Director: Andrés Muschietti
Screenplay: Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga & Chase Palmer; Based on the novel by Stephen King
Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung; Editing: Jason Ballantine; Production Design: Claude Paré; Set Decoration: Rosalie Board; Costumes: Janie Bryant; Score: Benjamin Wallfisch
Stars: Jaeden Lieberher (Bill Denbrough), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben Hanscom), Sophia Lillia (Beverly Marsh), Finn Wolfhard (Richie Tozier), Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie Kaspbrak), Wyatt Oleff (Stanley Uris), Chosen Jacobs (Mike Hanlon), Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise), Nicholas Hamilton (Henry Bowers), Jackson Robert Scott (Georgie Denbrough)
Consisting largely of extended flashbacks to the Eisenhower era, Stephen King’s novel IT was such a colorfully jumbled calliope of atomic age sci-fi (It! The Terror from Beyond Space, It Came from Outer Space, It Came from Beneath the Sea, It Conquered the World), and ‘50s creature features (like Them!, Tarantula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon), there’s poetic justice in the author’s hair-raising tale having wormed its way back into the sort of summer movie popcorn fare that originally inspired it, courtesy of director Andrés Muschietti’s big screen adaptation.
Matinee monsters clearly gave King the willies as a kid, haunting his fertile imagination same as they did his young, fictional protagonists. Writ large through the glass darkly of his distorted mind, these formative childhood traumas were shared with the rest of us in book form, collectively immersing readers in his pop cultural nightmare, and Muschietti’s movie has set out to afford it an even wider public platform. King’s unmentionable IT is a malevolent monster who adopts the deceptive guise of capering circus clown Pennywise to prey on little kids in the seemingly quiet, small town of Derry, Maine. And the idea that IT could pluck from its victim’s minds images of what scares them most, is a notion the author (who originally began putting pen to paper in 1981) probably appropriated from Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, released the following year, wherein the sage little psychic hired to exorcise a home, identified the same modus operandi in the residential haunts (“Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning.”).
Same way that Pillsbury Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was dreamed into being at the end of Ghostbusters, IT takes whatever form deemed most fitting to play on victim’s phobias. Finding convenient bogeymen and things that go bump in the night already imprinted in the impressionable minds of youngsters, IT feeds into their night terrors like a living Rorschach test, reflecting back whatever mental pictures they project onto him, their focused fears taking physical form. So the scene where IT materializes from the beam of a slide projector, emerging bigger than life to take a bite out of the kids, is not just a threat directed toward our heroes, but by breaking the fourth wall, a full frontal assault on us. The viewing audience watching from the presumed safety of a darkened theater is made to feel like imperiled statistics themselves. IT was only released flat or in enhanced IMAX, so I can only imagine the effect if the clown had emerged from the screen in 3D.
Unlike most other movies made by mature adults who long ago forgot about the sort of irrational things that used to scare them as kids, IT succeeds in tapping into the childhood world of primal fears, which may seem absurd when one looks back, but in the moment possessed the stone cold terror to absolutely petrify us. Just as clown Pennywise takes on a form kids would find reassuringly familiar, the film adopts a child’s eye view of horror, quite literally at one point, when the camera takes on Georgie’s (Jackson Robert Scott) p.o.v. as he runs headfirst into a construction barrier. Imagining unknown dangers lurking around every corner, IT addresses kids on their own level by framing its frights in terms they’d be most familiar with.
This means having IT leap straight up in the air like a bullet or run at supersonic speed like an old Warner Bros cartoon character, extend his arms as if made of India rubber, advance in the herky- jerky fashion of a stop motion Ray Harryhausen Claymation creation, even lurch forward into full frame like some cheesy, animatronic prop in a haunted fairground attraction. A few of Nicholas Brooks’ ghost and goblin effects are wonky, like something out of a Tim Burton fairy tale nightmare, true to the way little kids brought up on computer animation and DIY papier-mâché Halloween decorations would conceive them, while those of us in the audience aren’t sure whether to laugh them off or lower our guard, letting them scare the living daylights out of our inner child.
