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Non-Review Review: IT

IT works best as a fusion of weird fiction with a classic coming of age story.

IT is arguably one of Stephen King’s most iconic and influential works. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is perhaps King’s most instantly recognisable creation. King’s work seems to recognise this. The monster clown haunts his fiction, making various appearances in other works, suggesting that the creature is an infection spreading across the author’s vast tableau. There are lots of reasons for IT‘s success and status, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that IT is an encapsulation of many of King’s pet themes and plays to many of King’s strengths.

Bill Skarsgård used his other 98 red balloons on Atomic Blonde.

Director Andrés Muschietti seems to understand this. In fact, IT serves as a smorgasbord of cinematic King adaptations, drawing upon and even quoting from various other successful adaptations of the author’s work. Most notably, IT owes a surprisingly large debt to Stand By Me. The decision to exorcise the “present day” sequences of the novel from this film, leaving them to a potential sequel, means that IT is even more overtly and consciously a coming of age narrative.

However, IT is very much a coming of age horror story, a grotesque and unsettling expression of the nightmares lurking just behind familiar childish fears.

There’s something in water.

One of Stephen King’s many strengths as a writer has been his ability to tap into palpable human fears and coating them with a glaze of the supernatural. Carrie is the story of a young girl struggling to come to terms with changes in her own body, and the sense of “othering” that most teenagers feel during puberty, but it is framed in terms of telekinesis and telepathy. However, King is able to skillfully layer those fears in such a way as to maximise their impact.

King’s novels are typically about something scary and unknown, but that something scary often stands in for something closer to home and harder to express. IT might just be the perfect encapsulation of this theme. After all, the movie and the novel take their title from an intangible evil lurking in the small town of Derry in Maine. There is no name for this evil, no descriptor that can be applied to it. Instead, this evil is just one large and almost incomprehensible “it.”

Gripping stuff.

Muschietti understands this. Pennywise is an instantly recognisable figure, but he spends so much of the film obscured and distorted. The monstrous close is introduced hiding in a storm drain, most of his body obscured, but this is not the only time he is mostly hidden; the top of his head protruding from a flooded basement, his face masked by a red balloon, his two eyes staring out of the darkness at his victims. Even when the eponymous monster adopts the form of an iconic and recognisable clown, it seems to lurk in plain sight.

Pennywise is the representation and expression of something more fundamental. There is a reason that the title IT is stylised in press materials like the outline of a door way, light bursting through the seams. Pennywise is just one facet of something much deeper, something more fundamental. IT suggests that Pennywise is a creature that feeds on fear, with a particular taste for children. The novel would suggest that Pennywise was attracted to children because their fears were more primal, easier to manipulate and to stoke.

C’mon. If you can’t trust a clown…

One of the beautiful ironies of IT is the way in which it explores the very idea of childhood fear. In many cases, IT suggests that childhood fears are more complicated than the monster would normally allow. Muschietti eschews most of the retro monster movie trappings of the novel, but the creature menaces the primary characters in very straightforward terms. It attacks a germophobe as “a leper”, or “a walking infection.” It teases other prey by adopting the personas of previous victims.

As it preys upon the children of Derry, only a rag-tag bunch of kids are able to stand up to it. Despite the fact that the town has imposed a curfew, the adult inhabitants seem willfully oblivious to the horrors unfolding. There are repeated scenes of adult characters completely missing some horrific or grotesque action. The town plasters “missing” posters over one another, so as to minimise the disruption to their daily lives. IT frequently suggests that the parents are only vaguely and subconsciously aware of the dangers facing their children, unable to articulate those fears.

Turn that clown upside down!

These are all standard horror tropes; the creature that can change its form to more specifically target individual children, the surrounding adults are useless, it falls to a bunch of children to face an ageless and monstrous evil. However, the beauty of IT is the way in which it layers these conventional horror story tropes over something more deep-seated, how these superficial trappings are more than mere storytelling contrivance, they are thematic substance.

IT is fundamentally a horror movie about coming of age, of children learning to face very adult fears. The film seems to suggest that the kids at the centre of the story are better able to resist and oppose the monster because their fears are more mature. The gang of children at the centre of the film are facing fears more profound than that creepy woman from an oil painting or that disgusting leper or that zombie child. The monster’s power over these children is diminished, because it cannot represent the larger fears facing these children.

A trial balloon.

Indeed, IT is a film that is quite consciously and overtly about fears that are often left unexplored and undiscussed. When Bill tries to lead his friends in search of the missing children, Eddie responds, “What if I don’t want to find them?” This is a question simmering away in the background of IT, something that makes the movie so effective. What if the real horror is society’s unwillingness to confront horror? What if the really scary thing is a community’s willingness to tolerate unspeakable horrors rather than try to articulate them.

Among the many changes to the source material, Muschietti changes the movie’s timeframe. The original novel was split between scenes set in the then-present day of the eighties and the nostalgic setting of the fifties. Recognising that roughly the same amount of time has passed since the novel was published, IT transposes those childhood flashbacks from the fifties to the eighties, presumably to allow a potential sequel to be set in the present day.

