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Devilish fun: 'It' is more unsettling than frightful

  • Film-Review-IT-8

    This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bill Skarsgard in a scene from "It."

    WARNER BROS. PICTURES

  • Film-Review-IT-9

    This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Finn Wolfhard in a scene from "It."

    WARNER BROS. PICTURES

  • Film-Review-IT-7

    This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bill Skarsgard in a scene from "It."

    WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Unless you have coulrophobia (fear of clowns), It won't terrify you.

Most of It's scares have been spoiled by an aggressive studio marketing campaign meant to make it the perfect pre-Halloween horror film. But even the film’s gotcha surprises that do elicit a jolt or two in the seat aren't as nearly frightful as they are unsettling. It is that rare horror film where the chills, such as they are, are in service of a different purpose: fun.

And it has been a long time since a Stephen King adaptation could be called fun.

Based on King's beloved horror novel from 1986, It is the summer adventures of a group of high school outcasts – they call themselves the Losers' Club – who battle a malevolent creature, in the form of a demented clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård who keeps things fun and creepy), who appears every 27 years in the small Maine town of Derry to feast on children and even adults before returning to slumber in the town’s sewers.

The town's adults and even some of the children are oblivious to the disappearances, even as posters of the missing are posted around town. But what is happening, The Losers discover, has twisted roots that date back at least as far as the centuries-old town, with a cycle of disappearances, death, and ill fortune.

Even as Pennywise begins to taunt and threaten the Losers, their quest becomes less about saving themselves, but saving Derry from It.

Jaeden Lieberher, who was terrific in last year's sci-fi road movie Midnight Special, plays the Losers' unofficial leader Bill, who suffers from a stutter and whose younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) was the first victim of this new wave of killings.

Fans of Netflix’s limited series Stranger Things will recognize Finn Wolfhard who plays the chatty and nerdy Richie.

The other actors aren't so well known, which is to the film's benefit. Jeremy Ray Taylor is Ben Hanscom, the overweight and bullied "new kid" in the school, who uncovers Derry's tragic history; Wyatt Oleff is the curly headed and reluctant to fight Stanley Uris; Jack Dylan Grazer is the sickly and overly mothered Eddie Kaspbrak; Chosen Jacobs is Mike Hanlon, a homeschooled kid who must learn to fight back and who only joins the group after being saved from the local bully.

It’s breakout performer is Sophia Lillis, who plays Beverly Marsh, the only girl in the club, who must deal with her predatory father. In Derry, children often have as much to fear at home as they do in the sewer where It lives.


This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bill Skarsgard in a scene from "It." (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The novel's narrative jumped back and forth between the teens in the late 1950s and as adults who return to Derry to carry on the fight nearly three decades later. The 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of It had the time to carry out both stories, while this film adaptation is limited to the teens.

The movie is set in 1988 — there are only marginal decade-specific callbacks, such as clothes, cars, technology (and the lack thereof), and the occasional cultural reference (New Kids on the Block and the original Street Fighter) — but its story of teens vs. monsters is timeless. Consider the success of last year’s Stranger Things.

It’s cast of young actors slot perfectly into these specific roles that speak to larger truths about adolescents, not unlike the four best friends who set out to find a missing boy's body in King's Stand By Me. There's an easy and often humorous patter of dialog that flows between the group. Mostly it's supportive, and even when the jokes stray to insults the putdowns are quickly followed up with encouragement or statements of camaraderie. This group of friends is united as much by their personalities as they are by the knowledge they must cling together to survive in even the most literal of ways.

Like Stand By Me, a gang of bullies play a large role in the story as a source of fear and torment for the Losers. But in King's world, even the biggest bully, the mulleted Henry Bowers, is the product of a bullying police officer father.

And that's the underlying horror of the film, those daily terrors the children face, whether in their homes, at school, or even in the town library.

Clowns may be scary, but it's devilish humans who are more often the real monsters.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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