Lately, this blog has become a venue for writing about the horror genre, especially horror films. Horror has consumed part of my life as I work on putting together a horror lit and film class for the spring semester. Because of that, all of my reading lately has been a lot of film criticism and re-reads of classic horror novels. I wasn’t going to offer any commentary on It, but the movie is deserving of thought (and criticism) because of the massive opening weekend it had, raking in about $117 million, thus having the biggest opening weekend for any horror movie and the third highest opening weekend of 2017.
I want to theorize on why It is such a draw and also part of a larger trend. I also want to offer some criticism of the film, where I think it fails, what I believe it does well, and what I hope to see in the second chapter, set for release in 2019.
It is part of a trend of 1980s nostalgia,which follows the success of Netflix’s original series “Stranger Things,” which draws on a few of Stephen King’s stories and adaptations, including It and Stand by Me, namely because it too is a coming of age story about a group of less-than-popular adolescents. It stars one of “Stranger Thing’s” actors, Finn Wolfhard, who plays foul-mouthed Richie. His one-liners drew audible laughter when I saw the movie on opening night. Yet, before “Stranger Things,” there was the success of the independent film It Follows, which is one of my favorite horror films of the last few years. That flick also has 80s nostalgia, not only the soundtrack, but also the set design. There are scenes in the film where it is unclear if we’re watching something David Lynch directed in 1985 or a contemporary horror film. Prior to It Follows, there was 2009’s House of the Devil, also one of my favorite horror films of the 2000s. Directed by Ti West, this film is set in 1983 and follows the story of financially-strapped college student Samantha Hughes, who eventually encounters a Satanic cult. This film is very much Ti West’s love letter to the 1980s period of horror, specially the rash of movies that deal with Satanism, but the film is strong because of its character development, its use of sound, and the unnerving, slow burn storytelling. These are the same reasons that I like It Follows so much (and it also has one of the best on-screen uses of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” that I have ever seen).
It is hard for me to pinpoint why there is such an interest in 1980s nostalgia in the horror genre right now. Some directors may simply feel that the 1980s is one of horror’s last great periods, before the constant rehashes and remakes. It was also a time period pre-9/11, pre-economic recession, pre-Trump, so there may be a fondness for that time period that overlooks some of its real issues (such as trickle down economics, economic inequality, and the Iran/Contra scandal).
This brings me to It. One of my main gripes about the film is that the 80s nostalgia is overdone. There are posters of 80s movies, including Gremlins, that are center frame in several shots. The outfits of the members of the Losers Clubs, the group of geeky outcasts that confront Pennywise the Dancing Clown, are, for the most part, 80s-themed. Yet, none of this really does much to advance the story. Instead, I wanted to know more about the town of Derry, Maine. Why, for instance, does Pennywise even chose to haunt that town? Does he have any relation to it? Why does he emerge after so many years? Was he tortured or killed by residents of the town? One character, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), spends much of his time in the town library, researching local history, but what he finds doesn’t deepen the setting. It also doesn’t provide any context or background to Pennywise. Instead, we’re taken on a 1980s trip, complete with the kids riding around on their bikes in the burbs, similar to “Stranger Things.”
My other complaint about the movie is its lack of character development and its reduction of Pennywise to jump scares and CGI. The challenge of bringing It to the screen is its ensemble cast. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) has the most character development, after his little brother, Georgie, is killed by Pennywise in the opening scene, which is also the most effective scare scene in the film because Pennywise is not reduced to CGI. He talks, and he is seductive and terrifying in the way that he plays on Georgie’s fears. Georgie’s death looms over the rest of the film and haunts Bill.
The second film will feature the Loser’s Club as adults, just like King’s novel. Pennywise will return to haunt them, and I hope the film will rely less on CGI jump scares. I would like to see more natural effects. Tim Curry was more believable as Pennywise because of the simplicity of his make-up and his dialogue. He truly could be something realistic from our nightmares.
There are parts of the film I really liked, however. As I stated, the opening scene was perfect, everything from the mood, including the pouring rain in the burbs and the mass of gray clouds, to Pennywise’s introduction. I want to see more one-on-one, unsettling encounters like that in the second film. Let Pennywise linger beneath the surface, in the sewer grate where he lures Georgie to his death. Show us the way he exists beneath the surface, in the subconscious of the characters. That makes him a lot more chilling than over-the-top CGI scenes.
I also loved the coming-of-age scenes between members of the Losers Club, how they bond over being outsiders, how they eventually confront the real-life bullies that torment them. In fact, I wanted to stand up and cheer when they pelt the bullies with rocks and force them to retreat. My favorite scene in the film, other than the opening, occurs in the final moments, where they hold hands in a circle and vow to confront Pennywise as a team if he ever returns, and, of course, we know that he will. I hope that this group of misfits is developed a lot more in the sequel so we can feel for them more individually and not just see them as one group of people that a demented clown wants to kill.
I recommend people see the movie. Buy some popcorn and enjoy the ride because it’s a fun one. I just hope the sequel relies less on rehashed tropes and jump scares and instead develops the Losers Club and their nemesis Pennywise much more.