and center here, with all the awkward feelings and trash talk that comes with it. Those interactions are what grounds the film and renders the frights all the more impactful. Our connection to these kids makes their struggles even scarier.

Also worth noting: this movie is legitimately funny. There are far more laughs than you might expect from a film like this. Again, that springs from the genuineness of the relationships being rendered. Those laughs are necessary, too – without a release valve for the tension, “IT” could easily become almost unbearable to watch.

The assembled ensemble is outstanding. The kids shine across the board. Lieberher is wonderfully sincere as the steadfast Bill, exuding a sense of quiet commitment. Wolfhard is flat-out awesome, a constant stream of profane ridiculousness that is unfailingly funny; his interactions with Grazer are particularly entertaining. Lillis brings a subtle strength to Bev; hers is the role that presents the most challenges, but she meets them head-on with engaging grace. Oleff, Taylor, Jacobs – they all fit nicely into the group dynamic, creating one of the best assemblages of young talent I can ever recall seeing.

And then there’s Bill Skarsgard. The technical term for fear of clowns is “coulrophobia.” You’ll want to go ahead and make note of that after watching Skarsgard go to work. His Pennywise is a portrait of mesmerizing terror; your eyes can’t leave him even when they very much want to. It’s hard to believe that anyone could match the iconic turn by Tim Curry in the miniseries, but Skarsgard has done just that, creating a performance that is indelible, incredible and utterly unique.

We’ve seen plenty of adaptations of Stephen King’s work over the years. They seem to be showing up with even more frequency lately, with films and TV shows based on his books popping up with increasing regularity. And they’ve been good.

But “IT” is great. Legitimately great. It’s the best adaptation of King’s work that we’ve seen in the 21st century … and in the conversation as one of the best ever.

We all float down here.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 07 September 2017 09:31

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