Many people have praised the performances of the child actors in It (2017), with good reason; but few people have described the film as being especially horrifying. The consensus forming that It is a ‘great modern horror’ seems to be down more to the former than the latter.
Does a horror film even have to be scary to be great? The gut reaction is that how scary it is can’t be the measure of how good it is because what you find scary is not what I find scary (even if we do have a lingering if confused or unarticulated sense that a comedy not being funny to us still makes it bad).
Most people jump at sudden noises and sights. And a film can have better or worse jump-scares, exploit your expectations to make this jump that bit scarier: the scare coming after the beat you expected it on, coming from this negative space and not that. But it’s still an instinctive reaction. You didn’t learn from horror films to scare when something jumps out at you.
The rest of your fears, though, you had to have got from somewhere. If fears are subjective – and they must be, not even pain is universally feared – then no single film can represent, in terms of content, what each person in the audience finds scary. But even with a niche fear of yours (wigs, cherry stones, toast eaten from the wrong side; at one time, clowns) a story you told about it might scare others. It’d depend – as we all at some level know – not on whether we already shared your fear, but on how well you told the story. Then what is it, beyond jumps and private fears that we’re detecting in a well-told horror film?
How horror horrifies
One kind of horror, tending to be an older kind, was about what was glimpsed. This had to do in part with the make-up, costume or special effects available. We should be careful though about projecting our own squeamishness about artificial-looking special effects as the sole explanation for the amount of screen-time they once got. It wasn’t only (or sometimes at all) from worry that the audience would see the man-in-suit that the horrific used to come at you in a flash. It was the combination of the shock this gave you and the horror of the unknown – of what was behind or around the thing of which you only got a glimpse.
Nonetheless, with newer effects, filmmakers have been able to risk horrifying you in longer takes, where the point isn’t to jolt you with what you think you saw, but make you look right at it. Compare this moment from Alien:
with this moment from Kairo (Eng: Pulse):
Pulse hasn’t superseded Alien, no more than a new part of the map supersedes another. Neither is its strength originality (American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Thing (1982) were great other transitional examples). But there’s a reason why in 2001 it was more effective than bump-in-the-dark throwbacks like The Others or Alien-esque creature-features like the Mimic films. Pulse played on an old anxiety that had found new form (loneliness and internet-age technology), via what you could now pull off in a film, to show you – and head on – something you’d not seen before.
In one sense horror is a conservative genre, relying as it does on ideas of normality and abnormality, of the unexpected being threatening above all. A less conservative way to think of horror is that it drags admissions out of our suppressed selves. (Horror is the exorcist.) Look away and go watch it if you’ve not seen it, but micro-budget British horror The Borderlands (US: Final Prayer) has an ending that isn’t horrific because of the body-horror or monster elements. (The effects are basic to non-existent). It’s because the found footage device – the non-editorialised and so confessional feel – fits with how the gruesome predicament at the end is someone’s mistake. We’re peeking into the worst moment of someone’s life, and one which was all their fault. What are the mistakes in your life that you know there’s no coming back from?
Why a clown, cousin?
As well as the source novel, It takes a cue from Stephen King’s novella The Body or more specifically the Rob Russia Reiner adaptation Stand By Me. Like a straightened-out funhouse mirror, that love story reflected the horror story; there was a supportive older brother, though in The Body / Stand By Me he was the one who died; there were gangs, including one with a switchblade-toting bully; there was the ‘fat kid’, the kid who was the natural leader and the kid who wrote stories he told his friends in the woods (combined in It as Bill Denbrough, separated in Stand By Me into Will Wheaton’s bookish Gordie Lachance and River Phoenix’s Chris Chambers); and then a bespectacled motormouth who made Your Mum jokes:
Director Andres Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman are keen to get that Stephen King aspect right, the nostalgia for intense adolescent summer friendship. (In It King used the memory spell of the town of Derry to accentuate the melancholy of how huge childhood is and how much of it you forget). But they neglect the other crucial aspect of It: the kids’ relationship to adults, especially that avatar of everything wrong with adults, and the oldest character in the story, Pennywise.
