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film review

An image from the film It.Brooke Palmer

There are worse things to be afraid of than killer clowns from outer space. For instance, the inevitable forthcoming flood of reviews and click-bait items complaining that Andy Muschietti's adaptation of Stephen King's It is merely riffing on Netflix's Stranger Things.

Call it a matter of poor or great timing for Muschietti. Similarities between the two projects are certainly present – both involve a group of prepubescent boys fighting evil with the help of a strange new girl in their midst, both trade on eighties nostalgia, both even feature actor Finn Wolfhard – but it will be interesting, and perhaps depressing, to see which audiences fail to realize which vision came first, and which is far superior to the other.

Stranger Things, from its title credits on, is designed as a direct homage to Stephen King, if we're putting it politely. A rip-off, if we're past niceties. A critical part of the series' DNA belongs to his 1981 novel It, but also The Mist, Firestarter, Needful Things, Carrie, Cujo and The Body. (Not to mention a host of direct lifts – oh, "homages," right? – from the works of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hopper.) The Netflix series simply had the good luck of making its way to your television screen first, while Warner Bros.' big-screen adaptation of It has for years been bouncing in and out of Movie Hell (far worse than regular hell, or whatever hell spat out It's title character).

Stranger Things is Stephen King for the Netflix era – impatient, easy-to-please and designed by algorithm. Andy Muschietti's It is Stephen King distilled in its purest form – namely, terrifying.

So, let's do away with any Stranger Things-related allegations right now – seriously, put that cursor down, Uproxx writer – and concentrate on what Muschietti accomplishes with his (mostly) original vision. "Mostly," because Muschietti is not fully starting from scratch, either. There's the 1990 It miniseries to consider, in which Tim Curry traumatized an entire generation of youngsters with his portrayal of Pennywise, the demon-clown of Derry, Me. But – again, putting societal niceties behind us – that Tommy Lee Wallace adaptation is entirely benign, pedestrian in its aesthetics and neutered in its horror. At least, compared with what Muschietti delivers here.

From its haunting opening in Derry's gently flooded streets to its nightmarish finale in the forsaken sewers underneath, this new version of It stands as a solid execution of King's modus operandi. Mix one part vulgar innocence (these kids swear up a storm, even if they don't know what exactly they're talking about), add a breezy layer of cultural benchmarks (Gremlins and A Nightmare on Elm Street posters adorn the scenery's fringes) and mix it all in a rusty blender on high in the middle of an abandoned corn field. Creepy but familiar, in the best sense.

That's the thrust of Muschietti's style, and it works more often than not. His version of Derry, King's favoured town of terror, is just idyllic enough to make you wonder what it is possibly hiding. And by the time you get around to investigating its secrets – boom! You've been swallowed whole by that darn ol' Pennywise, played with twisted glee here by Bill Skarsgard. It's a delightfully horrifying balance of heart and gore, the twin taos of King himself.

Aside from updating the setting from the fifties to the 1980s, Muschietti's biggest plot diversion from King's work is born out of modern-moviemaking necessity, rather than anything narratively sinister. King's original novel is a beast, 1,090 pages of back story and diversions and meditations on cat-killings. (If you haven't read it in a while, pick it up and keep the light on – it's a sincerely disturbing read.) Stuffed in there are two tales: one chronicling the kids who fought back against an interdimensional boogeyman, and the other fast-forwarding 30 years to adulthood, when Derry's now-grown defenders are drawn back to the town.

Wallace's network-TV version covered the whole bloody affair over the course of four hours, and it looks like Muschietti will do the same – if this first chapter of It does enough business at the box office, that is. But in a strange, and not Stranger, way, there is a hope that It makes not quite enough money to warrant a sequel. Muschetti – working from a script by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga, the latter attached to direct until he parted with the studio over creative differences – closes off the childhood end of the story so delicately, and with such confident finality, that returning to the story would feel redundant.

There is also doubt that many adult actors could do justice to the tender performances Muschietti assembles here, notably Jaeden Lieberher as "Losers Club" leader Bill, Sophia Lillis as the young rebel Beverley and Wolfhard as the motor-mouth Richie. (At least Skargard could presumably return, if he's not busy roaming small-town U.S.A., scaring half the country to death.)

But like the movie's titular evil, which surfaces every 27 years to feast on the fears and anxieties of American youth, Hollywood has never met a franchise it could leave well enough alone. It will surely surface again. Better make room in your Netflix queue.

Piers Handling says screening movies alongside filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola is a perk of being TIFF’s director. Festival creative director Cameron Bailey adds filmmakers can be sensitive to his reactions at screenings.

The Canadian Press