Supernatural coming-of-age stories, particularly those set in the ’80s, have become so entrenched in popular culture that it’s easy to forget where they came from. Stephen King’s sprawling 1986 novel “It” is a good place to start: In small-town Maine, a murderous shapeshifting clown faces down a group of adolescents who return as adults to finish the job years later. For decades, “It” has been the paradigm for stories about geeky kids who face terrifying threats and become grown-ups in the process. Its impact on the horror landscape is incalculable, reverberating in contemporary genre successes ranging from “The Babadook” to “Stranger Things.”
All of which makes a 2017 feature-length version into a tricky proposition. Setting aside that King’s novel already received one lengthy adaptation as a TV miniseries in 1990 with Tim Curry in the iconic role of Pennywise the clown, “It” must push beyond the familiarity of its tale to make the appeal new again. Director Andrés Muschietti pulls off that task by being slavishly committed to the source material and the resulting two-and-a-half hour horror-adventure saga winds up a serviceable adaptation and nothing more.
That’s not to say horror junkies won’t get their fix: littered with beautiful imagery, absorbing soundscapes, and adorable pre-teens facing unspeakable terror, “It” is Stephen King crack. The iconic plight of “The Losers Club,” the self-titled group of outcasts who realize the Pennywise has quietly murdered locals and preyed on their fears for decades while keeping most adults under its spell, unfolds much as the novel — even as it simplifies its appeal with jump scares.
Creepiness comes hard and fast: Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, alternately snarling and cooing in a variation of Curry’s take on the role) pops up in a shadowy sewer entrance to mutilate and kill young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) in a rainstorm. The mysterious event leaves his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) reeling from guilt a year later, catapulting him on a journey for answers with his posse in tow. Bill, who copes with a stutter, and neighborhood bully Henry (Nicholas Hamilton, a crude caricature), hang out with neurotic bar mitzvah kid Stan (Wyatt Oleff), pampered Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and foul-mouthed Richie (“Stranger Things” star Finn Wolfhard, ostensibly playing a variation on that show’s same scrawny whippersnapper). There’s also Mike (Chosen Jacobs), another target of bullying who may be a victim of racism, though the film never acknowledges as much.
Eventually, the group adopts new resident Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a portly introvert who mainly serves the purpose of explaining how their sleepy suburbia is assailed by a monstrous clown that feeds on fear every 27 years for millennia. Complicated by the boys’ nascent testosterone, they are astonished to find the attractive Beverly (Sophia Lillis) forcing her way into the club. Rejected by the girls in her school due to cruel rumors about promiscuity, and coping with an abusive alcoholic father at home, she’s more at home with the Losers Club than anywhere else. While still somewhat objectified in the larger context of the film’s story — gags about the boys ogling her body and complimenting her hair are never too far away — the screenplay doesn’t go overboard, thankfully doing away with the book’s notorious underage orgy scene.
Still, Beverly winds up being one of several ways in which “It” maintains an antiquated vibe. With the setting upgraded from the ’50s to the ’80s, with “Gremlins” posters adorning bedroom walls and New Kids on the Block references bleeding into the soundtrack, “It” doesn’t just take place in the confines of a novel written during King’s peak creative output; it may as well have been made then.
While the effects stand out as markedly contemporary — Pennywise emerging, larger-than-life, from a projector and the astonishing visual of floating bodies that fill his underground lair chief among them — the most effective, unnerving aspects of the movie require no 21st century polish. Each member of the Losers Club encounters Pennywise in a different form corresponding to their individual fears, from Beverly’s “Carrie”-like encounter with blood bursting from a sinkhole to the gooey leper that chases Eddie through a yard, and these encounters stand out as masterstrokes of cinematic shock effects. Above all, the greatest effect of “It” involves Pennywise himself, with Skarsgård taunting and wiggling his eyebrows whenever the occasion calls for it. He’s less character than spooky gimmick, but a chilling one nonetheless.
Ultimately, “It” manages just as much depth as its monster. For much of King’s novel, Pennywise menaces because his threat is abstract; some locals imply that his existence defies tangible explanation. That primal horror opens all kinds of thematic angles around the anxieties of youth and the fears of mortality, but “It” only nods to these ideas. The movie displays more interest in using them as a gateway to catapult from one jump scare to the next.
Things pop up from the shadows right on cue. The clown cackles aplenty, mashes his awful teeth, and wiggles his eyebrows. As the kids discuss It’s legacy, ominous music sets in to underscore their tales. Repeat. Though gorgeously shot by Chung-hoon Chung, no amount of stunning visuals can rescue “It” from the thud of familiarity.
It’s hard not to imagine what director Cary Fukunaga might have done with the material. (He left the project over creative differences, but retains a screenwriting credit.) His first season of “True Detective” showed a capacity for implying deep-seated terror around unknown possibilities; that would serve “It” far better than the maximalist approach and blunt dialogue that dominates Muschietti’s treatment.
Then again, a killer clown from outer space isn’t the most subtle metaphor for childhood fears coming to life. Pennywise’s iconic line — “We all float down here, you’ll float too” — becomes a kind of rallying cry, the creature’s means of celebrating its capacity to defy the natural order of things and force its victims to accept the chaos of their lives. At times, the movie excels at portraying the dread of children forced to confront a world indifferent to their concerns. But no matter how many times Pennywise leaps out from unexpected places, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that we’ve been here many times before.
“It” opens nationwide on September 8.