The character of Pennywise the Dancing Clown pokes at a particular sore. One scene, and the best, in the new film illustrates which. Hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak wakes up from a fall to see he’s broken his arm, and see a white-gloved hand poking out of a fridge ahead. The door opens to reveal a stuffed body which unravels impossibly into Pennywise, who gives a bow before proceeding to torment the boy. Jack Dylan Grazer’s portrayal of horror is as great as the glee portrayed by Bill Skarsgård. The clown’s contortionist entrance has the same point as the way it keeps making as if to bite Eddie then backs off: to see and enjoy how the boy will react.
Stephen King has said he picked a clown for his monster because he finds clowns creepy (coulrophobia was boosted but not started by Pennywise). It was still a canny choice. Beyond the causal loop that has come about – this clown is scary because clowns are scary – the character of the clown works in particular because Pennywise finds your fear funny (as well as flavourful). Sadism, abstractly, is pleasure in others’ suffering. But the more troubling detail of sadism is not just any pleasure; it’s joy in their suffering, laughter at their suffering. Most importantly, Pennywise’s self-satisfied laughter at Eddie is the kind that an adult does when they boo-startle a child.
Outside of the natural world, the thing children have most to be afraid of is adults. The unequal power relationship between adults and kids, so lazily and frequently succumbed to, suggests the origin of the Monster might be not the relationship between human prey and animal predator but between the infant and adult, that first risk, the formative danger. Which makes baby-faced Skarsgård, for all his game efforts, inherently miscast.
Everyone had been waiting for how the new film would portray Pennywise, especially that part of the audience traumatised by Tim Curry in the TV miniseries. Skarsgård’s is good, if more for how he sounds than looks, with “They all float” coming out like “I am Groot” (in other places, he sounds like Griff Tannon asking “Since when did you become the physical type?”). But his shifts to raptor fixity before getting violent are mainly animalistic (snout extending like a goblin-shark’s to escape the humanoid disguise). In Tim Curry’s performance, Pennywise’s laughter, shifting so quickly to contempt, wasn’t even proof of the clown’s joyfulness. (Laughter as a mockery of laughter.) What’s missing with Skarsgård is this sneer: of the abusive adult. The kind of adult, only childlike themselves in a mercenary way, and with violence and a ridiculing contempt just under the surface, that’s best caricatured as a clown.
What is It?
A giant spider. But what else?
The obvious association with the child-killing monster is the child-abuser. The film can’t escape that. Its images of Missing Child posters, the pathetic mementos of the abductee, the looking-the-other-way stance of the adults in the community draw at least some of their aura from their real world equivalents. Is that uncomfortable closeness why the film is so eager to sanitise as much as it can within the confines of the story as we know it (the element having to stay being a clown that, you know, eats kids)?
Take Beverly’s abuse by pretty much everyone apart from the Losers’ Club, which is still in the film. But what isn’t, unsurprisingly, is the conclusion to the Losers’ Club showdown with Pennywise, when they get lost on their way out of the sewers and Beverly decides to have sex with each boy in the gang, to reorient them figuratively as well as physically. E Alex Jung for Vulture points out that the moment in the novel has aged poorly but also that the film is “simultaneously both more PC and more conservative” (and, I’d add, more prurient). For people concerned about the gross implications of a young girl deciding to have sex for the utilitarian reason of saving her male friends, be assured there’s none of that in the film: Beverly instead is a damsel not so much in distress as in a trance, afloat and so not even supporting herself, waiting to be rescued by the boys. While the bond to unite the group is just Bill deciding they should make a blood oath with a shard of glass.
Yet the original writer/director Cary Fukunaga, who left the production, managed to find one of the hundred-and-one ways to resolve the difficultly of this scene, that avoided being exploitative while maintaining Beverly’s agency and authority:
Guys, stop it. Focus.
Everyone turns to Bev. Their muse. Their light.
