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MOVIES: IT - Review

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Centered on an ancient evil terrorizing a small town in rural Maine, Stephen King's 1986 novel IT is a bona fide horror classic, a seminal selection from the author's massive repertoire that has been revered by critics and book lovers for the past three decades. The 1100-page tome previously spawned a television miniseries that condensed the source material to three hours of footage that covered both of the book's timelines, but director Andy Muschietti takes a different approach with his big-screen adaptation, providing audiences only with the first (and some would argue the most engaging) half of the story.

Updating the novel's mid-century setting for the late 1980s, IT begins doling out the scares almost immediately, with young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) meeting a gruesome fate while trying to rescue his paper boat from a storm drain. His unexplained disappearance haunts older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who devises a plan to spend summer break exploring the town's cavernous sewer system in hopes of finding a clue to Georgie's fate. Along for the ride - although somewhat reluctantly - are Bill's closest friends: obnoxious and foul-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stan (Wyatt Oleff), son of the local rabbi.

Their first excursion is cut short when chubby newcomer Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) stumbles into their midst, fleeing in terror from the town bully and his gang, and before long the group's ranks have grown to include Beverly (Sophia Lillis), victim of a series of nefarious rumors about her perceived promiscuity, and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), whose family has elected to home-school him in light of the town's history of racism - one that it hasn't quite outgrown. Despite their status as outcasts and misfits, "The Loser's Club" finds comfort and camaraderie in each other, and the bond they establish feels wonderfully genuine and authentic, save for two members whose characters are noticeably less developed than the others.

While each member of the club has their own fears to contend with - none more horrifying than the lecherous advances by Beverly's father, whose invasive caresses and crooning inquiries of "are you still my girl?" are downright nauseating - a mutual terror haunts them all: Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a sinister Victorian-era clown with yellow eyes, jagged teeth and a fondness for red balloons. The seemingly omnipresent jester delights in tormenting the children, lurking in the dark recesses of the local library or waiting behind the burned-out house on the corner of Neibolt Street, and seems to be linked to the town's long history of unexplained deaths and disappearances. Wisely choosing not to emulate Tim Curry's iconic performance from the TV version, the film instead allows Skarsgård plenty of bandwidth to make the character his own. Nearly every appearance brings something new as he fully embraces both menace and mirth, and the results range from darkly comic to utterly terrifying, with Skarsgård's ghastly, grease-painted visage certain to be among the film's most memorable images.

Although the "R" rating ensures that IT doesn't skimp on the gore, the film nevertheless loses points for including a few too many cheap jump scares in lieu of genuine thrills. This tactic is employed mostly during the film's later sequences, and while it's effective in keeping heartbeats racing, the purist in me would rather have seen more sustained tension leading to a larger payoff, rather than a series of smaller frights arranged in rapid succession. This decision - along with a sudden, unnecessary influx of rapid cuts and "shaky cam" which detracts from the otherwise superb work of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung - robs the climax of some of its impact, leaving it feeling much more like typical mainstream studio fare than the two hours which preceded it.

Minor gripes notwithstanding, IT remains an exceptionally well-made film, and the decision to split the source material and focus solely on the first half of the narrative results in one of the most faithful Stephen King adaptations ever. It's not quite breathing the same rarefied air of Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption, but it's certainly in the upper echelon, and Muschietti perfectly captures the pitch-perfect mix of humor and horror that made the original novel so entertaining and compelling. Whether or not this recipe for success can be replicated in the eventual sequel remains to be seen, but as a standalone affair, IT knocks it out of the park.

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