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Stephen King's 'It' keeps the screams coming

Stephen King appeared onscreen before the film at the screening of "It," which was adapted from his huge, bestselling 1986 novel. "One of my favorite and most personal works" he told us. He also said he liked what writer/director Andy Muschietti did with it.

You can see why he calls it "personal." It's the horror film version of "Stand by Me," a nostalgic tale of seven bullied kids who stand up to the evil force that shows up every 27 years to engineer a slew of deaths and people missing - 102 gone over the years, 88 of them children.

In the opening scene, we watch an adorable little boy in a yellow rain slicker chase a paper boat down the street in a soaking rain storm until it flows into a sewer grate. There, up from the sewer, we see the evil force --a grinning monster dressed as a clown who calls himself Pennywise. The scene ends with Pennywise biting off the boy's right arm up to the elbow and dragging him down into the sewer for God-knows-what.

The woman right behind me at the screening was the loudest person I have ever encountered in a movie audience. She seemed to be there with her husband and young daughter--the latter was not a good idea. She hollered "OH MY GOD" at the screen and spent the next 135 minutes erupting in howls, yowls, screams, yelps, yips and moans of "Oh My God!!!"

She wasn't alone. Pockets of yelpers and screamers were placed at different points in the theater and, judging by the reception, getting what they came for. No doubt about it. "It" is a crowd pleaser.

I am not a crowd, just one critic who has been seeing Stephen King movies for many decades. Some have been marvelous, many have been pretty good for what they are and even more than that have been pretty awful. "The Shining" showed what can happen when a very eccentric film artist--Stanley Kubrick--gets hold of a King book.

On the lower end of King originals, I have a cheerful fondness for King's "Creepshow" collaboration with George Romero and the movie he wrote and directed, the merrily numbskulled "Maximum Overdrive."

"It" seems too long and too cliched for that kind of pleasure. It has its share of scares and jumps in your seat but they're all of the cheesy "boo!" variety when the monster shows up and reveals a mouthful of werewolf teeth.

One problem I have with "It" is that I just don't share the fear of clowns (the word for it is "coulrophobia"). To me a clown is a clown is a clown. It's a living. Or an eccentricity for suburbanites. The number of mass murderers in clown mufti--a la John Wayne Gacy (who was partial to small children)--isn't very large. Pennywise is played by Bill Skarsgard who looked a bit too sweet-faced, even in clown makeup, to be all that scary.

So the "horror" of the movie is that you spend 135 minutes waiting for the director to say "boo!" The rest of the time you spend in the company of a gang of very likable but very cliched kids who are being bullied by the nascent psychotics and fascists in their small Maine town.

They calls themselves "losers." The bravest one is Bill, who stutters. He's the one whose little brother was dispatched in the opening scene. The next bravest is lovely Beverly, the red-haired pubescent tomboy who is growing up sweetly and sensitively even though her disgusting father is molesting her. Another kid thinks he has asthma when all he really has is an awful mother. Another is a dirty-minded motormouthed braggart with thick glasses. Another is a Jewish kid--a rabbi's son no less--who's having trouble learning his "maftar" (Torah portion) for his Bar Mitzvah. There's also a fat nerdy kid who loves to research things and a black kid whose father the sheep farmer thinks his son ought to be more brisk and business like while killing the farm animals.

They're all cliches but there's enough "Stand by Me" warmth and even eccentricity to keep your feelings toward them all kind and indulgent. How can we not be fond of a movie where the fat kid gets to kiss the pretty girl? Her other favorite in the bunch is the stutterer.

Anyone seeking total fidelity to King is in the wrong theater. I haven't read his book but I have read a very thorough synopsis. There's apparently a sex scene in the book that no 21st century filmmaker in his right mind would try to get away with in a commercial movie. Nor is there anything about the kids' lives as adults later. Stay tuned for a sequel.

There's a lot of blood here. And the American myth that our small heartland towns are seething with awful people who can't wait to bully others at home or in schoolyards or in surrounding woods. Their behavior in voting booths is another movie--and book--altogether.

I've always admired King for his industry. His fondness for terrorized children isn't my cup of strychnine but if you're trying to scare up audiences, it's a good strategy.

"It" does what it needed to do--entirely without stars, by the way--to elicit loud screams from a terror-hungry audience.

I liked the kids but this one's mostly for King fans and horror film lovers.

Movie Review
3 stars (Out of four)
Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis and Finn Wolfhard in Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s massive 1986 bestseller about bullied kids fighting an evil force in a small Maine town. 135 minutes. Rated R for horror violence, bloody images and language.

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