[Screen It]

"IT"
(2017) (Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgard) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: A small group of young teenagers must contend with an assortment of horrors as they try to figure out who or what is responsible for the disappearance of kids in their small town.
PLOT:
It's 1989 and school has just let out for the summer in the small town of Derry, Maine, although that doesn't necessarily mean the younger teens will get a break from a small band of bullies led by Henry Bowers (NICHOLAS HAMILTON) and Patrick Hockstetter (OWEN TEAGUE). Among those often targeted is Bill Denbrough (JAEDEN LIEBERHER), a 13-year-old whose younger brother, Georgie, disappeared eight months earlier, with no one having seen the boy being attacked by a creepy clown, Pennywise (BILL SKARSGÅRD), from a storm sewer during a rainstorm.

The bullies target Bill due to him having a stutter and being part of a Losers Club that also consists of Stanley Uris (WYATT OLEFF) who's long been freaked out by an eerie figure in a painting in his rabbi father's office; motor mouth Richie Tozier (FINN WOLFHARD) and asthmatic hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (JACK DYLAN GRAZER) whose mother has him on all sorts of medication. Soon joining them is the new kid in town, Ben Hanscom (JEREMY RAY TAYLOR), who's tormented for being chubby, and Mike Hanlon (CHOSEN JACOBS) for being a homeschooled orphan. The only girl in the group is young teen Beverly Marsh (SOPHIA LILLIS) who must not only contend with a female bully at school, but also a sexually abusive father at home.

With school out, Bill is determined to return to his investigation into his brother's disappearance, something fueled by history buff Ben discovering that tragic events and the disappearance of kids in Derry seem to come in cycles of every twenty-seven years. As they and their friends try to get to the bottom of that, not only must they contend with the repeated bullying by Henry, Patrick, and the others, but also creepy and supernatural occurrences that increase in frequency and usually involve frightening appearances by Pennywise the clown.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Author Stephen King has been an incredibly prolific writer over the past four decades, penning a variety of works (under both his real name and the pen name of Richard Bachman), most of which can be classified as falling into the horror genre.

But I've long argued that some of his best writing has come from working in other genres, and some of the best movie adaptations of his work have stemmed from those. Among them is "The Green Mile," "The Shawshank Redemption (based on the short story "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" from "Different Seasons") and "Stand By Me" (adapted from the short story "The Body" -- also found in "Different Seasons").

The latter is considered one of the better coming of age tales ever to grace the big screen, what with a terrific story, well-written characters, great performances, and the capturing of the beginning of the end of childhood innocence during the march toward adulthood.

Now one can add the movie adaptation of King's "It" to that list for many of the same reasons, with the icing on the cake being it's one of the more successfully spooky cinematic translations from the writer's horror collection (the best, in my opinion, still being "The Shining").

It's been a long time since I read the source novel (released back in 1986), but I recall loving it until the big reveal at the end that identified the source of the horror that terrorized the small, fictional town of Derry, Maine. That wasn't enough to derail my admiration for the work, but much like James Cameron's "The Abyss" it was another example of the difficulty of sustaining brilliance from start to finish.

Thankfully that reveal doesn't occur here as we learn right before the end credits roll that the work has been split into two chapters and thus we have to wait for the next installment for that to follow (assuming the filmmakers continue to follow the underlying storyline).

Until then, screenwriters Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman and director Andy Muschietti ("Mama") have delivered a 135 minute film that works best -- not surprisingly -- in its "Stand By Me" style moments where we follow the travails of a number of "loser" kids who have their summer vacation interrupted by the discovery of things that go bump in the night (and then some), all while dealing with their own issues, including having to contend with a number of older bullies.

That's not to say the film's horror and terror moments aren't effective, as many of them are, and then some. And most of that stems from Bill Skarsgard's take on the Pennywise the clown character who's decidedly creepier, spookier and more menacing than Tim Curry's version in the TV miniseries adaptation that aired back in 1990. Needless to say, this take will have that character going down in the annals of the scariest "bogeymen" to grace, so to speak, the silver screen.

It will literally be the stuff of nightmares for many a viewer, but oddly enough and despite the performance, related jump scenes and supernatural aura, few if any of the scares stuck with me for long after the end credits started to roll. That's always been my litmus test of what makes a brilliant horror flick -- scenes that unsettle you so much that you must have the lights on at home after seeing it, and just thinking about them raises the goose bumps. Neither occurred for me with this offering, thus keeping it from landing in my "best of" list.

However, the young characters and the performances by those who inhabit them more than make up for any sort of long term, creep-out effect shortcomings. While a few of the kid characters don't get as much depth as their counterparts (notably Wyatt Oleff as a rabbi's son, Finn Wolfhard as the motor mouth of the bunch, Jack Dylan Grazer as the small hypochondriac kid, and Chosen Jacobs as an orphaned kid) and the bully characters (led by Nicholas Hamilton and Owen Teague) aren't much more than two-dimensional, several of the leads create personas that will stick with you long after the scares have faded into obscurity.

Most notable to me is Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the lone girl in the group who could pass as a young Molly Ringwald from the same era (there's even a funny joke about just that in the dialogue). Like the others, she has her tormentors, both at school and, more disturbingly, at home. She shows plenty of spunk, but you can sense and feel her various wounds.

Next up is Jaeden Lieberher as our protagonist, a 13-year-old with a stutter whose younger brother is the first to fall prey to the spooky clown in the storm sewer, although only we know that. To everyone else, it's just another missing kid in the town that's filled with such disappearances, and young Bill sets out to find his sibling even if the odds are long and the chance for supernatural encounters is high.

Jeremy Ray Taylor rounds out the superb performances as Ben, the new kid at school who, thanks to that and being a bit chubby, has no friends and must face the wrath of the bullies. Not only does he bring believable pathos to the character, but he also delivers some comic relief, as does the film overall.

But the pic is really about the scares and it delivers enough of them -- sometimes imaginatively so -- that fans of being startled, spooked and genuinely frightened will have plenty of material from which to choose. For yours truly, however, and befitting my belief that King's best work comes sans traditional horror, it's the kids, their friendship, the literal and figurative realization of their fears and the continuing loss of innocence as they transition that makes the film worth seeing. A nice balance of humanity and spooky stuff, "It" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed September 5, 2017 / Posted September 8, 2017


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