Bill Skarsgard plays the murderous clown Pennywise in “IT.” | Warner Bros. Pictures

No doubt about ‘IT’: Stephen King clown puts serious scares on screen

SHARE No doubt about ‘IT’: Stephen King clown puts serious scares on screen
SHARE No doubt about ‘IT’: Stephen King clown puts serious scares on screen

Closing your eyes won’t work.

If you close your eyes during the scariest scenes in “IT,” who knows what your imagination might conjure up — because that’s what “IT” is all about.

To be sure, Pennywise the Clown is among the most bone-chilling and ferocious and frightening characters in modern literature and now modern cinema — but IT, as he is often called, takes on many forms, manifesting itself as your deepest and darkest fears as it literally smells the fear on you, and feeds off of that.

The most frightening scenes in “IT” aren’t when Pennywise is front and center, doing his twisted dance and baring his multiple rows of teeth and saying, “You’ll float too,” i.e., “You will die and become part of my collection of corpses floating in a hellish limbo in the sewers.” (Although that stuff is pretty damn scary.)

What will REALLY put a chill down your spine and raise the hairs on the back of your neck are the moments when an adolescent character is isolated from friends, all alone in the cellar or the bathroom or the alley or a dark office, and something they’ve long feared springs to “life” in a certain fashion, confirming their worst sense of dread and doom.

We see what they see, we feel what they feel and we are terrified because they are terrified.

Some 30 years ago, Stephen King’s masterful and massive horror work “IT” was released to widespread acclaim and huge sales, becoming the bestselling book of 1986 in the United States.

In 1990, the novel was adapted for a solid, two-part TV mini-series on ABC with Tim Curry as Pennywise. Still, the hunger for a big-screen version of “IT” has only grown over the years and decades, and I’m bloody pleased to report director Andy Muschietti’s R-rated interpretation of the source material is a bold, intense, beautifully paced, wickedly hilarious, seriously scary and gorgeously terrifying period-piece work that instantly takes its place among the most impressively twisted horror movies of our time.

Director Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman shift the timeline to the late 1980s and make numerous other changes to King’s source material (as does virtually every adaption of every novel, ever), but they do a masterful job of capturing the terrifically rotten and twisted essence of the story.

We open on a rainy fall day in the sleepy (and almost immediately kind of creepy) town of Derry, Maine.

Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy of about 12 with a stutter, is in bed sick, but his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) pesters Bill into constructing a nifty little paper sailboat. Georgie dashes out of the house and places the sailboat in the curbside stream created by the driving rains, and happily splashes after the boat as it swiftly floats from street to street.

And then the boat slips down a drain, and Georgie leans down to retrieve his boat, and —

Let’s just say before the day is done, we’ve met Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), and when he invites you to come along with him and says, “You’ll float too,” this is not going to be one of your better days.

One of the many pleasures of “IT” is how the filmmakers take their time, introducing us to a half-dozen misfit characters in realistic (sometimes painfully so) settings that allow us to get to know them, to feel true empathy for their situations, and to understand why each would gravitate toward fellow “Losers” (as they call themselves) for support and friendship.

Sophia Lillis is Beverly Marsh, who has an unearned reputation for being the school slut and comes home each night to a monstrous father. Jack Dylan Grazer is the frail Eddie, forever downing his medicine or taking a pull on his inhaler. Wyatt Oleff is Stanley, haunted by a painting in his rabbi father’s study. Chosen Jacobs is Mike, whose parents were killed in a tragic fire. Finn Wolfhard is the wisecracking Richie. Jeremy Ray Taylor is Ben, the overweight new kid in school who has been studying up on the history of tragedies, usually involving children, in Derry.

When a film of this magnitude has so many young characters front and center in the lead roles, so much depends on the casting — and in this case, there’s not a single misstep. Each of these young actors has at least one major moment in the spotlight, and each is unique and likable and real. In fact, the non-horror storylines, the development of the relationships in this film — all of that is so strong, “IT” would have been a compelling movie on those elements alone.

Ah, but we’re all here for Pennywise and the evil it unleashes on this town. We’re all here to root for these kids, many of whom have one or no parents (and most of whom would be better off on their own), as they marshal forces and literally drop themselves into Pennywise’s pit of horror. (The adults in this film are either awful or useless. They’re in a constant state of denial about what’s happening in their town. The kids know they’re on their own. We just go with that.)

Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise shows up only sparingly, and that’s a wise choice. To be sure, it’s a strong performance, and the clown is a worthy successor to all the great scary clowns in movie history — but if Pennywise were to spend too much time on the screen, he’d be too tangible, too much of this world. He’s at his most frightening when he’s in the shadows or on the periphery, holding his balloons and licking his chops and saying, “You’ll float too.”

“IT” comes to a conclusion on just the right series of notes. Chilling, heartbreaking, exciting, sobering. We’re told at the end what we already know: This is but Chapter One of the saga. When we pick up the story, it’ll be more than a quarter-century later, and these wonderful kids will be adults in their 40s.

In the meantime, we have “IT,” which carried me along from the opening frame, rarely missing a beat.

You’ll float too.


Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Andy Muschietti and written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King. Rated R (for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language). Running time: 135 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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