SHE TAKES EDDIE’S FACE IN HER HANDS
SHE TAKES STAN’S FACE IN HER HANDS
SHE TAKES RICHIE’S FACE IN HER HANDS
SHE TAKES MIKE’S FACE IN HER HANDS
SHE TAKES BEN’S FACE IN HER HANDS
SHE TAKES WILL’S FACE IN HER HANDS
When King wrote the scene he used the familiar ‘it’ euphemism (‘doing it’). But this doesn’t mean that It was sex all along. What It is, I’d argue, is the adult in the many shades of the word. Kolleen Carney writing in defence of That Scene describes the sex as adult as in maturity. But becoming adult is also your entry or maturing into the class that gets away with murder – how cosmically evil the impunity of adults can seem to a kid. Adults are responsible because they’ve gained real opportunity to abuse the less powerful, which in the main plot of It means the younger, and in its wider world the poor, the female, the black, and the gay.
The film defangs this too. In the novel, Pennywise is the cause and effect of racist and homophobic violence. In the film, bully Henry Bowers uses the word ‘fag’, but not in any way that differentiates it from ‘normalised’ playground usage. Meanwhile Ben Hanscom makes an off-camera reference to ‘a racist cult’ that burned down the Black Spot nightclub; but he and the film don’t specify the victims and perpetrators – the ‘Maine Legion of White Decency’ that targeted black servicemen. Which I’d argue is linked to the generally unremarked traducing of the character of Mike Hanlon, the black child in the Losers’ Club. The novel’s gentle, budding local historian and librarian becomes in the film the action kid with a bolt gun who appears to kill a guy and, if the reports on It: Chapter 2 are to be believed, will grow up to be a junkie. Downgrading a character in such a way is apparently less remarkable than having a bully be openly racist, or to name a white-supremacist group by name. The racist hatred of Henry Bowers is supposed to be his inheritance from his father, because racism is America’s inheritance. Pennywise is an example (a role model) to kids of the founding hatreds of the adult world.
The sad fact is, the more you learn about the making of It, the more you suspect that the reason they didn’t foreground Derry’s (read America’s) bigotry, has nothing to do with having a sensitive attitude to how even sympathetic depiction of minority suffering can normalise it – they just didn’t want the film to be perceived as an indictment of the hatreds that run society in case the current cupbearers of said hatreds saw the film as being in cultural war opposition to them and so didn’t go watch it. ‘We don’t mention such things in polite society’ genteelism returns as corporate social sensitivity
Unobjectionable horror is practically an oxymoron. Yet only the most delicate prude from a generation back would find the gross-out horror of the new It gross, or even the bad language too bad. This is not a question of ‘darkness’ or an NC17-rating. Look at the miniseries of It, which made (which had to make, by network TV standards) Beverly’s abuse by her father even more implicit than the leering new film does, but whose Pennywise (“Don’t you want it? Don’t you want it?”) returned the subtext so creepily.
We should have entertaining horror films, crowd-pleasing horror films. But a tentpole horror? The decisions Fukunaga made in his version of the script come across as a sober calculation of what was artistically possible within the constraints of the genre, medium, and market he was working in. The decisions of Muschietti and Dauberman seem to have been geared towards only that last item. As if their plan was to make a horror film that was only as horrifying as it needed to be to still get classed as a horror, but not too horrifying it’d upset anyone. Like Fukunaga warned:
“They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares… They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.”
How to have teeth
The miniseries of It is, in Part 1, elegantly structured. It moves back and forth between 1990 and 1960 (the section of the novel called ‘Six Phone Calls’), with older Mike’s calls to each member of the Losers’ Club initiating a flashback for them. (To avoid risking money had the new film flopped, It features no expensive actors playing the grown-up versions). This structure justifies the episodic scares we get in each flashback, which in the new film are just One Thing After The Other. The structure is intelligent too because the device itself adapts: not every phone-call needs to be seen by the audience once we get used to the pattern. Each flashback we get moves the story along in the 1960 timeline. And notably, and ominously, we don’t see Stan’s flashback, but work our way back to it: at the end of Part 1, his face-to-face encounter with Pennywise in the sewers during the Losers’ Club showdown; and in Part 2, a moment from before that, when Stan got trapped in the house on Neibolt Street with Pennywise-as-mummy. The pattern was set to be broken, to show that Stan was the unlucky one, his flashback saved for last to explain his adult suicide. (Someone writing ‘It’ on a wall in their own blood after slitting their wrist was the first representation I think I saw of suicide – what could scare a grown-up so much they’d kill themselves?).
