Based on Stephen King’s much-loved 1986 novel, the new movie “It” is ostensibly about scary clowns, but is really about fear itself.
Many modern horror movies are simple gory slashers and ghost stories filled with jump-scares. However, there are scarier things, more primal things, the things of nightmares. Sometimes a picture on a wall can give someone the creeps.
“It” gets its power to produce actual spine-tingles from these images, not necessarily from the fear of a machete-wielding killer, but things that are coming to get you.
More than that, the movie is powered by its cast of misfit kids, roughly 13 years old, sexually curious/confused, experimenting with swear words, and finding power in numbers.
“It” is set in the summer of 1989, with “A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5” playing at the local cinema of Derry, Maine, and it very deliberately recalls “The Goonies” — one kid even carries an asthma inhaler– and “Stand by Me” (also based on a King story).
A drugstore heist or a swim at the quarry could easily have been lifted from any coming-of-age movie, like “The Sandlot” or “The Kings of Summer.”
Anyone who was ever a misfit can love these kids, feel like a part of their little group. To further capture the mood, Finn Wolfhard from Netflix’s great series “Stranger Things” is on board as the scene-stealing loudmouth, Coke-bottle-spectacled Richie Tozier.
Then director Andy Muschietti, who made the uneven horror hit “Mama,” sends in the clowns.
Muschietti — who took over for talented, Bay Area-born Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre,” “Jane Eyre,” “Beasts of No Nation”), who retains a screenwriting credit — turns in good, scary work, with a slick combination of practical and digital effects.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard) is a real person in makeup, but also moves in a most chillingly inhuman way.
“It” begins with a truly nightmare-inducing sequence, familiar to many, as little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) chases his cardboard boat down a rainy street. It slips into the sewer and into the creepy hands of the waiting clown. It’s up to older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and friends to stop the evil.
The kids are terrific; it wouldn’t be surprising if they all went on to bigger (if not stranger) things, especially the Molly Ringwald-like Sophia Lillis as the budding Beverly Marsh.
Viewers should be warned that this epic “It” is only chapter one, and more terror is planned, though it will have big, puffy shoes to fill.
Three and a half stars
Starring Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Running time 2 hours, 15 minutes