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Pennywise from 'It'

Bill Skarsgard stars as the evil clown Pennywise in this scene from "It." The R-rated horror flick, based on a Stephen King novel, continues its assault on the box office (and your nightmares) this week in mid-valley theaters.  

Closing your eyes won't work.

If you close your eyes during the scariest scenes in "It," who knows what your imagination might conjure up —because that's what "It" is all about.

To be sure, Pennywise the Clown is among the most bone-chilling and ferocious and frightening characters in modern literature and now modern cinema, but It, as he is often called, takes on many forms, manifesting itself as your deepest, darkest fears as it literally smells the fear on you, and feeds off of that.

The most frightening scenes in "It" aren't when Pennywise is front and center, doing his twisted dance and baring his multiple rows of teeth and saying, "You'll float too," i.e., "You will die and become part of my collection of corpses floating in a hellish limbo in the sewers." (Although that stuff is pretty damn scary.)

What will REALLY put a chill down your spine and raise the hairs on the back of your neck are the moments when an adolescent character is isolated from friends, all alone in the cellar or the bathroom or the alley or a dark office, and something they've long feared springs to "life" in a certain fashion, confirming their worst sense of dread and doom.

We see what they see, we feel what they feel and we are terrified because they are terrified.

Some 30 years ago, Stephen King's masterful and massive horror work "It" was released to widespread acclaim and huge sales, becoming the best-selling book of 1986 in the United States.

In 1990, the novel was adapted for a solid, two-part TV mini-series on ABC with Tim Curry as Pennywise. Still, the hunger for a big-screen version of "It" has only grown over the years and decades, and I'm bloody pleased to report director Andy Muschietti's R-rated interpretation of the source material is a bold, intense, beautifully paced, wickedly hilarious, seriously scary and gorgeously terrifying period-piece work that instantly takes its place among the most impressively twisted horror movies of our time.

Director Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman shift the timeline to the late 1980s and make numerous other changes to King's work (as does virtually every adaption of every novel, ever), but they do a masterful job of capturing the terrifically rotten and twisted essence of the story.

One of the many pleasures of "It" is how the filmmakers take their time, introducing us to a half-dozen misfit characters in realistic (sometimes painfully so) settings that allow us to get to know them, to feel true empathy for their situations, and to understand why each would gravitate toward fellow "Losers" (as they call themselves) for support and friendship.

When a film of this magnitude has so many young characters front and center in the lead roles, much depends on the casting, and in this case, there's not a single misstep. Each of these young actors has at least one major moment in the spotlight, and each is unique and likable and real. In fact, the non-horror storylines, the development of the relationships in this film -- all of that is so strong, "IT" would have been a compelling movie on those elements alone.

Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise shows up only sparingly, and that's a wise choice. To be sure, it's a strong performance, and the clown is a worthy successor to all the great scary clowns in movie history, but if Pennywise were to spend too much time on the screen, he'd be too tangible, too much of this world. He's at his most frightening when he's in the shadows or on the periphery, holding his balloons and licking his chops and saying, "You'll float too."

"It" comes to a conclusion on just the right series of notes. Chilling, heartbreaking, exciting, sobering. We're told at the end what we already know: This is but Chapter One of the saga. When we pick up the story, it'll be more than a quarter-century later, and these wonderful kids will be adults in their 40s.

In the meantime, we have "It," which carried me along from the opening frame, rarely missing a beat.

You'll float too.


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