King was working on his novel around the same time the gruesome crime spree of serial murderer John Wayne Gacy, known as the “Killer Clown,” began leaking into the news, reports that may have been subsumed by the author into his central character (his official inspiration was Ronald McDonald [!]). Like Gacy, the monster here appears to have taken on the clown guise simply because he knew it would be easier to lure kids that way, a stranger with not just candy, but an entire circus sideshow, an inducement impossible to turn down. And the unsettling power behind King’s terror ridden fusion of true crime and the preternatural, had such traction behind it that IT has permanently seeped into the pop cultural subconscious with freakish, homicidal clowns haunting fiction ever since.
They’ve implanted themselves so deeply in the psyche that unsubstantiated urban legends of crazed clowns routinely pop up in one form or another just about every Halloween. And IT has been released just in time to commemorate their seasonal reappearance. Stretching back to pioneer days, Derry, with its death rate six times the national average, has a civic history as unsettling as Burkittsville, Maryland in The Blair Witch Project. The entire town seems cursed, same way Salem’s Lot was, existing solely to serve as a meat locker for the immortal monstrosity feeding off its stores. At one point the clown crawls out of an ancient well in the basement of the local haunted house, so similar to the basement where he’d first appeared to Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, from Midnight Special), like Samara in The Ring. As with Them! and little Newt in Aliens too, the mutant monster here hordes the catches he drags down storm drains, into the sewers coursing beneath the streets, full of all the filth and refuse that the town of Derry, so deceptively placid on the surface would like to flush away, out of sight. The internal, blood red lettering from Insidious reappears in IT’s titles as well, rotating like a vortex, swirling down a drain. The nest the creature’s been building for centuries appears to have been compiled of all the town’s discard and rubbish, a serial killer’s shrine made up of mementos from every murder, spiraling upward. Bodies float in orbit like space junk caught in the planet’s gravitational field. And the spectral scene tends to recall the ending of Super 8, where all the magnetized matter in the vicinity was attracted to the polarized, departing spaceship.
I’m a bit perturbed that Muschiatti, whose major, prior commercial success was Mama, didn’t cast Javier Botet, who was so good as the specter in that film and plays the Leper here, as Pennywise. Especially since the Spanish actor seems to be carving out his own specialized niche onscreen, routinely impersonating such creepypastas in movies like Crimson Peak, The Other Side of the Door, The Revenant, The Conjuring 2 and The Mummy. Instead, the casting directors swung to the other extreme by placing young Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård, perhaps best known previously for his appearance in the Divergent franchise, in the part. This is especially odd since they then made the pretty boy totally unrecognizable by burying him beneath tons of heavy makeup with the consistency of peeling plaster. So it’s not as though they were trying to go in another direction with such stunt casting. I would love to have been privy to the audition process, to see just how Skarsgård convinced everyone he was the perfect choice for this part (Will Poulter had been tagged for Pennywise when Cary Fukunaga was still attached as director). The son of Stellan Skarsgård, and little brother (he’s actually 6’4”) of Alexander and Gustaf Skarsgård, all of whom have had major crossover success in American film and television, the younger Skarsgård hails from a long line of respected actors, so maybe it’s in the blood.
Peeping around corners, always watching, with his stalking tiger air, Skarsgård, to his credit, is darn good at scaring the bejesus out of us, especially in that initial scene where he sort of oozes out of the darkness, his approach preceded by those unearthly, phosphorescent eyes that keep changing colors. With those cold, dead orbs, that roll back into his head like loose egg yolks to reveal the whites, he’s like a malicious marionette on a string, akin to that sock puppet he strings together of Georgie in the flooded basement, his “You’ll float too” refrain getting caught on a metallic loop like a skipping record, mocking Bill’s own stutter, while imparting the preprogrammed impression of a robot run amok. Taking perverse pleasure in invoking terror, there’s no more unsettling sight than watching Skarsgård’s insane ‘Dancing Clown’ jig while utterly devoid of any sense of mirth in the motions, thudding so hard in his floppy clown shoes he nearly brings down the walls around him. He might be a cobra swaying back and forth to hypnotize its prey before striking.
