No joke

“Yep. I totally voted for Trump.”

“Yep. I totally voted for Trump.”

I read It when the novel came out in 1986 and was mostly underwhelmed. Cool premise but sloppy, overlong, out-of-control prose. That sucker needed some ruthless editing.

I was gobbling up Stephen King books at the time—big fan of Christine and Different Seasons—but had experienced a bit of a lull in interest with his lousy Peter Straub collaboration, The Talisman. I felt like King was overextending himself a bit, and the novel It came off as a big mess.

So, I’ll just start off by saying I’m not a huge fan of the source material.

Then, the wimpy TV miniseries happened, complete with John Boy, Jack Tripper, Harry Anderson and a decent Tim Curry as evil clown Pennywise, but also featuring that damned, unintentionally hilarious puppet spider at the end.

The benefit of a movie like Andy Muschietti’s It is that the director and his writers can keep some core themes that worked but switch things up a bit and streamline the narrative to make the story work a bit better 30 years after it was written. In that respect, the new It is a triumph.

While the original miniseries dealt with both the young and older versions of The Loser’s Club, the posse of kids that stand up to evil, the new It stands as Part One, completely dividing the kid and adult stories. There’s also a major time change, with the kids’ story taking place in the late ’80s instead of the ’50s. Thank you, Stranger Things.

The core story remains the same: Children in Derry, Maine have been disappearing for many years, and the film starts with the sad case of Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), a little boy in a yellow rain slicker who follows his paper boat to the sewer drain and makes an unfortunate acquaintance.

That acquaintance is Pennywise, the sewer-dwelling clown, played as a savage beast by Bill Skarsgard. The big difference between Curry’s Pennywise and the new incarnation is that Curry’s Pennywise was almost a normal circus clown until he sprouted monster teeth and took you out. He was into trickery.

Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a shit-assed, makeup-cracking, straight-up scary demon clown with an ability to charm for a short while, but he just kind of sucks royally from the get-go, oozing with evil. If you saw him at a circus, you’d be seriously afraid for the trapeze artists and lions. He even drools a little when addressing Georgie, shortly before tearing his arm off.

It’s in this moment that It declares itself as an R-rated, no-holds-barred King affair rather than the sanitized King that was the TV version.

The kids are great. The standout is Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. At one point, one of the Losers calls her Molly Ringwald. Lillis has that kind of leading-lady-in-a-teen-film commanding screen presence. Jeremy Ray Taylor will break your heart as Ben Hanscom, the chubby kid who has a crush on Bev. Their first meeting is one of the best scenes in the film.

Stranger Things costars Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer provide solid comic relief as Richie and Eddie, while Jaeden Lieberher, excellent in Midnight Special, does a damn fine job with the stutter and leading-man job as Georgie’s big brother Bill Denbrough. As for the bad kids, Nicholas Hamilton is the second scariest entity in the film as bully Henry Bowers. He’s very real. I’m pretty sure I got in a locker room fight sometime in the ’80s with Hamilton’s Bowers.

Muschietti scores some big scares, especially during a slideshow gone very wrong, and a meeting between the Denbrough brothers in the family basement. (“You’ll float, too!”) There’s a true sense that there was never a writing room moment when Muschietti and his team paused and thought, “Say, perhaps that idea would be a bit too unsettling? Maybe it’s a bit much and wrong?”

It: Part Two, with the adults, while not official yet, is a certainty. As for It: Part One, it draws the best elements of King’s inconsistent novel effort and comes out a frightening winner.