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Stephen King’s classic brought to life, again, is great

The Losers’ Club in ‘IT’

Stephen King will never be back in fashion because he never seems to leave it.

I grew up on Uncle Stevie. “Salem’s Lot.” The horrific anthological joys of “Night Shift” and “Skeleton Crew.” Rereading “The Stand” while listening to The Police’s dystopian masterpiece “Ghost in the Machine” on a macabre loop—as perfect a pairing as bread and butter.

King built a narrative Kingdom long before a Marvelverse, entwining locations, heroes, monsters, and villains across a gruesome and fantastical bibliography, rabidly adapted into films and television.

At fifteen years old I loved him, and burned through all 1,139 pages of “IT” in three days.

The quiet town of Derry, Maine has a problem. Children keep disappearing at wildly high rates every 27 years.

In 1989, a teen-aged Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), sick in bed, helps craft a paper boat for his easily amused little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), to float down the street during a rainstorm. Georgie loses the boat in a drain, where he meets Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) an evil, sewer-dwelling clown with a taste for kid meat.

Georgie’s disappearance devastates Bill, but the town seems fairly blasé about it. So with a band of his shit-talking, misfit friends who dub themselves “The Losers’ Club,” Bill endeavors to find Georgie—and thus falls down the rabbit hole of Derry’s darkest secret.

One of the reasons “IT” works as well as it does is because it maintains the book’s sense of permeating dread. Like a smog over the town, the horrific events of the present are informed by snippets from the past. Half-remembered events, told like a ghost story, become ominous clues that deepen the discomfort.

One of my favorite chapters of King’s “Salem’s Lot” was about the history of the derelict, long-abandoned Marsten house, where the vampire of the story makes his lair. Built by a rich forefather of the town, who happened to be a serial killer, it was a “lighthouse” for evil, built by an evil man. A later short story, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” reveals that land itself was always despoiled by an otherworldly malevolence. Those layers haunt the imagination.

“IT” has the same effect. Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray), the overweight kid—thus a “Losers’ Club” natural—begins his summer break in the library, looking up the town’s history. Discerning its 27-year cycle of death, he comes across a story from Derry’s beginning: missing kids, bloody trails of clothes all leading to the original town well. A well The Losers deduce is located where the derelict, long-abandoned, creepy-as-fuck house on Neibolt Street stands. It’s the Marsten house again.

Faithful to King’s tropes, “IT” creates the same tension on screen as on the page. Pennywise was always there because Derry was always corrupt, perhaps because the people who lived there were, too. But not knowing fully why makes the whole prospect even creepier.

The other reason “IT” works so well is the Losers’ Club, each of them realized by a cast full of standouts. Charismatic and funny—between the horrific events these kids fling hilarious amounts of shit at each other—it’s hard to pick a favorite performance, though Finn Wolfhard (of “Stranger Things” fame) as the smart-assed shade thrower, Richie Tozier, is a hoot.

Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, the tomboy, delivers on gravitas, her family life being somewhat more dysfunctional than the boys’. Chosen Jacobs, as Mike Hanlon, and Wyatt Oleff, as Stanley Uris (the black and Jewish kids who inspire Bower’s cruelty almost as much as Ben) round out a brilliant cast of young actors.      

Considering he’s filling Tim Curry’s shoes, I’m also fascinated by Bill Skarsgård’s performance as Pennywise. It is genuinely off-putting; we can feel the depth of his gleefully twisted personality. His excitement for fear and bloodletting is tangible. Skarsgård is excellent, though the jump scares (which are happily few) are the least scary thing about him.

While “IT” was originally to be directed by neo-master Cary Fukunaga (who maintains script credit with Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman), director Andy Muschietti ably steps in, faithfully capturing the tone of King as if he’s always been a fan. At a satisfying 135 minutes, “IT” flies by. The other half the book, when the Losers return as adults, just got a green light. A $123 million dollar opening weekend will do that.

Hither, 2019. 

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