One of the more exciting trends in the last few years has been the significant uptick in artsy fartsy horror productions. Our last two Movie of the Year selections for this site, for instance, were It Follows & The Witch, with plenty of titles like It Comes at Night, Raw, The Babadook, and The Neon Demon filling out the ranks below them in what’s starting to feel like a legitimate low budget horror renaissance. With this embarrassment of riches on hand, it’s easy to lose track of the few stray successes that have cropped up in mainstream horror production, since it’s easier now than it has been in a very long time to favor the underdog pictures over their major studio competition. The most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s 10,000 page novel IT is an excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. Even more so than well-received franchises like The Conjuring, Sinister, and Insidious, IT fulfills the major studio promise that big budget horror filmmaking can still be intense, memorable, and above all else fun. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions.
Seven middle school dorks suffer the worst summer of their lives when their problems balloon larger than the usual abuses laid on them by bullies & villainous adults to include a hundreds-of-years-old curse that haunts their small, suburban town. IT converts the childhood nostalgia pangs usually reserved for the 1950s to a more currently appropriate 1980s setting. Inconsequential references to New Kids on the Block, “Where’s the beef?” commercials, and Tim Burton’s Batman slightly update the material’s Scary Stand By Me aesthetic, but its sense of small town Americana feels timeless, mostly untouched by then-contemporary pop culture. The Losers Club avoids contact with their school’s feral teen bullies and their homes’ emotionally & physically abusive adults by hiding out at The Quarry or in the library. Their inner circle is a protective shield against the evils of bigotry, sexual trauma, physical violence, etc. that haunt the larger world, but struggles to stand up to the more metaphysical evil that drives those real world terrors, the titular “It.” A centuries-old demonic force responsible for generational catastrophes that befall the same town’s children every few decades, “It” shows itself in this 1980s context in the form of missing, abducted children. Adults remain in a daze as their children disappear, content to paper over each “missing” poster with the next one down the line, showing no enthusiasm for determining the source of the epidemic. As the ancient evil creeps closer to abducting their own members, The Losers Club are compelled to defeat “It” on their own without the help of clueless adults in a climactic Good vs. Evil showdown. They even find a physical manifestation of “It” they can focus their energy on destroying: a sewer-dwelling birthday clown named Pennywise.
Pennywise The Dancing Clown (a heavily CGI’d Bill Skarsgård) crystallizes The Loser Club’s childhood fears into more tangible iconography than the larger-looming traumas that haunt their private & public lives: clowns (duh), basements, darkness, isolation, and so on. His individual scares work with the routine precision of a rotary dial. Children slowly approach personalized manifestations of their respective fears with a cautious, quiet curiosity until a jump scare releases the tension and the rotary wheel is dialed back for another tense build. IT is a collection of haunted house attractions (sometimes literally) in this way, relying more on the thrill of individual scares & set pieces than overall atmospheric dread. The demonic clown that personifies these horrors with a familiar, if grotesque face is an excellent anchor for its more general, community-wide evils that would usually take several hours of mini-series sprawl or (in King’s case) hundreds of pages of exposition to fully cover in a satisfying way. Smartly, IT doesn’t afford much screentime to mythology outside some light library research & examination of old town maps. Instead, it builds the collective friendships & flirtations of The Losers Club as a single group unit and then cyclically breaks down their ranks into weakened, individual members through the routine of its jump scares. There’s an impressive efficiency in this approach that allows room for isolated scares to properly breathe without sacrificing the pace of the group narrative, with Pennywise’s Evil Clown antics & red balloon calling card serving as an essential lynchpin to the whole enterprise. As fascinating as the more intangible horrors of IT can be, it really helps that the story is also streamlined as a Children vs. Killer Clown narrative to keep things relatively grounded.
While director Andrés Muschietti does succeed in boiling a strange, sprawling narrative into a manageable mainstream horror package, he also allows himself to indulge in IT‘s more surreal, intangible menace in the background details. Pennywise’s drifting irises, the paradoxical positioning of background extras, and a peripheral television broadcast that encourages children to play in the sewers with their friends all subvert the more routine, by the books horror thrills of the jump scares in the foreground. One scene involving a malfunctioning slide projector in particular fully delivers on Pennywise’s potential as a metaphysical being, allowing “It” to take an outsized physical form through a distorted beam of light in what has to be one of the most striking images from any feature film this year, mainstream or otherwise. The movie also impresses in its R-rated willingness to deliver on its children-in-peril threats, tearing out young tykes’ limbs and sinking knives & fangs deep into their flesh. This onscreen violence nicely counterbalances coming of age hallmarks like a flirtatious skinny dipping sequence & a team-building housecleaning montage lifted directly from IT‘s 80s reference points to create something both warmly familiar & genuinely dangerous-feeling. While certainly a straightforward, mainstream horror affair built more on elaborate scare mechanisms than artsy fartsy atmosphere, IT doesn’t just function as a middle school-set slasher featuring a creepy clown with endless rows of sharpened teeth & red balloons. The movie’s more adventurous, unnerving touches may lurk in the background, but they’re essential to the overall effect. Its Scary Stand By Me veneer is deceptively simple, but highly effective, leaving plenty of room for more ethereal horror to creep in at the edges. If nothing else, IT is a succinct, revitalizing argument that Big Budget Horror might be dormant, but is neither toothless nor obsolete.