There are certainly compelling reasons for a new screen version of “It,” Stephen King’s sprawling 1986 novel about a group of misfits in small-town Maine confronting a demonic entity that feeds on victims’ fears. There’s a lot of creakiness to the previous adaptation, a 1990 ABC mini-series starring Tim “Greasepaint Again?!” Curry as the monster’s signature incarnation, a clown called Pennywise.
And it’s not as if the pasty oddballs have come to seem so quaint that they can’t still unnerve us. Recall last year’s social-media freakout over that spate of creepy-clown sightings. (Coincidence, or long-range viral marketing ploy?)
So director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) ventures onto promising genre turf with his take on “It,” a feature boasting all of the attendant production values and vision-fulfilling effects. Ultimately, cast and crew conjure up horror that’s more efficient than terrifying, never mind the darkly lithe interpretation of Pennywise from Bill Skarsgård (“Atomic Blonde”). But they also offer a welcome surprise with their young protagonists’ terrifically authentic salad-days interplay. Among King adaptations, this one compares less to “The Mist” than to “Stand by Me.” There’s a hint of the gang from “E.T.,” too.
Another surprise: Despite the movie’s unhurried 135-minute running time, Muschietti and his writers (including Cary Fukunaga, “True Detective”) have actually streamlined King’s narrative, focusing solely on the characters as kids and dispensing with their adult reunion. (The movie also updates the setting from the ’50s to the’80s, although the aesthetic feels timeless, save for some amusing shout-outs to New Kids on the Block.)
It all starts with one sequence that’s genuinely jolting, as sympathetic, stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, “St. Vincent”) helps his little brother (Jackson Robert Scott) make a toy boat, and unwittingly sets up a fateful playtime encounter with evil. Months later, Bill remains haunted, roping his friends into a tortured search for clues about what happened. This dork pack includes hilariously wisecracking Richie (scene-stealing Finn Wolfhard) and hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), among others; eventually they’re joined by abused alt-girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis, channeling Molly Ringwald so entertainingly that the script even cops to it).
The kids’ gradual discovery of the clown’s lethal doings is tense enough, but again, all the red-nose-and-fangs stuff isn’t as absorbing as the ode-to-pubescence dynamic. The renderings of youthful preoccupations and anxieties are so honest, it’s disappointing that the movie’s grown-ups — Bev’s predatory father, Eddie’s overbearing mom, etc. — aren’t nearly as keenly observed. Skarsgård’s fiend isn’t the only scary clown here.
Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King. Starring Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 135 minutes. R (violence/horror, bloody images, language).