Childhood is a frightening proposition in Stephen King’s world. But it’s also a time for wonder and adventure and good laughs among die-hard friends. What’s most surprising about the new horror film “It” is that we get both aspects in equal measure. Sure, there’s a killer clown, but there’s also an endearing camaraderie to counteract it. The movie is unexpectedly sweet and nostalgic, and yes, kinda scary too.
Let’s start with the scary stuff. To establish that it means business, the film starts out with a shock. In a downpour, a young boy is floating his cardboard boat down a street gutter when it suddenly swooshes through a sewer grate. When the boy peers down the grate, he’s startled by a clown peering up at him.
“I should get going now …” the boy squeaks out.
“Without your boat?” Pennywise asks. “Here, take it.”
The boy’s quick demise sets the stage for all the other bad things that happen, whether real or imagined, throughout this R-rated movie.
The brother of that first victim forms a band of misfits he ruefully calls the Losers Club. They’re your standard collection of oddballs – a fat kid, a skinny kid, a black kid, an asthmatic, etc.
They each have their own demons to fight but when they realize their hometown of Derry, Maine has a historically high number of missing and murdered kids, they make it their mission to find out why. What they uncover forces each of them to face their own personal fears and Pennywise, the scary clown, too.
These scary clown confrontations happen in classic horror movie settings: a creaky abandoned house, a pitch-dark basement, a musty attic full of clown heads, a locked bathroom with no escape, a decommissioned well, and claustrophobic sewer tunnels. Whenever Pennywise shows up there with his trademark red balloon, it’s plenty creepy. The effect eventually wears off, though, from overuse.
What keeps the movie from running out of steam is the social dynamic among the kids. The constant patter of jokes and complaining rings true to their age group. Here they are at the entrance to an open sewer tunnel, for instance, hunting for evidence of missing children.
“Aren’t you guys coming in?”
“Uh-uh, it’s grey water!”
“What the hell is grey water?”
“You guys are splashing around in millions of gallons of Derry pee.”
And when a tomboy joins the club early on, the way the various boys interact with her, and vice-versa, is endearing and entirely relate-able. Actress Sophia Lillis is so good, she may be the film’s breakout star.
The dramatic climax of the movie may be the final confrontation with Pennywise, but it’s the emotional resonance of the Losers Club that lingers.