Able to smell his victims’ fears like a bloodthirsty wild beast, he flashes his fangs as though they were a switchblade before extending his double set of snakelike teeth to clamp down, making the harmless looking, sewer rat overbite he normally sports while drooling over appetizing morsels, all the more deceptive. A movie poster for Beetlejuice pops up on one of the kid’s walls, which would seem to single him out as a primary influence on the film’s concept of Pennywise. Like this clown, Beetlejuice also morphed into a multitude of different forms to scare off unwanted new homeowners in Tim Burton’s candy colored world, which turned its haunted house into a three-ring circus. As with Pennywise, Beetlejuice possessed a chalk white, kabuki mask, sported a receding hairline and engaged in equally frenetic cavorting and falsely cheery double talk to disguise a malicious streak a mile wide. But if Beetlejuice had the seedy, snake oil charm of a used car salesman, IT is a sideshow huckster, regaling and luring in kids with his carnival barker spiel. Michael Keaton played Beetlejuice and it was his follow up film for Burton, Batman, where Stephen King’s The Shining star Jack Nicholson chewed the scenery with a classic spin on The Joker, from which Skarsgård’s vicious clown seems descended.
Theater marquees are also shown advertising A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 whose Freddy Krueger became one of the most unsettling folk ‘heroes’ to arise from ‘80s slasher horror. A by-product of the social hysteria swirling at the time around widespread allegations of preschool child abuse in the wake of the McMartin trial and others, he was a child-killing pedophile who came back from the dead after being burned alive by his victims’ parents, to get all the kids, now teens, who’d escaped his steel clawed clutches the first time around. Likewise taking on a myriad of forms, Krueger’s snarky sense of humor grew with each sequel and, much like Pennywise, he increasingly turned his victims’ own flaws and weaknesses against them, attacking their psyche by manifesting in their dreams.
And the idea that it was all a nightmare that the kids could wish away whenever they wanted, as Bill and Richie (Finn Wolfhard, of Stranger Things) here do, when trapped in the upstairs room of that haunted house, was also advanced in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but betrayed so badly at the end of the first film it’s never been a security blanket moviegoers could really depend on since. Pennywise, who once preyed on adults, now finds kids easier targets as well. Society’s most vulnerable victims, they’re more dispensable and easily forgotten, lambs led to slaughter. But the psychological hang-ups of the kids in IT are pretty much skirted, outlined so peripherally they hardly resonate. So they don’t carry quite the emotional impact they’re meant to when they crop up again at the end, each kid forced to confront their biggest fear as the monster shimmers from one to another, displaying a different one of its faces to each, like a biblical Seraph, its amalgam on the fritz.
Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is not from Derry originally, and so still able to think outside the box, not having been brainwashed by the horror for as long a period of time. Shipped in from outside the town limits, he’s immediately attuned to the fact that something is off about the place, immersing himself in its history to ferret out the mystery of what seems so amiss within these borders. Being new in town also explains his embarrassing musical predilection for boy band New Kids on the Block, and why, desiring to be part of a group himself, he gazes with such longing out the window of the local library, where he’s buried himself beneath a mountain of books, as the boys bicycling past enjoy their summer outdoors. On the hefty side, Ben is an easy target for singling out by the local bullies. He’s also been given the sad sack Pagliacci bit here, with his unrequited love for Beverly (Sophia Lillie) who believes, Cyrano-fashion, the sonnet he wrote her was instead composed by his best friend, rather than as an expression of endearment for her having signed his yearbook. Alarm bells should have rang the instant Ben saved her life in the garage and, after peremptorily thanking him, she immediately sought Bill’s arms for comfort.
