That’s not to say Muschietti skimps on the more graphic elements. Take the opening scene for example where the little Georgie first encounters Pennywise when he peers inside a storm drain. I knew it would end with Georgie being sucked into the depths of the sewers by the creepy clown, but I wasn’t prepared for how far Muschietti intended to go with this scene. He doesn’t shy away from Pennywise using his sharp teeth to bite Georgie’s arm off or extend his grip to drag down his victim. It’s a gruesome and horrifying moment, signalling that this is going to be a more daring adaptation of Stephen King’s original novel.
The story has been shifted to 1989, a popular era for horror fans, where the theater is playing A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Street Fighter is the top arcade game in town and New Kids on the Block is the hit of the moment. The child actors playing the collective of the Losers Club have a remarkable chemistry for 12-year-olds of the 1980s, keen enough to pass as an Amblin film.
This is mostly due to Finn Wolfhard, best known from the ’80s-ode horror series Stranger Things, setting the tone as Richie with his thick glasses and trash-talking mouth. He sets up plenty of conversations for his friends to join in and add their two cents. This leads to some snappy dialogue between the young actors that can one moment be joking about sleeping with someone’s mother to seriously discussing if they want to help Georgie’s big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) go searching through the sewers for his little brother. They’re more concerned about what will happen if they find Georgie more than if they don’t. Wise kids.
The script thankfully spends just enough time getting to know these kids of the ’80s and view them as such. We get to understand and love the chubby Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a quiet kid who loves to read and hides a hidden passion for New Kids on the Block. The only person he shares this secret with is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a tall girl who can keep his secret as well as she can about her dad abusing her. The scenes between Ben and Beverly are uniquely sweet from their first meeting onward and all the more compelling when Bill turns it into a love triangle.
It works well because we spend so much time with these characters and are absorbed in their rural summer environment, enjoying their comradery. A lot of horror films tend to phone in this relatable aspect, almost as though those scripts sigh and pout with development before they can get to the juicy scares. Here is a film that takes its time with these kids and makes them feel like real characters with funny exchanges. Even scenes where they start tracking down more information on the missing kids don’t feel boring as everyone always appears in character. Ben may have his room designed for his friends as a calculative conspiracy theorist, but still has a New Kids on the Block poster to conceal.