“This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel.”

It is a very clever piece of mirroring, with the novel’s present becoming the film’s past. However, it also underscores some of the subtle social horror of the source novel. IT unfolds across the summer of 1989, as demonstrated by the cinema screening Batman and Lethal Weapon II. (At one point, the cinema is also showing Nightmare on Elm Street V.) Like so much eighties horror, the novel was in many ways a grotesque reflection of Reagan’s America, a horrifying tale of the dangers of nostalgia untempered by empathy.

The novel drew a connection between the resurgent conservatism of the eighties and the quiet conservatism of the fifties, subverting and deconstructing the romantic fantasy of an idyllic post-war America that never quite existed. IT provides a clever extrapolation on that premise, suggesting that the modern political climate might owe a lot to the mood of the eighties, that the modern political crisis might be traced back to the end of the Reagan era. (This is hardly a novel observation, but it a clever framing of horror nostalgia.)

The house may or may not be America.

IT suggests that the true horror in the world is a lack of empathy and understanding, a willingness to ignore the suffering of others in order to preserve the illusion of tranquility. The town of Derry is idyllic. Beyond the soundtrack, it would be relatively easy to transpose the film’s setting to the fifties. The film even features the community’s annual Independence Day celebrations, a particularly wholesome event featuring its own clown figure. IT is a story about a community willing to let its children suffer rather than acknowledge the rot at its foundation.

However, IT is also a coming of age narrative. Although IT avoids perhaps the most infamous scene from the source material, IT is a story about puberty. “You’ll float too,” the clown repeatedly promises his victims, a quote echoed in many of the marketting materials. However, there is a more profound observation, “You’ll change.” There is a sense that the children in IT are on the cusp of adulthood, and struggling with the changes that their bodies are going through, changes perhaps as horrific and confusing to them as anything Pennywise undergoes.

Not war…

Richie is the self-appointed “trash talker” of the group, but most of his innuendos are explicitly sexual in nature. Eddie is worried about infection and disease, and his conversation inevitably turns towards AIDS and HIV. When they discover that Stanley will be undergoing his bar mitzvah, their first question is whether his rabbi will “cut the tip of his dick off.” The boys are clearly starting to notice girls, feeling noticeably uncomfortable when Beverly Marsh strips down to her underwear. The film eschew’s King’s most infamous moments, but does feature an exchange of bodily fluids.

This sexual subtext is most explicit in the character of Beverly Marsh, the only girl among the losers. The film borrows quite a bit from Carrie in its portrayal of her coming of age, particular with its emphasis on her menstration. However, the other characters around Beverly also note her sexuality; her introductory scene has other girls in the school slut-shaming her, several male adult characters are quite overt in the way that they sexualise her, she is an object of attraction for at least two of the gang.

Storm (drain) warning…

IT perfectly encapsulates the intersection of these mundane and relatable anxieties with something more supernatural and grotesque. The transformations facing the kids in the story are so haunting specifically because characters do not talk about them. They seem to metastasise into something monstrous because they remain unspoken. One of the movie’s most memorable early set pieces is juxtaposed against one such grounded (and unspeakable) fear, as Beverly is confronted with a mess of blood and hair while confronting something much more profoundly unpleasant.

This is one of the reasons why IT works so well, with King literalising these juxtaposition of grounded (and unspeakable) fears with something more mythological and epic. It is telling that the kids inevitably track the monster down to the sewers running beneath Derry, a nightmarish construction that always seems to go deeper, in defiance of the laws of gravity and civil engineering. The sewers are nothing but a literal representation of the town’s subconscious, a dark maze that connects all manner of horrors to one another.

“We’re kids, but even we understand that these sewers make no damn sense.”

IT is a phenomenal accomplishment from director Andrés Muschietti. The movie’s style owes a very conscious debt to the wave of contemporary horror pioneered by The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, the idea that cinematic horror is a genre that can successfully crossbreed with more conventional and accessible mainstream genres. James Wan has arguably created a new school of “crowdpleasing blockbuster horror”, and IT firmly belongs within that wheelhouse. It is movie that combines Stand by Me and Carrie, without missing a single beat.

To be fair, there are some problems along the way, particularly in the film’s third act. Although IT does an excellent job of populating its world with necessary secondary characters, it struggles to integrate them all into the climax of the movie. The climax of IT feels a little bit too much like a conventional blockbuster than either a horror film or a coming of age story. There is a sense that certain characters and beats got lost in the movie’s development cycle. This is particularly true of one character who gets a character arc late in the film, only to serve as little more than muscle.

A world of their (cl)own.

Still, this is a minor issue. IT is a fascinating and compelling piece of work, and an impressive accomplishment from all involved.

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2 Responses

  1. Oh dear Lord, I feel so bad for the kids of this movie, especially Beverly… wow, a horror movie that makes me care about the main characters! It’s a miracle… I mean, the movie It, the monster can get it’s heart ripped out and beaten to death for all I care.

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