2017-10-05 / Around Town

There’s Just Not Enough to ‘It’

By Loren King

Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise the Clown in the new film version of Stephen King’s “It.” Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise the Clown in the new film version of Stephen King’s “It.” Parents, especially mothers, are conspicuously absent in “It,” adapted from Stephen King’s 1986 novel. Adults still remaining in the picturesque small town of Derry, Maine are brutal or misguided, and certainly ineffective at protecting their kids from things that go bump in the night. Adults are the real monsters in their kids’ universe.

This version of “It” (there was a 1990 miniseries with Tim Curry as the scary clown, Pennywise) shifts the setting from the 1950s to the 1980s and pares down the action to just a fraction of the novel (don’t worry, there’s already a Part Two in the works). "It" piles on the frights from the first few minutes as the drooling, alternately purring and snarling Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) pops up from the mouth of a sewer drain during a rainstorm as little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) tries to recover a paper boat. Georgie’s disappearance devastates his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who copes with a stammer and is a member of the “losers’ club” in the local middle school. The interactions of these oddball kids, who are taunted by local bullies, are the best part of the film, even if the gang of misfits feels cribbed from “Stand by Me” and, more recently, the TV series “Stranger Things.”

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. The group has been cast like a textbook lesson in diversity. Besides Bill, there’s Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), the Jewish kid who’s a disappointment to his Rabbi father; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the hypochondriac with the sole mother in sight, an overweight worrywart who shelters him; potty-mouthed nerd Richie (Finn Wolfhard); and chubby Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid whose purpose seems to be to share his library research on the evil that seems to befall the town every 27 years. The boys soon get a welcome new member, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl, whose ease and vibrancy leaves them rattled and, in the case of Ben and Bill, smitten. Lillis lights up the screen and the relationship among Bev, Bill and Ben is one of the most memorable parts of the film. Eventually, they are joined by Mike (Chosen Jacobs), apparently the only black kid in town. As the kids ride en masse on bikes through the town’s streets, it’s a visual homage to “E.T.”

A year after Georgie’s disappearance and with summer about to start, the group takes note of how many other children in Derry have gone missing. Each kid has freak-out sightings of Pennywise in various forms. The evil clown feeds on fears and shape-shifts into whatever makes the kids tremble. For Eddie, it’s a leper. For Beverly, it’s blood erupting from the bathroom sink that rivals the bloodbath in “Carrie.” In Bill’s case, Pennywise torments him with brief visions of Georgie in his yellow slicker. The screams and jumps come fast and furious, and it’s all handled with visual aplomb by director Andy Muschietti.

In one inventive scene, the kids are doing investigative work and come across old slides that they project onto the garage wall. Pennywise emerges, first in a celluloid blur and then in the flesh. It’s a well-done moment but, like all modern horror movies, the adage “less is more” is anathema. The film piles it on, culminating in an interminable battle in the demon’s lair.

There’s nothing really new or unexpected. The gooey, suggestive portals recall “Aliens,” while the forbidding haunted house and preying on children with seemingly benign balloons are familiar tropes. King’s novel, written in the mid-80s, could easily be read as an AIDS allegory, as something sinister preys on the vulnerable until a band of social pariahs rises up to fight it. The film offers a scene of blood-bonding that alludes to transmission, but only superficially. There are also themes about adult abdication of responsibility and primal fears about mortality. But “It” never dives into these ideas.

King fans will likely be satisfied since the film is faithful enough to the book while teasing out its essential aspects. But “It” doesn’t do enough, visually or thematically, to be truly fearsome.

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