Setting out its stall within minutes, the child-centric first chapter of It quickly proves unafraid of inflicting gore on innocent kids and boasts a freaking terrifying Pennywise thanks to Bill Skarsgård, whose swift arrival on screen defies typical convention of building up to reveal a horrific entity. Debates will rage about whether he’ll prove as iconic as Tim Curry, whose pancake makeup was all the more effective for its banality in 1990’s otherwise sub-par mini-series, but Skarsgård’s malevolence and awkward physicality are captivatingly chilling whenever he’s onscreen – and even when his presence is merely anticipated.
Saving the adult adventures of The Losers Club for another day, this first chapter whips through the source material as a pacey ensemble horror. The film may not have the luxury of letting all of its elements breathe as much as they could, but never feels burdened in juggling its pre-teen protagonists’ smalltown summertime coming-of-age alongside their cat-and-mice struggle against a powerful adversary.
Horror iconography like wolf- and gill-men has been jettisoned in shifting the period setting from the 50s to the 80s, but the scare power of a dead little brother grinning about floating in the sewer or a molested girl’s bathroom sink geysering blood in menstrual metaphor remain undiminished in their effect. As does the pleasure in seeing kids being kids – swearing, boasting, stammering, and wide-eyed gawking their way through their last days of childhood.
Director Andy Muschietti has a great handle on what makes his kids tick on screen, and thankfully resists the impulse to indulge retro Stranger Things tendencies despite the odd glaring pop culture reference. His scares feel contemporary but Muschietti defies dating them through modern conventions, his added set piece scares seamlessly woven into the DNA of King’s tale.
The strength of the film lies in its kids – a tough challenge for an adult-focused sequel that’s also going to be robbed of surprise factor by ditching the novel’s leaps back and forth between time periods. Still, let the filmmakers worry about that while letting this superior horror do It’s stuff.