This latest Stephen King adaptation is a pretty scary movie for real. Too bad that it sticks around so long (two hours and 15 minutes) that the shocks in its second half are inevitably diluted. But let us not gripe (too much): this is a horror movie that grabs you right out of the gate. By the throat.
You may recall that Pennywise, the demon clown of King's doorstop novel, was previously played, in a 1990 TV version, by Tim Curry. But Curry's prancing, shticky performance seems ridiculous in retrospect. The role now belongs entirely to Bill Skarsgård, whose horrid smirk and sudden eruptions of malevolence (and R-rated violence) in this film are fearsome to behold. Skarsgård (son of Stellan, brother of Alexander) brings this evil clown to full, hell-dwelling life. Although we ultimately see too much of him, we might be happy to see more after a restorative interval. (And we'll get that chance: this movie focuses only on the first half of King's sprawling book; part two is already being concocted.)
But Pennywise isn't the only monster running loose in this picture, which is a little more than just another fright flick. The story, set in the fictitious town of Derry, Maine, concerns a group of young, self-dubbed Losers who are deep in the tribulations of adolescence. Along with yearnings for romance and sex, they're also tormented by school bullies and by their own embarrassing personal shortcomings (one of them is overweight, another's a coward, another a stutterer, and so forth). Then Pennywise suddenly shows up, edging into a shaft of light down in the otherwise pitch darkness of a storm drain and—in one of the movie's most jolting scenes—chatting up a little boy who's peering in from the street. That's the last we see of that kid (for a while, anyway), and soon other children start to go missing, too. The Losers discover that identical spates of kid-vanishing have been a longtime feature of life in Derry, coming along every 27 years. None of the town's grownups seem inclined to do anything about this, so it's left up to these kids to deal.
Pennywise creates as much havoc around town as you'd hope, his depredations heralded by the appearance of a spooky red balloon. There he is leaping out of a casket in an old dark house! Here he comes bursting out of the screen during a basement slide show! He also has other forms of manifestation, none of them quite as jazzy as his creepy self: there's a headless boy, an icky leper—standard boo stuff. But one of the movie's big scenes has a more-imaginative resonance. It involves the only female Loser, a girl named Beverly (possible breakout star Sophia Lillis), whom we see coming home clutching what is apparently her first box of tampons, sidestepping her leering pervert dad (Stephen Bogaert), and slipping into the bathroom – where a geyser of blood suddenly erupts out of the sink. (It's a scene that unblushingly recalls the original Carrie, much in the way that other aspects of the movie bring to mind Don't Look Now, Alien, and John Carpenter's The Thing.)
The key actors here, all hovering around the age of 15, are uniformly good, and director Andy Muschietti, whose last film was the shivery Mama, handles them with rare assurance. The sweet, sunshiny Lillis is especially adroit in portraying a girl who's just working up the determination to escape her hellacious home life. It's a fresh and charming performance, and Lillis is clearly here to stay. Similarly, the movie itself, unlike so many of the dud films on offer this year, probably won't be disappearing from the multiplex anytime soon. It could become a small classic.