In the miniseries and novel, It manifests as the children’s pop cultured fears. In the film, we see phobia- and trauma-flavoured versions, the leper, dead Georgie Denbrough, Beverley’s dad. But otherwise, and maybe for fear of Ready Player One-style tackiness, the film only features The Mummy at the end, though not as a manifestation of a character’s fear but as an Easter egg to service the fans. The filmmakers instead put most of their chips on their iteration of Pennywise.
How do you mess up a scary clown? Pretty easily, it turns out, if you’re not responsive to your story existing in a post-scary-clown world. (Too Many Clowns!) And yet scary clowns are cliché only if you don’t deal with that fact via the way that you present them. Acrobatic bunny-toothed new Pennywise is admittedly more manic cartoon character than party entertainer. But you wish this was made more extreme; few things after all are more horrific than a ‘real’ cartoon.
The iconic status of Pennywise is something that’ll actually get in the way of the scariness if pandered to. Fukunaga was aware of this fundamental problem: that any It film would have to work in a world that the novel and miniseries had helped to create:
“The main difference was making Pennywise more than just the clown. After 30 years of villains that could read the emotional minds of characters and scare them, trying to find really sadistic and intelligent ways he scares children, and also the children had real lives prior to being scared. And all that character work takes time.”
Muschietti has no restraint in showing us Pennywise, who appears twice within the first 20 minutes in that standard, modern, front-loaded way – this truly is the Golden Age of Horror. One of the first scares, involving a painting, steals a trick from that paragon The Conjuring 2 (which did it better). It’s more that Muschietti won’t risk restraint. He goes the opposite way, and won’t risk that you miss Something Scary is about to happen, even if it won’t be scary when it does: the bass rumbles, children giggle spookily on the soundtrack. His only other trick is the sudden charging monster, like if the spider in your doorway came shooting straight at you, and as featured in his first film Mama.
Because of a culture that can’t or won’t separate fiction and reality, we mistake what we might find scary in real life with what’s scary in a story. A house like the one on Neibolt Street might scare especially our fiction-addled minds if we were in it, but the film’s house on Neibolt Street, the way it’s set-dressed, lit and shot, the CGI, is like the cackling of Vincent Price in cinematic form. Sure, the haunted house – as with the leper and the mummy – is what the kids in the film find scary. But that isn’t good enough. The challenge is how to make something the kids would find scary but that the audience, so familiar with the genre, finds scary at the same time.
It’s not that the CGI is intrinsically less worthy than the ‘real’ effects of older films. It’s that Muschietti’s use of it is unremarkable, trite, used in service of such low-hanging fruit as halved zombie kids and stabbing crab claws that remind us of what we know, and so can’t be scary unless we already fear that thing. Neither is the point that the CGI should’ve been more realistic. The make-up and claymation effects in the miniseries were horrific because they looked artificial, in that way we know hell will have bad special effects.
The tritest moment, however, if not the most dunderheaded bit of screen-literalism in recent time, is Muschietti’s interpretation of those famous words ‘They all float down here’ (significantly, the much-repeated tagline of the marketing campaign for the film). Are these words of Pennywise a reference to corpses facedown in the sewers? Or something even more horrible? What might ‘float’ really mean? Where might ‘down here’ really be?! No, the corpses actually float – as in, in the air.
Muschietti may be a good director of actors – the kids are all as great as the screen time each one gets, each capable at doing fear, humour, affection – but this only makes the rest of the film a betrayal. The film’s at its best in the lighter-hearted scenes; dialogue like “Derry used to be a beaver town / Still is!” gets a good laugh. But how should we feel about such lines as “Because I want to run towards something, not away from something” especially when given by Beverly as a reason to stick around to fight a clown-monster? Bill’s defiant speech in the miniseries, calling Pennywise ‘you bastard’, but counterpointed by his teary pleas to his friends of ‘Help me’, is more moving than any scene in the film, and this has nothing to do with the child actors in each version, but poor story choices.
