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It: Crazy, Scary Good

I'd like to begin this review by recalling a tweet I read a few days ago. Apparently, someone saw It and halfway through the film another viewer released a red balloon into their theater.

On the list of things that are Not Okay? Yeah. That's right at the top.

Still, for all the jump scares and horrific visuals, It isn't as scary a film as I thought it would be----a deliberate choice that I'll explain more about in a moment. At the start of the movie you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is just another generic horror story. After all, you're given all the classic tropes within the first few minutes: a dreary and eerie thunderstorm as our setting, flickering lights, creepy music (that turns out to be a diegetic piano, tellingly the only shot we're given of Billy's mother), a trip to the basement, a smiley face on the window that slowly fades away, and a fake-out wherein a pair of 'eyes' in the darkness are just reflected spots on two bulbs. It's important that It sets all this up because it makes the coming subversion of many tropes that much more powerful.

In fact, It couldn't have dropped at a better time given the country's continued obsession with Stranger Things, with the second season due out on Netflix right before Halloween. Like It, Stranger Things gives us a classic band of losers and a set of stereotypes that, overtime, are allowed to take on a bit of complexity.

It's more than just bike riding and Finn Wolfhard's phenomenal acting.

In each we're allowed to indulge in our nostalgia for the 80s (admittedly a strange feeling when you were born in 1990) while still getting the type of (relatively) progressive storytelling that we've come to expect after four more decades of media. A large part of that is seen in the cuts Muschietti made from the original novel. This It doesn't include a racist Native American ritual that allows the kids to hallucinate the monster's origins. Nor is there the infamous orgy scene between six pre-teen boys and one pre-teen girl because that's how a group "re-connects." Seriously. That was a thing. Luckily, this It has (for the most part) stripped the tale of it's problematic elements and left us with a horror story that is aware of its own status as horror, and it asks the audience, "What would you do in this situation?"

The kids, for example, are allowed to curse. I cannot stress how refreshing that is because like it or not, any 13 year old faced with this

is going to start dropping a whole mess of swearwords. As Richie puts it succinctly, "Oh fuck." In fact, the kids are allowed to be kids----or at least 80's boys----with a realism that adds to the film's horror. They're constantly talking smack about each other. They mention dicks every other sentence. They use insults to mask their fear and "your mom" jokes are the height of their humor. Perhaps most surprisingly, these kids are allowed to be scared. Throughout the film their loyalty to doing 'the right thing' is continually tested: Will they stand up against the bullies (who are no pushovers, pounding the kids with rocks and carving up stomaches with switchblades)? Will they enter the house where It lives? When they're nearly killed the first time around will they have the guts to try again? Without fail someone in the group says no, fuck this, "I don't want to die," and tries to walk away. A running refrain is "it's summer," with these kids openly acknowledging that they're not supposed to be hunting evil, they're supposed to be having fun. The fact that they come to realize on their own that no one else will fight this evil makes their choice that much more powerful. They're not perfectly brave characters that we're in awe of, they're normal kids who do the right thing even though it's scary.

At the climax of the film----during the fight with Pennywise in the sewer----there's a feeling of absolute raw, undiluted terror as these children literally fight for their lives. Unlike other horror movie protagonists, the gang doesn't come up with some clever plan to defeat It that miraculously works out in their favor. They don't have a plan at all. The fight is a mess of limbs and teeth, grabbing any weapon available and using it until you're knocked to the ground, nearly getting eaten before your friend steps in at the last possible second and saves your ass. There's nothing heroic about this fight, not unless we want to re-define heroism as children shrieking at the top of their lungs as they brutally try to beat to death the thing that's been terrorizing them. I had an adrenaline high walking out of the theater because that scene felt real in a way few horror films do.

Overall, It is incredibly aware of its own genre and manages to play with that while staying within the bounds of King's story:

  • You know how monsters are scary largely because we don't get to see them until the end? The film shows us Pennywise right at the start and even has him talking, yet he remains as scary as ever.

  • You know how frustrating it is when someone says they saw something weird and no one else believes them? These kids have got each other's backs, never doubting each other for a moment.

  • You know that one person who always buys into the monster pretending to be a friend/lover/someone who needs help and getting themselves killed? Yeah. Billy isn't that stupid.

And you know the idiot in horror movies who always wanders off alone, inevitably walking towards their bloody death? This film subverts that by making company----of any sort----into a literal weapon. Whenever something bad happens it's always when a kid is isolated and thus Pennywise does everything within his power to separate the group. The viewer is rewarded for noticing this when it's acknowledged as canon. They can only defeat It if they stay together, thus feeding our intrinsic fear of being alone while reassuring us that, if you do have someone nearby, that's how you'll win. Stick together and you'll be just fine.

Easier said than done though. Humans are also intensely curious and It plays off this, using curiosity as a primary motivator for trouble. If you saw a light turn on in your missing brother's room, would you go and check it out? Would you open the door that just creaked shut? Pick up the creepy Easter egg that suddenly appeared? The scary thing is a lot of us would, if only to try and prove to ourselves that there's nothing to be afraid of; it's not real. Which, in a sense, it's not. The kids soon discover that Pennywise is a manipulator. He literally feeds off their fear and thus creates awful illusions to torment children before coming to eat their flesh as well. This not only allows the film to include every horror trope imaginable (because together seven kids are scared of a lot), but actually let's the audience be a little less scared along the way. We, like the kids, know that these are only illusions. Provided that the flesh and blood Pennywise isn't there, the kids (and we) are safe.

