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Film review: 'It'

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Professional clowns have been up in arms over the release of “It,” the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a demonic evil that most frequently takes the form of a clown known as Pennywise. After last year’s sinister clown sightings around the country, they’re not eager for more bad publicity. But their worries made no difference; "It" just had the biggest opening weekend ever for a horror movie.

The film follows Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother, Georgie, goes missing — during a terrifying opening sequence, the boy has a run-in with Pennywise and is never heard from again. This prologue immediately sets the film’s tone and establishes a world where bad things can happen to anyone. It’s also the scene where Bill Skarsgård’s performance as the murderous clown is at its most frightening.

The film flashes forward a year, and Bill has become obsessed with finding out what happened to his little brother. On his quest for answers, he eventually recruits his best friends: wise-ass Richie (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”), skittish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). The misfit pre-teens have dubbed themselves the “Losers’ Club,” and are perpetually tormented by their school’s pack of vicious bullies. Their daily lives are already hell, so once Pennywise starts stalking them, it’s really just one more thing they have to deal with.

Gradually they add a few new members to the group: a sweet-natured new kid named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the sole girl of the group, Bev (Sophia Lillis). One by one each child has their own encounter with Pennywise, who can shape-shift and appear as whatever it is they fear most, gaining strength from their terror. This allows writer-director Andy Muschietti to load his film with regular jolts and scares, but it also results in a monotonous rhythm that cycles through nearly every kid’s confrontation, one after another.

With a bit of research, the group learns that “It” is an evil, predatory entity that has terrorized the small town of Derry, Maine, for centuries, rising every 27 years to feed before sinking back into the sewers to wait. The group decides to band together and try to rid their town of the evil presence for good. There’s plenty of parallels between this story and King’s “Stand By Me” (“The Body” in novella form), another tale of children whose friendship provides a sense of safety and protection as they, in their own ways, confront death. The children’s roles are impeccably cast and marvelously acted — though Lillis delivers the film’s true standout performance.

Skarsgård was most recently seen as Charlize Theron’s East Berlin ally in “Atomic Blonde,” and he rips into this role with razor-sharp teeth bared. There’s a bit of Heath Ledger’s Joker to his portrayal, but Skarsgård makes Pennywise his own (and distinguishes his work from Tim Curry’s iconic portrayal in the 1990 TV-miniseries adaptation. He makes Pennywise into a truly terrifying presence.

Muschietti focuses on the horror of childhood as the adolescents start to understand that the world is a dark and scary place where bad things can (and often do) happen, even to children. But the screenplay, credited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (who at one point was attached to direct), and Gary Dauberman, manages to inject more humor than you might expect.

There’s also a fear of adulthood, or at least the fear of turning into the kind of adults who surround them. We learn that several of the Losers have terrible home lives; none of the gang has a single positive parental presence. In fact, every adult they encounter in the entire town of Derry ranges in demeanor from indifference to outright toxic. It’s the film’s depiction of the horrors of child abuse that I found most shaking, providing a potent undercurrent to the supernatural horror.

I’ve railed on it before, but the overuse of CGI in horror is one of the worst things to happen to the genre. And sadly even an otherwise solid film like “It” isn’t immune. But the makeup design for Pennywise is wonderfully creepy — the decision to have his eyes constantly go askew is a nice, unsettling touch. Claude Paré production design is a marvel throughout.

Though the supernatural haunts didn’t always work for me, they certainly did for most of the audience at my screening, and the shrieking and screaming was infectious, providing another a reminder that movies like “It” are best experienced with a crowd. With its mix of scares, heart, and humor, the film demonstrates the difference between a quick fright and something that truly terrifies, burrowing under the skin and lingering on long after the credits have rolled.

Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including further coverage from the Toronto International Film Festival.

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