Part coming-of-age story, part monster movie, It is a masterful horror flick that arrives just in time to breathe a little life — and some well-tuned terror — into a very limp movie season. A white-knuckler of an experience, it also offers succor to jaded Stephen King fans still fuming over the fiasco of The Dark Tower. It’s like The Goonies with gore, or Stand by Me by way of John Wayne Gacy.
Written by Gary Dauberman (Annabelle, working off of a script by Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer) and directed by Andres Muschietti (Mama), It largely colors within the lines of contemporary horror movies, but does so with deeply unnerving style.
The film moves the plot of King’s novel from 1957 to 1988-89, but otherwise keeps its core intact. The story centers on “The Losers Club”, seven teens — Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special), Ritchie (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) — living in the decrepit small town of Derry, Maine. Each is bullied for the usual shallow reasons (race, gender, disability, religion, weight, you name it). All are social outcasts, most of them with one or more absentee parents, and a couple are the victims of abuse.
Bill is especially traumatized, due to the the disappearance of his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) at the hands of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skaarsgård), and demonic entity that has quietly preyed upon the town every 27 years, possibly for centuries. A tense of cat and mouse ensues as Pennywise stalks the Losers, who in turn struggle to stand together and face their fears.
The shape-shifting Pennywise likes to season his meals with a hearty dose of fear, and makes a game of getting inside his victims’ heads and coming after them in the form of what scares them the most. Muschietti and Dauberman pull out some standard horror tropes — creepy houses, assorted animated corpses, blood geysers, dark sewers, and so on — put manage to spin them that catches the viewer off guard more often than not. Muschietti proves to be a deft hand at pacing the story, expertly building up tension and dread and venting it a little every now and then with some well-timed humor before blindsiding the viewer with a well-timed jolt.
Its biggest asset is its ensemble cast of tweens, who demonstrate a believable sense of camaraderie and give seemingly effortless performances without laying it on too thick or veering into precociousness. Each stands out on his or her own, with Wolfhard stealing more than a few scenes as the group’s impressively potty-mouthed comedic relief.
The eerie, tittering, skin-crawl inducing performance by Skaarsgård doesn’t hurt either. The character has always been one of King’s darkest and most effective, not so much because of his killer clown shtick, but because of his thoroughly predatory nature. Pennywise seeks out, terrorizes, manipulates, and literally feasts upon the weak and vulnerable, with children as his meal of choice. The Losers is an irresistible target, with each already dealing with real-world nightmares that kids should never have to face. The filmmakers pluck this raw nerve repeatedly, to hunting effect.