As the film goes on Pennywise becomes a little less of the Big Bad and the real monsters----the parents----take centerstage. It's unclear whether the adults of Derry are like this because of Pennywise's influence (the brainwashing TV show and the balloon in the back of the car that drives by Ben while he's getting beat up lend credence to this possibility), but one cannot ignore the fact that unlike a shape-shifting clown, these are real horrors in the world: a father having no patience for his son's grief regarding the death of his brother, another who constantly criticizes his boy, a mother with Munchausen by Proxy, a father who shoots a gun near his kid... another who is raping his daughter.

Some might claim it's up for interpretation, but for me Bev's situation is pretty clear. She has a controlling, leering father who demands to know if she's still "Daddy's little girl" and after the first time we see them together, Bev chops off her hair in an attempt to look less enticing (you can see her ambivalence when Ben later tells her how pretty her new cut is). She knows how to flirt with the pharmacist, an indication that Bev is well aware that men who are 30+ in this town find her attractive. She's also absolutely terrified of getting her period, suggesting that her dad will be displeased by this older, womanly version of her. Pennywise torments Bev by covering her bathroom ceiling to floor with blood and while she cowers in it (reminiscent of Carrie) her father states that he can't see any blood, commenting only on Bev's short hair in an unhappy manner because it, "Makes you look like a boy." The inability to see----see abuse, see pedophilia, see bullying----is the real horror of the film. Like A Series of Unfortunate Events, these adults aren't necessarily stupid or deluded, rather, they're just unwilling to listen to anything a kid has to say. Bev and the others face as much threat from their home lives as they do from Pennywise and nothing is more satisfying than when this killer clown makes the mistake of turning into Bev's rapist father and with a shriek of rage she slams a metal pipe right down his throat.

Yet no film is perfect. Despite its many strides forward, It continues to have two main problems: Mike and Bev. Mike, the only black kid in the group, is specifically targeted by the bullies out of racism, yet the film doesn't lend this issue the kind of weight that it deserves. Even after learning that Mike's parents died in a fire that was deliberately set, even after Henry tries to murder Mike while saying he wished he'd been the one to set the fire, the film glosses over these moments, particularly when it comes to the rest of the group. Whereas Bev is given numerous long scenes that allow her to bond with the boys, Mike is never given the same consideration. He says near the end that he's, "Always the outsider" and it absolutely feels that way to the viewer, even though, as one of the seven, it shouldn't. We're never given the chance to get to know him.

Bev, meanwhile, might have some excellent moments when it comes to her father, but she's still portrayed in a largely mysoginistic manner. I was willing to overlook the swimming scene because, ogling a pre-teen in her underwear aside, it's largely a wholesome moment of these kids just having fun. However, soon enough we've established another love triangle (with Bev coyly on the fence about who she wants to be with) and at the end of the film she's the one who is captured, left to dangle passively while the boys come to her rescue. We've already deviated pretty far from the novel, so why not kidnap someone else? Why not Richie? You know, the kid who hasn't had as much alone time with Pennywise and who is also terrified of clowns. That would have had quite the impact. The fact that Ben kisses Bev to revive her and that works is like a slap in the face. I honestly thought we were past this shit.

There are also a few continuity errors. Why did Eddie follow Billy and Richie into the house when Bev was the only one who volunteered? Why does Henry still have the cut on his head a month after the rock fight? Still, overall I am obviously pleased by this adaptation and thrilled at the high scores it's receiving from viewers and critics alike. Perhaps the only downside is that It's success now highlights the long string of failed Stephen King works on the large and small screen, most notably the recent Dark Tower film. With the revelation that Muschietti (smartly) split the story into two distinct parts-----one following the group's childhood and the other their reunion with It in adulthood-----we can only hope that Chapter Two follows Chapter One's success and doesn't go the way of other Stephen King adaptations.

With the gang's blood oath in place, the next It film is currently scheduled for a 2019 release. See you all in the theaters!

Notable details:

  • Pennywise attempting to lure Georgie into the sewer with delicious, carnival popcorn. Real nice thing to do in a movie theater.

  • I honestly thought the shots of the neighbor meant that she'd call out to Georgie, interrupting his talk with Pennywise and perhaps saving him. Another red herring, though a nice nod to the coming theme of adults as another threat to children.

  • The 'I Love Derry' balloon. Who wants to make that into a t-shirt?

  • Nice parallel between signing Ben's yearbook and Eddie's cast, with only one girl's signature revealed as the nice gesture it's initially presented as.

  • The use of technology as another means for Pennywise to terrorize the kids was a smart move. The 80s were a time of massive technological growth and scenes like the projector slide-show point to some of that long-held fear: that the world is changing rapidly and we all need to change along with it.

  • Anyone else peeing their pants at that god-awful headless kid in the library??

  • I see you, Nightmare on Elm Street.

  • "Nerd alert!" "No, this is actually really interesting" was another good subversion of the gangs' stereotypical characterizations.

  • This film does away with the assumed dark = scary motif and often times has light acting as a harbinger of trouble. Bedside lamps, open doorways, and stained glass windows all illuminate characters right when the scary stuff is about to go down.

  • I enjoyed the nod to the ambiguity of a teenager. They are capable of being eaten (like the kids) or turned evil (like the adults). They're somewhere in between.

  • Nice twist on "You'll float too." We might think it's just evil!Georgie's reference to their boat, another way of tormenting Billy, but by the end of the film you realize the corpses of the kids literally float in Pennywise's lair. Yeesh.

  • Lastly, this was my theater's advertising

Thanks for that.

Image Credit

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