Fear. The only way to conquer "it" is to face "it." That's the crux of Stephen King's best-selling horror tome "It," and its screen adaptations, first a two-part 1990 ABC miniseries and now Andy Muschietti's cinematic "Chapter 1," with "Chapter 2" in development.
The movie is the story of seven preteens experiencing severe growing pains in Derry, Maine, a vision of small-town America (ironically outsourced here to Toronto), where a quaint, picturesque Main Street and seemingly sedate suburbs mask horrors literally and figuratively beneath its surface. For Derry's sewers host a powerful malevolent entity that preys most vigorously on children and most commonly in the form of the ultimate creepy clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). In a prologue, Pennywise dispatches a young boy whose older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher of "Midnight Special") soon becomes de facto leader to the bullied misfits of "The Losers Club."
Muschietti's film makes palpable King's theme of the worst horrors arguably being the ones perpetrated by humans on each other: a sexually abusive father here; a psychopathic, switchblade-wielding bully not above carving flesh there. "It" locates as much primal fear in these literal-minded subplots as in the kids' nightmare encounters with Pennywise. Aided by a bulbous forehead and untamed smile, Skarsgard effectively unsettles, sharing with predecessor Tim Curry an un-American otherness (Curry was born in England, Skarsgard in Sweden). It's not all bad: friendship and love make the evil bearable and beatable, with a sweetly aching adolescent love triangle adding its own excitement.
The new film sensibly bumps forward the setting from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, in anticipation of a contemporary "Chapter 2" to follow (audiences would do well to remember that, while "Chapter 1" tells a story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, it's also only half of King's narrative and thematic plan). The update still benefits from nostalgia: the cinematography's soft '80s look and a throwback approach to the horror (including makeup effects by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.) evokes the films of that period, including the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series (name-checked by Muschietti) and "Stand By Me," the 1986 King adaptation that traded in its own '50s nostalgia. Inevitably, this "It" also rhymes with Netflix's King-inspired, '80s-set "Stranger Things," in part due to the casting of that show's Finn Wolfhard as horny wisecracker Richie.
In adapting roughly half of the 1,100-page source material, screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have a lot to cram into what's become a 135-minute film. Although Muschietti's film isn't entirely beat-for-beat faithful to the source (King's nutty post-climax gets necessarily excised), it adheres closely enough to please most King fans, especially those who have hungered for the profane and graphically violent R-rated version the miniseries couldn't provide. If some of the dramatics are corny and some of the horrors diluted by decades of market saturation, strong performances and production carry the day. This pop-culture psychodrama still works, and linked up to its pending sequel should add up to a bit more than the sum of its parts.