Being black, Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who is home-schooled, subsisting on the fringes of town, is also an outsider by virtue of his skin color, and though his late day induction into the Losers Club is intended to close the circle with the mystical number of seven, imbuing the kids with the power to start fighting back as one body, his is the only character that doesn’t feel sufficiently thought out in the updating. He seems to subsist in an earlier era, before Civil Rights, where black folk were being burned and lynched with impunity. Mike’s haunted by the memory of his parents, who died in a fire, but there’s only a whisper of the likelihood that they were killed in an attempt by the local white supremacists to burn them out of house and home. Derry’s dark record of racism, just another suppressed town sin stoked and fed upon by IT, a major component of the novel, is glossed over here. Even when Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) walks past a black church from which we can hear strains of gospel music, rhyming with an earlier shot that had introduced us to Stan’s (Wyatt Oleff) synagogue, nothing comes of it. But while the word is never mentioned, racism is certainly the reason Mike receives such special attention from the bullies, and while we might not feel a fine enough sense of justice when he finally stands up against his chief tormentor at the end, that captive bolt pistol he’s been seen using, Silence of the Lambs-style, is at least brought back to dramatic account, definitively affirming his refusal to be victimized any longer.
When not preying on these kids’ vulnerabilities and insecurities themselves, adults prove so singularly useless, as they were in Matt Reeve’s Let Me In, they might as well have been taken over, possessed by the accursed spirit of IT, leaving the kids no one to turn to and not knowing who to trust. Even the local police, such as the father of the primary bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, who had issues in Strangerland and Captain Fantastic as well), prove to be part of the problem. This swaggering, macho cop is the real source of his son’s aggression, the same way the bully’s older brother in Let Me In was, the reason why he lashes out with such unmitigated rage against the younger, weaker kids around him, convenient punching bags on which to unload all the bottled up hostility which has no other outlet. As it was in Let Me In, this is no run-of-the-mill playground bullying we’re witness to, boys being boys, but genuinely lethal, percolating rage that’s reaching critical mass, threatening to become another Columbine. It is juvies like Henry Bowers, real life monsters, who haunt most children far more than the made up bogeymen living under their beds, so it’s understandable that these schoolkids are running in fear for their lives from more than Pennywise. It’s no coincidence that IT slashes Ben in the exact same area where Henry had earlier cut him, or that this creature, who hibernates for decades, waking every twenty seven years like a cicada, personally chooses Henry to help ensure he finishes his periodic feeding cycle, after giving him the gift to eliminate his sole source of fear.
This demoniac creature who feeds off fear, anxiety and discord, deriving his strength by placing people at sixes and sevens, is attracted to the darkness he senses in Bowers, same way he is drawn to the demons Beverly, who shares IT’s same fiery hair color, lets out to play when she conks out her father, conquering her fear on her own, depriving IT of the ability to scare her further. The apathetic couple in the car who simply pass by without intervening while Ben is being accosted by the bullies, actually have one of IT’s signature red balloons floating in the backseat as if its presence were sedating their response. They don’t see what’s going on, or choose not to, as Beverly’s dad can’t see the blood that’s erupted all over the bathroom.
The entire town has a long history of turning its head the other way and instantly forgetting the predations, as if suffering from collective amnesia. Pennywise even broadcasts his subliminal messages over a Bozo the Clown style children’s TV show, as we saw done on Syfy’s Candle Cove. As more and more children go missing, their parents behave as though they were blind sheep, the sort that Mike’s grandfather warned him against becoming at the beginning, allowing their offspring to be led to slaughter by the hypnotic strains of a malevolent Pied Piper. Leaving it up to the kids themselves, the very people on the most endangered list, to acknowledge the reality of what’s going on in order to combat IT in the interest of self-preservation.
