It ✮✮


by Glenn Lovell

For what it’s worth, the eagerly awaited “It” — aka The Little Horror Film That Could (Save the Summer) — shares much in common with the door-stopper Stephen King novel of the same title: The movie about seven “loser” friends confronting suppressed fears that have transmogrified into a sniggering clown with piranha teeth is ambitious,  overlong, not a little nostalgic, and, when it relies on old-fashioned suggestion rather than digital trickery, sporadically scary.

And oh yes, King fans will be happy to hear it’s plenty disgusting, preserving the author’s fascination with rotting body parts, floating detritus, and small-town depravity. Like the Derry, Maine, of tclownhe novel, the film’s oppressive blue-collar setting is awash in incest and child abuse.

Even so, “It” lags, feels derivative, as if cobbled together from other fright films. (For a more disturbing take on bozo-phobia try Jon Watts’ “Clown.”) We’ve seen so much of this before — in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” in Rob Reiner’s “Stand by Me” (from King’s “The Body”), in Kubrick’s blood-sloshing premonitions in “The Shining” … and, a real cause for concern, in Netflix’s recent “Stranger Things”  miniseries starring the androgynous mop-top Finn Wolfhard, who here returns as the gang’s sex-obsessed Richie.

Bill Skarsgård plays Pennywise, the clown who returns every 27 years to fulfill a curse by dining on Derry’s children. Sounds a little like the Pied Piper of Hamelin,  no? Skarsgård’s big-top headliner is not your run-of-the-mill ogre; he/it features impish smile, dimple and lisp. He’s a marked improvement on Tim Curry’s more obvious sewer-dweller in the 1990 TV miniseries.

“It” also benefits from the evocative-to-garish photography by South Korea’s Chung-hoon Chung (the original “Oldboy”), another deceptively robust score by Benjamin Wallfisch (“Hidden Figures”), and a pair of standout performances by Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis as the stammering, guilt-ridden older brother Bill and the wise, precociously maternalistic den mother, Beverly.

To discourage cries of plagiarism, the filmmakers have included signpost references to some of their key influences, including a basement poster for “Gremlins” and a theater marquee trumpeting Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Elm Street 2.”

Directed by Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) and scripted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fugunaga and Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”), this second go at King’s 1986 novel at once simplifies or irons out King’s flashback narrative and pushes the story forward 30 years (the novel’s childhood scenes are set in the late 1950s).

By doing this, Muschietti and company have cannily saved the adult timeline for a sequel, “It, Chapter 2.” This will be where the grown up Bill, Beverly, Mike, Ben, Richie, Stanley, and asthmatic mama’s boy Eddie reunite 27 years later to battle and vanquish Pennywise for all time — or at least until someone can whip up a clever excuse for a storm-drain rematch between the Derry demon and Losers Club.

Is “It” good enough to turn around the summer’s slumping box office? Doubtful. At the showing I attended, even fans of the novel and TV incarnation seemed to be working too hard for their laughs and gasps. Maybe a return visit to Castlerock (“Stand by Me”) is in order. That’s where you’ll locate what this all-too-familiar fable lacks — Capra-esque sentiment cut with gradually mounting dread.

IT ✮✮ With Jaeden Lieberher, Sofia Lillis, Bill Skarsgård, Jack Dillon Grazer, Directed by Andy Muschietti; scripted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman. 135 min. Rated R (for profanity, torture, sexual perversity, shock moments — definitely not for kids under 12)

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