IT  * * *

Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor and Bill Skarsgard. Screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman. Directed by Andy Muschietti.

Even if, like me, you haven’t read Stephen King’s 1,200 page doorstop and somehow missed the 1990 Tim Curry-starring ABC miniseries which apparently scarred an entire generation that continues to watch way more television than yours truly, you still might find yourself surprised at just how familiar It feels.

This isn’t exactly a slight, just an observation that a text this foundational has been strip-mined all over popular culture during the three decades since its publication and everything from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Super 8 and especially what I could stand to watch of Stranger Things before my eyes rolled back in my head all owe Mr. King some rather lengthy thank you notes. It’s like when they finally made a John Carter movie and it felt like a ripoff of Avatar.

Director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation smartly uses this familiarity to its advantage, leaving the adult half of the story for a sequel to be named later and updating King’s 1950s-set, clown-phobic childhood reverie to the summer of 1989. All the BMX bikes and the sight of Burton’s Batman playing at the town’s twin cinema are geared to push the nostalgia buttons on certain viewers, namely those of us who were the same age as these characters when we first started reading King’s books.

I’m not the first critic to point out that this version of It works better as a coming-of-age story than a horror movie, with these well-cast pubescents obsessively making fart and boner jokes while mystified by the young woman (Sophia Lillis, such a dead ringer for Molly Ringwald the movie even has to admit it) blossoming so perplexingly in their midst. Their battles with Bill Skarsgard’s psychopathic, supernatural clown are a gory literalization of the kids-discovering-adulthood themes the author has returned to time and again, most memorably in Stand By Me.

The movie is scary in a way that’s a lot of fun without ever being truly frightening. Muschietti makes sure to telegraph the jolts with music cues or visual signifiers right beforehand, so it’s more akin to a rollercoaster than a haunted house. A lot of King’s lunatic excesses have been wisely excised (sorry, child-orgy fans) but seven kids is still too many, even for the 135-minute running time. (Also not a good look that the black kid and our Jewish buddy bear the brunt of the cutting.)

Still, this is a really good time at the movies. I loved the deep, rich textures of Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography and young wiseass Finn Wolfhard steals the film almost outright with his perfectly timed, potty-mouthed cracks. At its best It feels like an R-rated version of The Goonies, if The Goonies wasn’t one of the worst movies ever made.

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