A big reason that so many horror movies today feel underwhelming may have little to do with the films at all. We’re too distracted as an audience – mostly on account of our cellphones, and from the light emanating from others’ phones – to allow the movie to transport us to a different world. All films tend to suffer from such distractions, but perhaps no other genre relies so heavily on complete immersion.

Wisely, the makers of It, a spanking new cinematic stab at Stephen King’s dense but solid horror tome, fashion the movie as a coming-of-age adventure with creepy underpinnings. Set in the 80s, it’s about a group of seven kids who witness and experience a terrifying demonic presence as they set out to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of multiple children in their small town.

Like Rob Reiner’s classic Stand By Me, also based on a Stephen King bestseller, the new film tackles big themes like the loss of innocence and the enduring friendships of youth. But this is a balls-out scary movie that doesn’t skimp on the gore or the thrills. Led by a kid named Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) whose brother went missing the previous year, this group of nerdish teenagers find themselves confronting a wretched clown named Pennywise who feeds on children’s fears.

Director Andy Muschietti stages some intense set pieces, including one involving Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in the group, and an incident in her bathroom. It’s genuinely disturbing stuff: both the imagery, and the performances which bring out the kids’ emotions. Another scene in which the group projects slides in a garage is also deliciously terrifying.

The film works because you care for the kids. Their performances are authentic as are the scenes in which they just hang out and trash talk, or face off against the school bullies. It’s impossible not to root for them when they find themselves faced with graver dangers.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for It. This is a smart, visceral horror movie with charming characters and a sense of time and place that anchors the story. I was so involved, I barely looked at my phone.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

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