The most surprising thing about the new It adaptation — in which a malevolent force masquerades as a razor-toothed clown that brutalizes the children of Derry, Maine — is that it’s not all that scary. There are jump scares, yes, and there's a lingering sense of dread in scenes that depict the residents of Derry overlooking the horrific violence lurking beneath its idyllic surface. But overall, the movie is not the two-hour-and-fifteen-minute nightmare the very effective trailers make it out to be. And while that’s occasionally disappointing, the somewhat muted terror doesn’t doom a film that’s otherwise quite good: It is the rare horror film that succeeds based on the strength of its characters, not its scares.
It is the second adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. The first, a 1990 miniseries, is mostly remembered for Tim Curry’s iconic performance as killer clown Pennywise. It’s essentially a hammy, overstuffed mess that, much like the childhood memories of the adult characters in the miniseries, we have largely repressed. The 2017 film, which has a well deserved R rating, is both less and more faithful to the book than the last adaptation. The plot points have been altered throughout and the time period moved from the late ’50s to the late ’80s, but Andy Muschietti’s adaptation is nearly as dark and nasty as King’s epic. This It also wisely sticks to only half of the novel, in which a group of misfit kids who call themselves the Losers Club band together to fight an ancient evil. The story of their reunion 27 years later will presumably be covered in a sequel that seems all but guaranteed.
Free from the restraints of an early-’90s made-for-TV production, Muschietti’s It is allowed to be more explicit in terms of its horror, both supernatural — the awful way 7-year-old Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is dispatched — and real-world — the abuse Beverly (Sophia Lillis) suffers at the hands of her father (Stephen Bogaert). While it’s impossible to forget the indelible impression left by Curry’s Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård delivers a thoroughly chilling performance as a less playful, more demonic iteration of the red-balloon-wielding clown. The vulgarity that laces the language of It’s young protagonists is both comic relief and a reflection of the trauma they’re enduring. What 12-year-old wouldn’t drop several F-bombs after being attacked by a homicidal leper? This adaptation is certainly more polished than the last, but it’s also more grounded in a grim, deeply upsetting reality.
But even for those of us who are somewhat skittish, It never quite gets under its audience's skin the way you’d expect (unless, of course, you're suffering from honest-to-god-turtle coulrophobia). Like many modern horror movies, It suffers from a lack of restraint. Take, for example, the opening scene, in which Pennywise chomps off Georgie’s arm. The image of a young boy using his one remaining arm to crawl away from the sewer while bleeding out is truly shocking and one of the most visceral images the film offers. But the moment before — which shows Pennywise opening his jaw with the aid of some questionable CGI — undercuts the horror. Muschietti had the same problem in Mama, a film that got less scary the more the audience saw. Consider how much more effective that inciting Georgie incident would be if we witnessed only the aftermath of Pennywise’s assault.
The film’s inability to hold back, along with its dubious special effects, hampers some otherwise very frightening set pieces. The photo album scene from the book has been adapted into a legitimately horrifying moment in which a slide projector takes on a life of its own — but the tension is undone when a giant-sized Pennywise crawls through the screen. Which is frustrating, because it’s clear that It could have been so much scarier if Muschietti had done less. (There is one exception: The popping blood bubble in Beverly’s sink becomes a veritable blood geyser here, which, while cribbed from A Nightmare on Elm Street, is perhaps the most memorable moment in the film.)
And yet, It manages to pull through despite itself. As a horror adaptation of a Stephen King novel, it never comes close to the heights of classics like The Shining and Carrie — but the depth of its characterization and the casting of genuinely good young actors makes it a solid coming-of-age story, more closely aligned with another King adaptation, 1986’s Stand by Me. It also feels more than a little inspired by Stranger Things, despite the fact that Finn Wolfhard was cast as Richie Tozier before the Netflix series debuted — and despite Stranger Things, of course, owing a debt of its own to Stand by Me. It shines when it’s about the Losers Club, led by the talented Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, whether they’re outrunning bullies or Pennywise. The dialogue is sharp, and their friendship is moving and honest. Their scenes are so funny and heartfelt that they make up for some of the horror fumbles.
After all, It has always been a story about the loss of innocence, about the generational divide between children and the adults who don’t listen to them, and about the shocking hatred that runs through even the most pleasant-seeming American towns. And this film understands that. The big-picture monster stuff was, frankly, always the weakest element of the novel, in which the titular villain is ultimately revealed to be — spoiler alert for a 30-plus-year-old novel — a giant spider. (That’s a slightly reductive explanation, but trying to parse King’s mythology, which ties into the even lengthier Dark Tower series, is an exercise in madness.) By realistically portraying the bond these kids share — and thankfully not cementing it with the novel’s notorious gang-bang — this adaptation gets right to the heart of the story. For those who have read the book and know that the Losers Club will split up and forget about each other, that makes the film’s vague ending all the more heartbreaking.
Ultimately, it's OK that It is not quite the terrifying thriller the trailer would have you believe. We already know that clowns are scary. That young people can have rich interior lives and emotionally resonant stories feels like a more valuable reminder.