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by on September 7, 2017
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Illustration by Jenn Marie Harmeson

Every Halloween night, the warmth of innocence cuts through the crisp air of dread. Kids’ eyes twinkle as they tell scary stories and trick-or-treat in spooky costumes. The best horror films take us back to that time in childhood when our imaginations sprinted toward sinister places with rapturous glee. You can practically feel fall leaves blowing around you as you watch them.

The latest Stephen King adaptation, “It,” joins what seems to be a movement of throwback horror films (“It Follows,” “The Conjuring,” “Insidious,” etc.) — suburban spookfests with a sense of tenderness amid all the terror. The film also feels kindred with the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” another small-town nostalgia trip with nods to King and Steven Spielberg. Its enchanting familiarity and wholesome exterior make its horror elements that much more chilling.

Of course, “It” is a classic story — the tale of a group of kids terrorized by a killer clown in the idyllic town of Derry, Maine. The novel also follows them as adults, but the film focuses solely on their adolescence, specifically their unbelievably scary summer vacation. (A forthcoming sequel will deal with them as grown-ups.)

While the novel sets this story in the ’50s, the film transposes it to the ’80s. In the kids’ local theater, we see a poster for “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5” — a fitting reflection of the horror they’re facing in their lives. Like the “Elm Street” films, “It” finds young people bonded by their bouts with a bogeyman.

The introduction to Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is one of the year’s most mesmerizing scenes. He emerges from the shadows of a sewer after a boy’s paper boat falls inside. When he starts talking to little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), we understand why the boy doesn’t run away. Skarsgård brilliantly captures the clown’s seductive power, the sweet persona that covers his sinister side like candy coating. The film leaves you wanting more intimate, slow-burn encounters with Pennywise like the opening scene. Unfortunately, it starts to smack of an “Elm Street” sequel, presenting its monster in brief, frantic bursts.

In the end, though, the young characters are the more important focus anyway. This is a film about innocence in a world constantly trying to corrupt it. The kids are trapped in a town with a grisly past, consumed by morbid curiosity and surrounded by malicious forces — including seemingly harmless, ordinary people, like their parents and peers. But their warmth and compassion shines through it all, compelling us to follow them into the darkness. This is partly why we watch horror films. We squirm and wince through them in anticipation of finding some beacon of hope, some faint light of humanity in the funhouse.

In addition to drawing poignant performances from the young cast, director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) makes the film feel grounded and human. Even the special effects have a charmingly crude, handmade quality, recalling creature features and slasher flicks from the ’80s.

“It” is a beautifully old-fashioned horror flick. You’ll feel like a kid again as it washes over you. You’ll float, too.



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