The curse festering in screenwriters’ mind, rearing every 27 movies: the hero must have a sympathetic goal, an emotional arc, and you should make things visual at all times. Hence why Bill can’t just explain to his father that he thinks his brother is alive and which two locations he might be in, but has to set up a hamster-tunnel model with action figures and hosepipe water pouring into labelled trays – as over-complicated a way to explain an idea as Doc Brown recreating Hill Valley out of cans and boxes (which at least justified itself by ending on a macabre joke). Hence why Bill doesn’t want revenge, like he does in the novel, but to save the brother he hopes is alive. His arc is to admit this denial (visually! shooting the apparition of his brother with the bolt gun) so we can end on a scene of closure, instead of the ironic and dread-tainted victory of the original story.
Then again this kitschy simplification started the film as it meant to go on. In the very first scene Bill no longer mixes affection for his little brother with calling him ‘a shitty a-hole’. He’s just affection. When characters reminisce we hear the sound effects of their memory like in some hokey BBC radio drama. All the adult actors are broad creeps, even poor Eddie’s mum, whose Munchausen’s-by-proxy is no longer her confused way to protect her child from the dangers she detects through the Pennywise fog in her mind, but part of her opioid white trash kookiness. While the wilful blindness of the rest of the adults gets circled in red: should the audience be given the respect to work out for themselves what hold Pennywise might have on the town, or should there be a red balloon in the backseat of the car of the couple who avert their gaze from Henry’s bullying of Ben? In such a way the film condescendingly zooms in and slows down to show you that Mike has brought along his bolt gun for the ending, an ending which will be a Hero’s Sacrifice. In the novel, it’s Beverly that’s the hero; in the film she does land the final blow on Pennywise when It turns into her dad, but notice the difference it makes to a character whether it’s ‘emotional arc’ logic that demands their action, or whether it’s them saving the day by exercising a skill (being the best at the slingshot).
Muschietti is aware he’s making a film in a universe where It has so much cultural baggage, just in the wrong ways. He shoots the opening scene with lingering, tender shots of Georgie’s paper-boat being made, the kind of museum solemnity not warranted by the moment itself, but directed at the savvy audience. In the original script, the murder of Georgie that follows is intercut with a cat on a porch eating its own food. In the final film, the cat, now foodless, is still there – but why? Because people like cats?
It goes without saying that cheap talk of Fukunaga’s superior version is fantasy – his finished film could’ve been a let-down as well. But he at least was applying himself thoroughly to how in 2017 you make a film of It. If the It we got wasn’t based on the book we knew, the film would have been taken for what it is: funny, with good performances, but a horror for people who don’t like horror. Or in other other words, It is to horror what clowns are to comedy.
It is halfway to making a billion dollars, and so an all-star Ocean’s 11-style cast is being assembled for the sequel: Jessica Chastain from Mama is already in talks (not Amy Adams?) and who knows maybe Lakeith Stanfield will play Mike and Seth Green will reprise his miniseries role as ‘Beep beep’ Richie. This is how commercial success and critical collaboration establish a new standard for what is acceptable and so possible in a horror film. Why should any horror try to be better than It? Didn’t you see how much money it made?
Horror films don’t have to be a safely-buckled rollercoaster ride of wisecracks and jumps. Neither do they have to be conservative warnings against the unknown, nor unguarded recapitulations of social ugliness. Well, we don’t need reminding of monsters, we have the news! the complaint goes. We have our lives.
Cruelty, subjugation are immanent in our world: always just under the streets. (Not for nothing does Derry fall when Pennywise dies.) But making horror ever more horrific isn’t actually just the maximising of the genre’s sadism – your horror for their profit. Because the only way to make a film truly more horrific would be to think with as much pity as intelligence about what scares us and why. With that kind of thinking, an It film would be like the graffiti on the Derry Memorial in Dreamcatcher, but not as the killer’s defiance. The Loser’s Club are victims that become victors. Yes, ‘Pennywise Lives!’ all right. So what are you going to do about it?