Beverly’s sexually abusive father has been molesting her for so long that her greatest fear has become growing into a woman rather than his ‘innocent’ little girl, a dread realized when she gets her first period, and the results are as harrowing as they were for King’s Carrie. Few directors have made the embarrassing ritual of buying Tampax as gruelingly funny, but when the creepy pharmacist starts leching after this young girl the same age as his own daughter, it’s disturbing to realize this inappropriate behavior isn’t just restricted to one sick individual. In an act of self-hatred Bev shears her locks (so she’ll look less like a girl, hopefully dissuading such men from chasing after her), and her tomboyish new look liberates her in a sense, by allowing her to show how tough she is, playing with the boys on equal footing. She’s our rock, so when Bev, the strongest and most brave member of their Losers Club (like the telekinetic little Eleven on Stranger Things, she shows them all up at the quarry swimming hole), displays fear, as IT emerges from the projector, for instance, or goes loco like a cornered beast upon being impaled through the face with that fence pike, it’s our cue as well that sh*t just got real. Beverly so clearly outclasses all the insecure little boys standing around like frightened nimrods in their underwear, one wonders why she’s still placed in the same position as Elle Fanning was at the end of Super 8, kidnapped by the monster and placed in cold storage down in the mining shafts beneath the town, waiting to be rescued. But rather than playing simple damsel in distress, her abduction serves a larger narrative function by successfully bringing the group back together (echoing the way she originally had, to clean the blood from her bathroom), permanently bonding all the boys same as the character did in a far more controversial way in King’s book, bonding them even more deeply than the blood oath they swear at the end, to return to Derry and finish IT off if he ever shows his face around there again. Indeed Bev gets to have it both ways, getting in all the best licks at IT, while still playing the proverbial fairy tale princess little girls dream of being, as in the copy of “The Frog Prince” she keeps by her keyboard, awakened at the end from her perpetual slumber by true love’s kiss. And when she places her still bleeding hand against Bill’s face, it’s in unashamed acceptance of her sexual maturity, which she no longer feels the desire to hide or retard, despite the specter of her molestation.
Much like Bev, hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer plays the young John Larroquette on CBS’ Me, Myself & I, and may give the cleverest performance in the picture), an amusing, nattering little weasel who carries a drugstore around in his fanny pack, has been kept in a state of arrested development as well, entombed in the womb by a smothering mother he still amusingly regresses into calling mommy, same way Bev does her ‘daddy,’ to placate parental ire. Consequently, Eddie appears undersized and malnourished, physically not yet fully formed. Yet while the movie initially depicts his overbearing mother uncharitably, as a Oedipal monster of castrating fleshiness, like the child consuming Monster House, misleading us to believe she, along with all the other adults in town is somehow under the sway of IT, the director has the generosity of spirit to allot her more humane dimensions by the end, when we realize her desire to keep her son in the house, dependent on her, has less to do with isolating him from those friends from whom he draws his strength, than the unspoken dread that he too might get snatched away, like all the other missing children (as he tells Bill bluntly, “I don’t want to go missing too.”). Imprisoned in his hermetically sealed bubble, addicted to his inhalers and a litany of pills intended to keep him in a weakened and docile state, Eddie’s been instilled with a fear of infection, which takes the physical form of a leper, a walking infestation. Yet by the end, once Eddie’s howled down the fear of getting his hands dirty, willfully allowing himself to be all mussed up, he expresses no qualms about cutting his palm with an unsanitized shard of glass and commingling his blood with that of the others, despite the concern he’d earlier expressed concerning the growing AIDS epidemic.
