Even though Stephen King’s It was written a little more than three decades ago, director Andy Muschietti’s new big-screen adaptation feels especially well-timed. Thanks to Netflix’s Stranger Things and that show’s exhumation of the geekier pop culture flotsam and jetsam of the Reagan era, what’s old is suddenly new again. Especially if it falls into that brief window between, say, E.T. and The Goonies. Just as there’s no denying that a series like Stranger Things wouldn’t exist without King’s It, there’s also no question that Stranger Things informs the way that It paints its band of nerdy young misfits and the fears they carry around inside them. The two are in a dialogue with each other.
The story is set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine — one of those seemingly idyllic Stephen King New England burgs where evil is never very hard to find. In the film’s extremely creepy opening scene, a little boy named Georgie is lured into a sewer by a menacing, white-faced clown named Pennywise (Hemlock Grove‘s Bill Skarsgård), whose every cackling syllable sounds like an insinuation or an invitation. Georgie becomes one in a wave of child disappearances in town. Months later, Georgie’s older brother, Bill (Midnight Special‘s Jaeden Lieberher), is trying to move on, with the help of his group of picked-on best friends, who call themselves the Losers’ Club. It’s summer vacation, a time when there’s nothing to do and everything seems possible. At least until they begin to be haunted by waking nightmares from the evil they call It.
It is essentially two movies. The better by far (and it’s very good) is the one that feels like a darker Stand by Me — a nostalgic coming-of-age story about seven likable outcasts riding around on their bikes and facing their fears together. Part of me kept waiting for a voice-over from Richard Dreyfuss: “And that was the best summer of my life…” Less successful are the sections that trot out Pennywise. The more we see of him, the less scary he becomes. Unless you’re really afraid of clowns, he just seems kind of cartoony after a while. Halfway through the film, I was trying to figure out why the grease-painted bogeyman’s M.O. felt so familiar (I hadn’t read the book). Just then, the kids on screen went past a theater showing A Nightmare on Elm Street 5. That’s it: Pennywise is Freddy Krueger — a small-town specter stalking kids in their minds. Like the Freddy films, It doesn’t shy away from nastiness and definitely earns its R rating. There’s implied incest, bullying in the extreme, and children are violently attacked. But that raises the question: Who exactly is It for? Its heroes, like its audience, are kids. What responsible parent will buy their tickets? B