For a while there, It floats along nicely. Adapted from Stephen King‘s famously elephantine blockbuster, which pits a group of awkward Maine teens against a shape-shifting monster, the first stretch of this town-and-clown horror thriller makes for appropriately goony fun. That’s partly because, for viewers of a certain age (ahem), It functions as an effective big-screen time machine: Unlike King’s book—which was adapted in the early 1990s as a hokey, if sincere, TV miniseries—this big-screen version takes place in the summer of 1989, a period of ample pop pleasures (Lethal Weapon 2, New Kids on the Block) and zero bike-helmet laws. It captures the low-key latchkey existence of the Reagan-Bush summers so accurately you can almost smell the Big League Chew in the air.
But the kiddos in It don’t have much time to enjoy their adolescent freedom, as they’re facing a very grown-up terror in Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a balloon-toting clown with a malleable maw featuring rows of quill-like sharp teeth and a wild (and wildly receding) hairline that even Nicolas Cage would deem a bit much. Pennywise’s introduction is one of the most nightmare-fostering moments of King’s career, and director Andy Muschietti (Mama) retains its heartbreaking brutality: One rain-soaked afternoon, a young boy named Georgie watches as his paper boat is sent down a drain. He’s subsequently charmed, chomped, and abducted by Pennywise, in a literally cold open that, by modern-horror measures, is remarkably restrained while still psyche-scarring.
Georgie’s disappearance consumes his older brother, Bill (Midnight Special‘s Jaeden Lieberher), who turns to his friends for help—only to learn they’ve all been experiencing their own private terrors, whether it be in the form of a skin-littering leper, a high-speed headless corpse, or a twisted painting come to life. Muschietti stages these scenes with a patient, take-it-all-in visual sense, as well as a keen grasp of nightmare logic (in one of the kid’s visions, Pennywise twists on a meathook in the dark distance, his eyes glowing menacingly). They could run to their folks, but, rather conveniently, the adults of It are mostly total creeps, none of whom seem to care much about the alarming number of children vanishing from their town. Maybe that’s just sloppy storytelling. Or maybe that bard named Will was right: Parents just don’t understand.
There’s plenty of theorizing in It about the nature of Pennywise—and the nature of evil—but no definitive answers.
The thrills of It lie in these early, almost flirting terrors, which unite both the kids (who dub themselves the Losers’ Club) and the audience in the terrifying possibility of what greater horrors await. It helps, of course, that we root for these Losers, a collection of spazzes, nerds, and outcasts who are subjected to every teen trauma imaginable, from knife-wielding bullies to signature-free yearbook pages. The film’s most touching moment is also its nastiest: After the group’s lone teen girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), is doused with gallons upon gallons of sink-borne blood—a Carrie-echoing gross-out moment with little metaphorical wiggle room—the rest of the kids show up to help her mop up the mess. It makes for an admirably on-the-nose ’80s-movie montage, complete with a Cure song in the background.
Yet once the Losers decide to challenge Pennywise on his own turf—confronting him in a haunted house and, later, a debris-strewn underground lair—It begins to deflate. As soon as the kids begin to scatter, you realize there’s simply too many of them to keep track of, much less care about—so much so, you almost wish the filmmakers had been heartless enough to thin out their ranks a bit (the cowriting credits for It include True Detective and Beasts of No Nation director Cary Fukunaga, who left the production during development). And the breezy-ish kids-on-the-loose vibe, while fun at first, soon becomes an excuse for repetitive dick jokes and way too many “holy shit!” punchlines. Was such behavior typical for teen boys in the late ’80s? Yep. Is it a letdown when a character like Richie (played by Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard) begins It as “kid who curses” and ends as “kid who curses a lot“? Holy crap, yes.
It‘s biggest unsolved problem, though, may be its lone marquee name—Pennywise the Clown, who, save for one fun midfilm sequence, just barely retains the creepiness of that initial rain-soaked intro. Instead, Muschietti relies on now-tiring shock-schlock tropes (lullaby-like kids’ music; swift, zig-zagging runs straight toward the camera) that turn Pennywise into just another movie monster, one who’s ultimately unknowable. There’s plenty of theorizing in It about the nature of Pennywise—and the nature of evil—but no definitive answers. That’s highlighted by the film’s final 15 minutes, which consist of a rapidly edited (yet still utterly rhythmless) CGI showdown in which Pennywise shifts from monster to monster, sometimes for just seconds at a time. It’s a shell-game distraction, one that mistakes evasiveness for ambiguity. And it once again unites the kids and the audience, albeit this time in confusion: Just who is this clown, exactly? Maybe we’re supposed to wait for the sequel to find out, but I prefer my ’80s monsters to have some greater sense of purpose. Then again, as kids used to say back in those days, maybe that’s just my prerogative.