The new adaptation of Stephen King's It is set in the Maine community of Derry, home of the nation's worst infrastructure problem.
The sewer system contains a homicidal clown, who makes an appearance early on, lurking in a storm drain and conversing with a small boy whose paper boat has been washed away in the rain.
The movie is set a few decades back, so it's conceivable this young man had not heard the Stranger Danger lecture from a million helicoptering adults. Even so, and even within the anything-goes context of a horror movie, there is something absurd about the exchange — a kid speaking cheerfully with a creature, in a hole, that looks and sounds like Ronald McDonald crossed with Mr. Hyde.
This is no happy clown (and kids, even if you do meet a happy clown in a storm drain, don't talk to him). His eyebrows form a villainous V, and his crimson lipstick extends to form devil horns that bisect his eyes and extend up through his face, the pronged ends pointing to a protrusion of red hair as straight and stiff as if on a man electrocuted.
His name is Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård; the character was famously played by Tim Curry in the 1990 television miniseries), and he's been haunting the town for centuries, surfacing periodically to terrorize and kill children, and though the list of dead children is gruesomely long, the town keeps mum about its past. Even the most recent murder spree is under-publicized — the clown has killed half a dozen children, and the community is strangely tight-lipped about it, as though afraid it might affect property values.
It's up to the children themselves to do something about Pennywise, a group comprised of the town's bullied misfits — a boy (Philadelphia's Jaeden Lieberher) with a stutter, a girl (Sophia Lillis) with a bad reputation, a chubby kid (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the town's lone African American (Chosen Jacobs), and others. They research the killings, determine the source of the problem and the nature of the town's curse, and act to end it, and It.
The theme is one for all and all for one, and although the horror elements veer into silliness and mix uneasily with suggestions of molestation and abuse, separate scenes of the youngsters simply hanging out work well. The cast has good chemistry, the movie has fun with throwback references to 1980s culture, although some of the bicycles date to the 1970s and beyond.
You almost wish the movie had jettisoned the horror elements entirely, and converted It into what it feels like it wants to be — something more like King's Stand By Me, with a teen girl in the mix.
Director Andy Muschietti makes an overt homage to that movie, in fact, following the kids past a railroad trestle as a train rolls past.
Then he has to go back to clowning around.