New Line Cinema is of course, “The House that Freddy Built.” But you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s also the House That’s Rebuilding Pennywise, as It, or It: Chapter One, bears a lot of the hallmarks normally associated with A Nightmare on Elm Street (hell, the film even features a passing shot of a marquee for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child at the town cinema).
Like Nightmare, It has got a bunch of kids banding together to thwart a subterranean boogeyman (who they try and convince themselves is not real, and that their fear is illusory), pharmaceutical-popping, eerie streetscapes, a slew of ineffectual parental figures, heavy Freudian subtext, coming-of-age sexuality, a creepy backstory, and most obviously, a bunch of missing (and presumed murdered) children.
Those are the pluses.
But much like the Nightmare series began to (over) rely on Freddy, icky clown Pennywise begins to overstay his welcome, unfortunately, after an amazing opener where we’re introduced to The Dancing Clown crouching in a storm drain (with an unconscionable running time well-over 2 hours, even a terrific Bill Skarsgard performance wears thin).
Still, It’s small-town high-school backdrop rings true, and director Andrés Muschietti adroitly develops a real sense of place. The town of Derry, situated in Stephen King-land — Maine — is as much a star of the movie as its cast, a hilly New England burg with quaint shops and back-alleys aplenty.
But of course, it’s the kids who carry the day.
They’re awfully sweet, especially portly bookworm and lead detective of the Losers’ Club, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) whose unrequited love for the school’s new kid, Bev (Sophia Lillis), is especially touching. Ben’s a bibliophile whose love-of-library even out-nerds his outcast friends; he has a copy of the town charter up in his bedroom. Then there’s foul-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things), and several others to round out the bullied Losers’ Club, whose battle against their school’s goons, is just as compelling as their tilt with the evil Pennywise (Anthrax’s cover of Trust’s “Antisocial” provides the soundtrack for a really inspired rock-flinging fight between bullies / bullied).
It: Chapter One bolts out of the gate with gusto and passion. It’s also a helluva lot funnier than expected (look out for “gray water” and “gazebo” lines. No spoilers here). However, It gasses toward the latter third.
Still, there is just enough gore to satisfy gore-hounds, and plenty of visual kicks and backstory to make up for the profusion of jump scares.
*** (out of 5)
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