The odds against horror movies adapted from the novels and short stories of Stephen King are not favorable; it might well be the case that only Carrie from 1976 and The Shining from 1980 (the first and third King adaptations of any kind) are so obviously, objectively good that you can get away calling them great horror cinema without risking pushback.* Meanwhile, the ground lies thick with Thinners and Maximum Overdrives and Graveyard Shifts. So the generally impressive quality of the new feature film adaptation of It is already a tiny bit miraculous even without factoring in the beastly task of corralling It into manageable shape, given that it has roughly as many words as the Hebrew Bible, and a substantially more convoluted cosmology.

The screenwriters - Gary Dauberman, revising an adaptation by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga - get there in part by doing the one thing that more adapters of popular novels should free themselves to do, but very nearly never find the bravery to attempt: they cut out all the shitty parts (this means, sadly, that the inevitable It: Chapter 2 will have almost nothing but the shitty parts). This leaves us with nothing but a story that begins, middles and ends entirely in 1988 and 1989 in the mid-sized town of Derry, Maine, a community notably plagued by every-27-years spikes in the death rate. The film starts right at the beginning of the latest cycle, when a little boy named Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) goes running out into the rain to play with a paper boat made for him by his sick brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). It's all fun and games till the boat plunges into a storm sewer, and Georgie is all ready to go home in shame, until something inside the sewer pops up to say hi: a figure calling itself Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). Pennywise's jolly demeanor and goofy cartoon voice charm Georgie over his initial apprehension, right up until the moment that Pennywise rips Georgie's arm off.

Thus begins a jackrabbit-paced 135 minutes as Bill, and his friends - six of them, ultimately - band together against adult indifference and the brutal hostility of the local bullies to figure out what the hell is going on in Derry, spending the summer of '89 determining that some kind of inhuman presence lives in the sewers, awakening every three decades to instill terror and feast on children. It's a dense movie, almost certainly too dense; the opening act positively races to get us to the point that the seven members of the self-described Losers Club, all of them isolated loners in some different way - stuttering Bill, overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), tomboy Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), undersized class clown Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), African-American Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), sickly Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), Jewish Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) - have been assembled into a super-team to fight the menacing clown-thing that haunts them all. It could certainly do with spending a bit more time letting us learn about these kids a bit before it plunges them into the onslaught of jump scares and CGI monstrosities.

Not least because, frankly, the jump scares and monsters are by no means the best thing that It has on tap. It's really just not very scary - admittedly, even as I write these words on the fourth day of the film's wide release in the U.S., it's already been seen by more eyes than many of the films that have worn this same approach to scaring the audience into the ground, so for a lot of those people, this will seem fresh as a blood-soaked daisy. Still, there's a lot of Sinister in here in particular, in the general approach to how scares get constructed (one of the few scenes invented brand new for the film, involving a possessed slide projector, practically feels like a Sinister outtake), and mostly this falls into the category of "well-mounted versions of over-familiar jump scares", and less so into "actual surprises". Plus, the use of visual effects to make Pennywise and Its other incarnations stutter and jerk like something monstrously inhuman feel like visual effects, which is absolute death for horror. Some of these touches work! A late scene where Skarsgård's face is held steady while his body vibrates out of focus is absolutely terrific. But mostly, It just ends up feeling weightless and frantic, like so many other uninspired ghosts in the years since J-horror broke out in the West. Not least among them Mama, the only previous feature from It director Andy Muschietti, who hasn't improved much of at all in staging scare scenes in the intervening four years, though he's traded up in his collaborators. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, who has shot most of Park Chan-wook's films, including last year's impossibly beautiful The Handmaiden, has turned in a work of remarkably atmospheric realism, contrasting the grainy look of everyday Derry (It is one of the very few '80s nostalgia films that captures something close to the exactly look of '80s cinematography, with that incredible look of acid-washed exteriors) with the haunted house tones of the explicitly spooky old buildings and labyrinthine sewers.

Skarsgård himself is nothing but terrific: surpassing the cultural memory of Tim Curry in the 1990 TV miniseries It was certainly out of the question, but this new Pennywise is a pretty great achievement in its own right. The voice is a big part of it: Skarsgård is able to shift from wrath to that bouncy cartoon animal voice on the spot, and his expressions match, veering from big-eyed innocence to a staring, openly hungry expression of menace so fluidly you almost can't trace the difference. The make-up and costuming help - this version of Pennywise is more like a Victorian-era clown than Curry's, which help make him feel more eerily out of place. And there's this amazing thing that happens - supposedly, it's all the actor, but I have to assume it's aided with a little CGI - where the clown's eyes keep sliding around, staring at different things, like Its entire face starts to fall apart if It's not paying complete attention to what It's doing.

Still, for all that Skarsgård's Pennywise is a real achievement, I simply never found It to be nearly as scary as it aims to be. And yes, scary is an utterly subjective response, and all that. If it had been that scary, I think we'd pretty obviously have a Stephen King adaptation for the record books, because everything else is excellent. And there is quite a lot of "everything else": you could just as honestly describe It as the story of seven lonely kids who find comfort, safety, and love in joining together, as the story of an eldritch nightmare living in the sewers.

To that end, the film benefits from flawless casting of all of its child actors, and from the excellent tone the screenplay and directing adopt towards them. These feel like '80s movie kids: just the copious amount of swearing the screenwriters allow them would be enough for that. But there's also something intangible in how the film approaches them that evokes the wannabe-Spielbergs of that era, letting the kids be fully-realised emotional beings without also asking them to be adults in disguise. What Muschietti achieves, in the absence of being a good horror director, is being a terrific director of placid suburban days masking discomfort and hurt. The very distinctive, Amblin-derived sense of Everytown, America as place that houses both petty suffering and a sprawling sense of possibility over every new hill you can ascend with a bike is the best thing about It, and its portrayal of childhood friendships in such an environment is above reproach.

It says nothing all that complimentary to It that I spent most of this bone-chilling tale of a primordial demon manifesting as pure terror to eat children wishing that it would cut some of the scary scenes so that we could get back to hanging out with the kids, but still, better than if those kids weren't worth hanging out with. I will not call it a new horror classic, because it frankly isn't. But a new classic of childhood pain and childhood joy, uneasily co-existing? Yes, that it is - a film about summertime friendships easily on par with fellow King adaptation Stand by Me, one of the best of that genre's exemplars during its 1980s heyday. It has its limitations, but given the project, I hardly think we could have hoped for a better version of this heavily novelistic story in cinematic form.

*The irony being that I personally have very little use for Carrie, but that's neither here nor there.