When sexually precocious wiseacre Richie unexpectedly pops up in the synagogue during Stan’s (Wyatt Oleff was the baby Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy) bar mitzvah, the juxtaposition suddenly reminds one of Western society’s two opposing views of Jewish culture. Despite his Woody Allen glasses, profane, irreverent Richie isn’t Jewish, but he still revels in the sort of funny, sloppy Yiddish shtick that was an essential hallmark of ethnic vaudeville tradition. Stan on the other hand represents another cultural extreme – the esoteric striving for knowledge, order and spiritual perfection in the universe, an ideal embodied by devoted, concentrated study of the Torah. When the other kids throw down their bikes to rush to Mike’s defense, for instance, he’s the only one to take the time to pop up his kickstand before hastening after them. This obsessive compulsive trait is one timorous, tidy Stan shares in common with Eddie, both refusing to follow Bill and Richie into the filthy storm drain at one point and having vapors while cleaning the blood from Bev’s bathroom. It’s also why rabbi’s son Stan, who tortuously strives to get his pronunciation just right while practicing his religious blessings, is driven so crazy by that cockeyed, elongated Modigliani painting which affronts his artistic sensibilities by seeming so crooked. Even when he tries to straighten the frame, none of the lines or contours lay right. The distorted features of her countenance are so disturbing to his sense of symmetry that once the creature steps off the canvas, like that crazed nun in The Conjuring 2, she suctions her extended oral cavity onto his own face in retribution, as if trying to gnaw it off.
It was actually Poltergeist, way back when, which gave the big screen perhaps its finest clown created fright, when the stuffed toy that had been birddogging the family’s little boy the entire film long pounced on him at the end. This sequence psychologically scarred a generation of kids (our own toys weren’t supposed to turn on us), same way those ‘50s creature features did King. And it’s one that undoubtedly impacted the way director Muschietti has mounted the clown room scene here, where Richie (who comes across as vaguely loco, like Cory Feldman in Stand by Me), a class clown himself with his comic impressions, stand up routines and razor wit (“Wait, can only virgins see this stuff? Is that why I’m not seeing any of this sh*t?” – he has all the film’s best lines), is confronted by an entire room full of rival court jesters and jack-in-the-boxes, permitting him to pick his poison.
Certainly pop culture junkie King was well aware of Spielberg when writing his novel, at the height of the director’s popularity. Fresh off E.T., concerning an alien life form of a different feather, which had demonstrated the director’s deft handling of a gaggle of young leads, IT, in literary form, fell in line with other second-hand, big-screen Spielberg knock-offs like The Goonies and The Monster Squad, with their assorted collections of pipsqueak protagonists. The imprint of Spielberg on King’s novel was obvious, and in the thirty odd years since the book was published, the movie version has picked up quite a few additional cultural references as well, so that one can easily detect in it the spate of other recent, 80’s-set, Spielberg-inspired, tween-cast films.
I’ve said it before, but as long as they keep popping up, in the wake of J.J. Abram’s superior Super 8, Netflix’s Stranger Things, Matt Reeve’s Let Me In, and a litany of others, all of which left their fingerprints on director Muschietti and writers Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer, I’ll have to reiterate. While IT has a great, original score by Benjamin Wallfisch and is pierced by quirky moments of goofball comedy intended to take the edge off, the problem with movies like this is that they seem like pure addendum at this late date. Once as fresh and original as a ripe tomato, this warmed over material now feels slightly rotten from standing on the shelf so long. IT’s all been done before and one could unkindly comment on its excessive length and episodic nature, in jumping from character to character, but it’s so well paced viewers probably won’t notice, the purpose being to wrap all these loose strands together courtesy of Jason Ballantine’s editing. As Part One, it’s just a shameless lead in to the second half of the duology, and I’m tempted to pick apart the disjointed structure of the ending, in which several incidents seem to make no sense at all. Such as how Stan gets separated from the group initially, or why Bill would subsequently choose to separate himself by running off after Georgie, who he knows is dead, while well aware his Losers Club only derives strength when in proximity to one another. And if IT must travel through the pipes webbing back to that well in the house on Neibolt street, his own Minotaur labyrinth, it’s not clear how he just magically pops up in certain places, such as the library and the synagogue.
