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‘It’ works because of the characters at the center of the story

Bill Skarsgård stars as Pennywise in “It.”
Bill Skarsgård stars as Pennywise in “It.”

A whole generation was saddled with a clown phobia thanks to the 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s “It,” starring Tim Curry as the creepy killer clown, Pennywise. The “It” miniseries was more goofy than terrifying, and the jacked-up, R-rated film version, directed by Andy Muschietti, hits movie screens just in time for a new generation to develop a healthy fear of murderous men in white face paint.

The “It” miniseries was engrossing for its honest depiction of adults demolishing their childhood fears. The childhood that King depicts isn’t one of innocence, but of violence, abuse, brutality and neglect. The new “It” latches onto that theme and focuses entirely on the kids’ story, which takes place during the summer of 1989.

Muschietti has cast a wonderful group of teens to play the pubescent warriors who face off against Pennywise, including Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff. The lone girl of the group, Beverly, is played by Sophia Lillis.

Bill Skarsgård steps into the oversized shoes of Pennywise, and he nails it. Skarsgård has Pennywise’s line delivery down pat, the combination of cajoling and creepy enhanced with large, glowing eyes boring into your soul. It’s such a great performance that you wish Muschietti had eased up on the CGI and just let Skarsgård do the talking.

That tendency is an indication of the issues with “It.” The scares come fast, furious and digitally enhanced, when they could have been more effective paced out, slowly building with the surreal imagery that follows Pennywise everywhere he goes.

Another issue is that the camera leers at Bev’s youthful body, presenting her as a sexual object to be gawked at, which doesn’t sit well when she’s also a victim of implied sexual abuse by her father.

Ultimately, “It” works not because of its supernatural scares (though there are some good jumps), but because of the characters at the center of this tale. The R-rating allows for the kind of potty-mouthed humor endemic to teenage boys, and “It” is laugh-out-loud funny, often more than it’s terrifying.

This is a monster that can’t be contained by rules or logic, and that’s frustrating. Fears and phobias aren’t always tangible, but Pennywise makes it so. If only the film had slowed down to give more room to the character most likely to imprint himself on the amygdala of a generation.

Movie review

‘It’

Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language. 2:15. AMC Classic, Fayette, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Paris drive-in, Richmond, Winchester.

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