"IT" — 2½ stars — Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jack Dylan Grazer; R (violence/horror, bloody images and for language); in general release
About 30-45 minutes into the film, you realize that, while entertaining, "It" isn't a very scary movie. It's creepy, yes. It's also disturbing — in the opening scene, a fanged clown monster bites off a kid's arm. But it isn't suspenseful.
In a lot of ways, "It" is a PG-13 horror film hiding in R-rated clothing. Based on the Stephen King novel — which was already turned into a popular TV miniseries back in 1990 — "It" tells the story of a supernatural demon-creature that terrorizes the children of a small town in Maine in the late 1980s.
Most of the time the demon, which responds to the individual fears each child hides, shows up as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, here played by Bill Skarsgård. But this particular evil also takes other forms, like a leprous homeless man or a haunting flute player that looks like it was designed by Edvard Munch.
The funny thing is, Derry, Maine, is already a horrifying place for the band of adolescent outcasts at the heart of the film. When they aren't being bullied by a Trans Am driving psychopath-in-training named Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), they're at the whim of a murderer's row of hateful adults. All the adults in "It" are villains, from the grumpy librarian to the child abusing single father played by Stephen Bogaert.
Maybe it's their acclimation to their everyday horrors that allows 13-year-old Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his oddball friends to band together against the clown, which appears to reside in the town's sewer system. Bill already has a history with Pennywise — his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) was the one who got attacked at the beginning of the film — but his companions are also being stalked.
Mike (Chosen Jacobs) works with his father, who chides him because Mike is hesitant to kill sheep with a bolt gun. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) moved to Derry months ago but is still regarded as the new kid, which makes his affection for New Kids on the Block all the more endearing. Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is the local rabbi's son, stressfully preparing for his bar mitzvah, and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) has a particularly notorious helicopter mom and an extensive medication lineup. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is struggling the most out of any in the group, fighting a bad reputation for sexual liberality at school, which is ironic since in reality she's the victim of an abusive relationship at home.
We don't know much about Richie (Finn Wolfhard), but many audiences will recognize him from "Stranger Things," the popular Netflix series also set in the 1980s. "It" feels very much like an R-rated version of "Stranger Things," mixed with Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me," which was also based on a King story.
Without having read the source material, it's hard to say how diehard King fans will respond to this interpretation of the 1986 novel. It certainly looks good, and "It" does its best to uphold any cultural fear of creepy clowns. The film also has plenty of moments that will tie its older audience into feelings of nostalgia for the 1980s. But it also feels like the younger audience that would be ideal for "It" will be alienated by its more adult content, which often feels forced.
The story also feels a little too slow and stretched too thin across an ensemble cast that keeps us from really getting behind any of the myriad protagonists. In "Stand By Me," King built his story around four kids (with a focus on two), but here we have seven.
A good horror movie can get away with lazy characterization if it delivers on the scares, but "It" really doesn't. Most of the time, director Andy Muschietti telegraphs his passes, settling for content that looks scary more than it is scary.
The final result feels like a tribute to all those "Goonies"-style movies from the '80s that will resonate for everyone in the loop, but fail to mark out any iconic moments of its own.
"It" is rated R for violence/horror, bloody images and for language; running time: 135 minutes.