I remember seeing and being deeply affected by the made-for-TV movie adapted from King’s book in 1990 and being disappointed when I watched IT again as an adult (the threadbare, pre-HBO TV limitations show through). Despite giving Tim Curry as Pennywise the only chance he’s had onscreen to give a performance in the same range as his clownish looking Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror, and featuring an exceptional cast (for TV) including Richard Thomas, Annette O’Toole, John Ritter, Dennis Christopher, Olivia Hussey, Harry Anderson, Tim Reid, Richard Masur, etc., Stephen King’s IT didn’t compare to my memory of it. Few things from childhood do when seen in the cold harsh light of a more mature, later day. Which may be why movies like this are continually remade – to reimagine those old night terrors, ramping them up with enough juice to still scare us.
The unbeatable combination of Spielberg and King, the seminal popular influences on sci-fi and horror for my generation, seems like such ideal synergy, one wonders why Hollywood never hit on the idea before, instead having to shamelessly follow in the wake of television and Stranger Things. But it helps explain why the movie, which merges the creative spirits of both artists, has been selling so many tickets. Clearly Hollywood is becoming predominated by a population of middle-aged Gen-X directors and writers.
Weaned on Spielberg and King, they’re now spreading a wave of nostalgia for their own lost youth. You’d have to have been there for instance, to fully appreciate the movie’s standing gag concerning New Kids on the Block. Directors like IT’s Muschiatti want to relive the fun of the ‘80s Spielberg movies that once gave them goose bumps, the same way King celebrated Saturday matinee monster movies in his novel. This is why the timeframe has been shifted from the ‘50s (when King and Spielberg were both boys) to the late ‘80s, when Muschiatti was roughly around the same age as his protagonists.
IT has been deceptively shaped like other nostalgic, rite-of-passage movies, bar mitzvahs in themselves, with the kids waving goodbye to their childhood innocence by being forced to confront their worst, Freudian fears. In its way, IT bears a deep and abiding emotional connection to King’s Stand by Me, in which a group of little boys embarked on a macabre odyssey to find a missing kid, only to end up wrestling with their own emerging identities, finding themselves and coming to a better understanding of each other. Rather than a body by the train tracks, however, the kids in IT scour the sewers in futile search of the little brother of their gang’s fearless leader Bill, who’s vanished at the height of the wave of other missing children murders.
The canary yellow raincoat Georgie was last wearing might have been chosen for its stark, primary contrast to Pennywise’s blood red balloons, extensions of the clown’s bulbous nose. But this slicker is used in the same way that little girl in red was in Spielberg’s otherwise monochrome Schindler’s List. Georgie stands out so starkly with this come-and-get-me sign hanging on his shoulders, he can’t help but draw the wandering eye of a predator. Running around in his raincoat the way he does, he might be intended to invoke the dead child that haunted Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now. Already plagued by a debilitating stutter, Bill has been left equally haunted by the disappearance of the baby brother he feels he should have protected (“You couldn’t save him, but you can still save yourself.”), and who keeps coming back to reproach him, like the little vampires in Salem’s Lot. Bill’s journey, like that of Gordie in Stand by Me, is largely about him coming to terms with the loss and learning to let go, accepting that his brother is dead, rather than simply missing, processing his grief through the thinly veiled encounter support group comprised of his friends. With his real father seen to be as singularly unsympathetic as the other adults in town, it’s only Bill’s alternative family who can help shepherd him through the healing process.
Though IT wasn’t published until 1986 (the same year Stand By Me appeared in theaters), King began chewing over the concept as early as 1978, and perhaps the most direct influence on his central concept of the ‘Losers Club,’ comprised of the town’s underage outcasts, was the popular Bad News Bears movie of 1976. Much like the kids here, that movie was about a ragtag band of misfits, little leaguers who couldn’t win a game until they accepted that their differences proved a definite advantage on the baseball diamond. For its part, The Bad News Bears was released the same year another King novel, Carrie, was adapted to the screen, the first time he saw the title of one his works on a cinema marquee. So it’s likely the novelist was all about soaking up the theatrical competition that season. IT is the sort of film that celebrates the iconoclastic eccentrics, Glee-style, losers who would normally be written off without so much as an epitaph, which is why it’s so easy to make these kids disappear (“Cause when you’re alone as a kid, the monsters see you as weaker.”). IT gains in power by feeding off such marginalized groups subsisting outside the mainstream of society. And if the Losers Club had included among their number other groups now being denied equal protection under America’s social contract – Muslims, Mexicans, the transgender – the director-writers would have had their political bases thoroughly covered.
