Let’s get this out of the way first: “It” is terrifying. Based on Stephen King’s 1986 epic horror opus, the newest film from director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) is, at the very least, unnerving and foreboding, and at most, terrifying nightmare fuel for the entirety of its runtime. But as with its source material, the best part of “It” isn’t how the image of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, “Atomic Blonde”) in all his seeming omniscience will haunt your dreams for weeks after the credits have rolled or the last page has been turned. It’s how brilliantly King, and now Muschietti, weaves in an incredibly affecting coming-of-age story about growing up and facing your fears. “It” will make you jump out of your seat, there’s no doubt about it, but in between screaming you’ll likely find yourself laughing, thinking and tearing up, too.
“It” tells the story of the Losers, a group of adolescent misfits living in Derry, Maine, where a string of disappearances have left Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher, “The Book of Henry”) with a missing brother and the rest of the underage population of the town scared witless of going missing themselves. After separate encounters with a creature that takes the form of their worst fears, the Losers band together to destroy the monster once and all.
The scares in “It” work well for a number of reasons. While there are the requisite jump scares that go nowhere — the sudden crackle of a radio, the sudden appearance of a benign character, etc. — most of the scares are based on a build-up of atmosphere that only explodes into action after the tension has become nearly unbearable. Similar to James Wan in his excellent “The Conjuring” series, Muschietti builds entire sequences around the frights. As a result, “It” features some of the most memorable scares in recent memory. Without giving too much away, the projector sequence teased in the trailer, already an impressive scene edited down, is somehow scarier in context.
Of course, with a character like Pennywise — the form assumed most often by the entity known as It — terror comes with the territory. At first, he doesn’t seem to be all that threatening. Clown make-up and generally off-putting character design aside, he’s more creepy than outright frightening. As the movie continues and the mythology around It deepens, Skarsgård likewise adds to the fear surrounding the character. His performance is defined by his physicality; his movements are a bit too jerky and otherworldly and his speech patterns are equally unnatural. Unlike Tim Curry in the classic TV miniseries, Skarsgård doesn’t seem to be playing a clown. He’s leaning closer to the source material and playing something trying to convince others it’s a clown. Think Vincent D’Onofrio’s Edgar the Bug from “Men in Black” crossed with Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”
Skarsgård isn’t the only actor to turn in a fantastic performance, as the entire Losers Club serves as one of the best ensembles of the year. Remember, “It” is also a coming-of-age tale, as the Losers’ battle with Pennywise forces them to confront their childhood fears and take on more adult responsibility. The focus on younger performers in such a novel story gives “It” the feel of a classic Spielberg movie, albeit one with child murder and F-bombs in place of wonderment and awe.
“It” also continues in the grand tradition of “Get Out” by being alternately terrifying and honest-to-God hilarious without the horror or the comedy ever taking away from each other. Of the Losers, it’s hard to make an argument that Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”) doesn’t steal the show, as his Richie Tozier gets line after line of solid gold banter with his co-stars, particularly Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie Kaspbrak (“Scales: Mermaids are Real”). By weaving a sturdy horror tale with the oft-neglected basic elements of compelling storytelling, “It” becomes something special, a film that is thoroughly enjoyable on every level in a way that few films — much less horror films — manage to be.