Because some people apparently find clowns terrifying, Pennywise once again lurks in the sewers of Derry, a fictional Maine town that recurs across Stephen King’s stories. The balloon-toting brute is blessed with a makeover in the latest “It” adaptation, which opens in theaters Friday. Instead of the brightly colored carnival stooge brought to life by Tim Curry in the 1990 television miniseries, this Pennywise is more like a drab Elizabethan court jester. He accessorizes with scarlet pompoms, a ruff, and paint that stretches his sinister smile across his face in vertical red lines ― an instant style icon.
The boogieman lives, luring kids into gutters and adding to his shrine of floating corpses. Clown phobics, beware: Pennywise, played by a whispering, stony-eyed Bill Skarsgård, is haunting. The movie that surrounds him, however, is not.
Totaling more than 1,000 pages, King’s novel can’t be easy to adapt. Do you include the orgy or not? (Here, the answer is not.) This “It,” directed by “Mama” maestro Andy Muschietti and set in 1989, nixes almost everything but the kids. Their flawed parents are rendered bit players, and the book’s framing device ― in which the protagonists return to Derry as adults years later ― has been reserved for the sequel. The show belongs to the self-proclaimed “Losers Club,” seven outcasts who band together to fight Pennywise, a manifestation of their fears. Punk-twink bullies and abusive fathers to the back of the bus, please.
The movie’s young actors ― including rising star Jaeden Lieberher and “Stranger Things” standout Finn Wolfhard ― are well cast. In fact, “It” works better as a comedy about middle schoolers on summer break than it does a horror film about a shape-shifting clown haunting a cursed suburb. The kids’ foul-mouthed crosstalk, laced with expletives and innuendoes, is a refreshing thing to see in a studio movie. Most adolescent characters are watered down to achieve a family-friendly rating, but “It” lays into its preteens’ penchant for frivolous swear words and dirty puns. It’s “Stand by Me” on steroids.
Alas, what terror does exist can’t sustain tension, especially with a bloated 135-minute runtime. Every member of the Losers Club encounters Pennywise individually, resulting in a repetitive circularity suffused with jump scares that don’t prompt many jumps and a supernatural dread that isn’t dreadful enough. By the final half hour, as the septet ventured down a well and into Pennywise’s den, I was longing for “It” to end.
It’s too bad ― Muschietti knows how to frame a scene, and production designer Claude Paré marries bright and dark aesthetics to create unsettling juxtapositions. Desaturated hues make Pennywise’s crimson balloons glisten. In the opening moments, little Georgie looks like a pastel banana, chasing his paper boat through the rain in a yellow slicker; it’s fantastic imagery. But despite the wicked clown’s fangs, this story has no bite. The source material’s rich subtext about battling demons lacks the resonance it deserves. The results read like fleeting vignettes inching toward a clamorous climax that seems plucked from an action movie. Been there, done that. Where’s the ingenuity?
Pennywise has a mantra to lure victims: “When you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too.” For our heroes, those are fighting words. But in the end, “It” mostly sinks.
“It” opens in wide release Sept. 8.