It (2017)

135 min. Director: Andy Muschietti. Cast: Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård.

Fear. The only way to conquer “it” is to face “it.” That’s the crux of Stephen King’s bestselling horror tome It, and its screen adaptations, first a two-part 1990 ABC miniseries and now Andy Muschietti’s cinematic “Chapter 1,” with “Chapter 2” in development.

It’s the story of seven pre-teens experiencing severe growing pains in Derry, Maine, a vision of smalltown America (ironically outsourced here to Toronto) where a quaint, picturesque Main Street and seemingly sedate suburbs mask horrors literally and figuratively beneath its surface. For Derry’s sewers host a powerful malevolent entity that preys most vigorously on children and most commonly in the form of the ultimate creepy clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). In a prologue, Pennywise dispatches a young boy whose older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher of Midnight Special) soon becomes de facto leader to the bullied misfits of “The Losers Club”: overweight new-kid-on-the-block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), generous spirit Bev (Sophia Lillis), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the generally squeamish Stan (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who get unfortunately tokenized—as the Jewish and black kids, respectively—by story omissions and changes.

Muschietti’s film makes palpable King’s theme of the worst horrors arguably being the ones perpetrated by humans on each other: a sexually abusive father here, a psychopathic, switchblade-wielding bully not above carving flesh there. It locates as much primal fear and nascent PTSD in these literal-minded terrors as in the kids’ waking nightmare encounters with Pennywise. Aided by a bulbous forehead and surreally untamed smile, Skarsgård effectively unsettles, sharing with predecessor Tim Curry an un-American otherness (Curry was born in England, Skarsgård in Sweden). It’s not all bad: friendship and love make the evil bearable and beatable, with a sweetly aching adolescent love triangle adding its own excitement.

The new film sensibly bumps forward the setting from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, in anticipation of a contemporary “Chapter 2” to follow (audiences would do well to remember that, while “Chapter 1” tells a story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, it’s also only half of King’s narrative and thematic plan). The update still benefits from nostalgia: the cinematography’s soft ‘80s look and a throwback approach to the horror (including makeup effects by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.) evokes the films of that period, including the Nightmare on Elm Street series (name-checked on a marquee) and Stand By Me, the 1986 King adaptation that traded in its own ‘50s nostalgia. Inevitably, this It also rhymes with Netflix’s King-inspired, ‘80s-set Stranger Things, in part due to the casting of that show’s Finn Wolfhard as horny wisecracker Richie.

In adapting roughly half of the 1100-page source material, screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have a lot to cram into what’s become a 135-minute film. Although Muschietti’s film isn’t beat-for-beat faithful to the source (King’s nutty post-climax climaxes get necessarily excised), it adheres closely enough to please most King fans, especially those who have hungered for the profane and graphically violent R-rated version the miniseries couldn’t provide. If some of the dramatics are corny and logic-deprived, and some of the horrors diluted by decades of market saturation, strong performances and production carry the day. This pop culture psychodrama still works, and linked up to its pending sequel should add up to a bit more than the sum of its parts.