It

At the Cinemark

(R)

Grade: B+

Most critics and fans alike regard two of Stephen King’s 54 novels as horrifyingly better than the rest.

“The Stand,” the story of a virus that wipes out the world, and “It,” the story of an evil clown that terrorizes vulnerable children, are generally regarded as King’s crowns. “The Shining” also ranks among King’s best.

“Stand” and “It” are long books, more than 1100 pages in the uncut versions.

And neither of them can be stereotyped as “just” a horror story.

“It,” in particular, is a thoughtful and controversial coming-of-age tale disguised as a scary clown saga.

Superficially, “It” is about a group of friends who are terrorized by Pennywise, a demon in a clown suit.

But there is a much deeper and more disturbing story lying underneath the painted face – a story of emotionally, physically and sexually abused children who wander the streets of their small town, trying to heal their wounds and regain their balance.

The novel “It,” gained considerable notoriety for what has been sensationalized as “the orgy scene.” Bev, the only girl in the band of seven friends, ends the virginity of her innocent companions, one by one.

“‘I have an idea,’ Beverly said quietly… What? he thought, and then he realized what. She was undressing. For some reason, Beverly was undressing.”

No wonder that book sold millions, many to teen boys of all ages. The new adaptation (Tim Curry starred in a 1990 Canadian mini-series) grossed $123 million in its first weekend. The thrill, obviously, is not gone.

King is often put on the defensive for that scene, and he’s tried to explain it away

“The Losers knew they had to be together again,” said King in an online forum in 2013. “The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood. It’s another version of the glass tunnel that connects the children’s library and the adult library. Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues.”

Not surprisingly, that scene has not been transported to the latest adaptation of “It.” But sexual tension permeates the entire script – and makes “It” a compelling coming-of-age story.

The six boys and one girl form “The Losers,” who are bullied and teased by kids at school and abused at home. Bev, the lone girl, has a horrific dad who continually asks her the same sleazy question: “Are you still my little girl?”

Bev bonds with these boys because they, too, are outcasts and victims. The boys clearly know that Bev is “out of their league.” They never quite understand why she hangs out with them.

The answer is simple: She needs friends she can trust, who will not harm her. The boys are naïve, sweet, harmless – and deeply bruised. Their bond, at its deepest, is the pain they’ve endured growing up. Each grew up in a partial or total eclipse – the love they deserved blacked out by their parents.

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Viewed as a study of adolescent abuse, “It” takes on much deeper meaning. Yes, there are the prototypic horror scenes of bared teeth, floods of blood and gruesome deaths. But those moments seem more gratuitous than central to this story.

Thanks to authentic performances by the young cast - ages 14 to 16 – the script becomes one of friendship and teen fear. Pennywise the clown shapeshifts into the worst fears of each child.

In “Uses of Enchantment” psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote about the therapeutic power of fairy tales. At times, King’s stories of vulnerable kids play out very much like fairy tales, with wolves dressed up like lovable grannies.

Bettelheim reminded us that “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue...”

“It” far can’t be called “enchanting,” but it’s definitely insightful. I look forward to the sequel in 2019 which will present the other half of the 1100 pages – when the kids are adults and keep their promise to return to town if Pennywise ever returns.

This is one book that justifies two parts, and the next chapter will complete the tale.

Two criticism are being leveled at “It.” One charges the film with sexualizing Bev and presenting her from the “male gaze.” A second criticism says “It” just isn’t scary enough.

As for the low fright-o-meter score, who cares? The story blends an outer threat – the clown – with the inner trauma of adolescence, which is the true source of the story’s terror. It’s refreshing to see a King story without mad dogs growling all the time.

As for Bev, she’s a wounded teen from an abusive home, and she’s learned sexuality the worst possible way. She’s recovering from that, which is the point of the script. The book’s explicit scene was wisely cut, but some more modest version of sexual passage would have fit the tale King is spinning. Teen sex, after all, is part of most coming of age tales.

The film stops just short of being an illuminating film about abuse of kids, but King deserves credit for raising raises these issues directly to provoke thought. That honesty is what lifts “It” above most schlock-and-shock horror offerings.

King’s “It” is Pennywise but pound foolish, as it places vulnerable kids in peril.

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