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No laughing matter: Stephen King’s classic ‘It’ is a horror film for a new generation

A whole generation was scarred for life and saddled with a clown phobia thanks to slumber party screenings of the 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s “It,” starring Tim Curry as the creepy killer clown Pennywise. In hindsight, the “It” miniseries is more goofy than terrifying, and the jacked-up, R-rated feature 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.

Despite its dated ’90s quirks, the “It” miniseries is strangely engrossing for its raw and 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, predominantly by eschewing the adult portions, and focusing entirely on the kids’ story, which takes place during the summer of 1989.

Jaeden Lieberher in a scene from “It.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Muschietti has cast a wonderful group of teens to play the pubescent warriors who face off against Pennywise, including Finn Wolfhard from “Stranger Things,” Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff. The lone girl of the group of “Losers,” Beverly, is played by Sophia Lillis, a plucky combination of Molly Ringwald and Mia Farrow.

Who steps into the oversize shoes of Pennywise, one of Curry’s most indelible roles? Bill SkarsgÃ¥rd, a young Swedish actor, one of the seven sons of Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd. And he totally nails it. SkarsgÃ¥rd 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 SkarsgÃ¥rd do the talking.

That tendency is an indication of the issues at hand in “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. Though the story is changed in parts, it is mostly faithful to many of the set pieces of the original miniseries, just with more numbing digital enhancement.

The most disappointing story changes surround the character of Bev. In “It,” the camera leers at her youthful body, presents her as a sexual object to be gawked at by young boys and grown men alike, which doesn’t sit well when she’s also a victim of implied sexual abuse by her father. It proves to be a star turn for the talented and fiery Lillis, but sadly, her character becomes a damsel in distress needing to be rescued.

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. An R rating allows for the kind of potty-mouthed humor endemic to teenage boys, and “It” is genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny, often more than it’s terrifying, especially thanks to Wolfhard, who plays the loudmouthed Richie, and Grazer as germaphobe neatnik Eddie.

This is a monster that can’t be contained by any 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 a bit to give room to the character most likely to imprint himself on the amygdala of a generation.

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