Yet the power of their diversity makes the Losers Club that much stronger. It’s only in one another’s presence that these kids can fully blossom, overcoming their handicaps, reaching their full potential as human beings (“I never felt like a loser when I was with all of you.”). Which is why Stan reacts so emotionally, like that little girl in Jurassic Park, as though he’d been personally betrayed when his friends briefly abandon him to his fate in the sewers. When made to feel as though they belonged, they become far more confident, daring, adventurous, brave and self-sufficient. Rather than running from the pack of bullies led by Henry, for instance, they can confront their tormentors for the first time in a hilarious, if bruising to behold, ‘rock war’ – a dodge ball match that leaves the bullies both bloody and bowed, conceding their ground. The kids similarly attack IT in unison at the end, leaping on his back as he spins like an out of control carousel, flinging them this way and that. As he violently transitions into a writhing mass of half formed tentacles and protoplasm, like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, they whale away at him with any deadly weapon to hand, as though he were an overstuffed piñata, leaving him no escape route and nowhere to turn. When he’s shot by the last magic bullet in that captive bolt pistol and his Humpty Dumpty head starts to crack open like one of those Ironworks explosion Easter eggs (much as the masked villain’s did in the original Mystery of the Wax Museum), we’re not exactly certain what it is we’re seeing inside, worlds within worlds.
The unbreakable bond forged between the kids for protection against It, despite their different classes, ethnicities, genders and faiths, couldn’t be more prescient than in our current, politically divisive times, in which social differences are being brazenly exploited to tear at the democratic fabric of the country. Clearly IT’s Argentinian director, suddenly made to feel targeted himself, an unwanted interloper in the land of the free, had more on his mind here than your garden variety ghosts and ghouls. Henry, who operates in the story like Pennywise’s spiritual heir, an apt pupil (the reason Eddie expresses the opinion that Henry’s probably the killer), and will eventually become possessed altogether by IT’s malevolent essence, echoes the same nationalistic philosophy, telling Mike to “stay the f*ck out of” his town and terrorizing Ben who moved there from elsewhere. These are, in effect, the same unspoken beliefs being subliminally advanced by the current administration when seeking public support for their Muslim ban, ICE’s accelerated activity and tax dollars to ‘secure’ the border by erecting higher walls. Such coded words are indicative of the belief that this land is my land, a closed cultural heritage, just as the territorial IT believes Derry belongs to him, and that he alone deserves hunting rights within it.
As with America’s current divider-in-chief, IT’s insidious approach to keeping Derry in his control is one of divide and conquer – blacks from whites, Jews from gentiles, men from women (“This is what IT wants!” An insightful Beverly observes, “IT wants to divide us.). He induces the kids to break the cardinal rule of horror films by separating at the haunted house, as he later will down in the sewers, then plays them against each other, drawing out their latent resentments and suppressed hostilities, stoking fractious infighting to coerce them into going their separate ways so that they no longer present a unified front (“We were all together when we hurt IT. That’s why we’re still alive.”). Following their falling out after mortally wounding IT, they’re again left alone and vulnerable, as they were before forming their all-inclusive band of outsiders. Like a stalking beast, he isolates the weakest, shaving them off from the pack. But as they realize when they refuse to sacrifice Bill to save their own skins, it’s only when organized and united, standing together, that these underdogs are strong enough to face their demons, embodied by a clown who’s taken the name Pennywise to denote his dominion over the coin of the realm, like other self-aggrandizing billionaires in that bracket.
I guess anyone could read their own worst fears into a movie like this, and the director invites us to. Like his clown, Muschietti knows how to take prime advantage of what scares us most. One has to go to a deep, dark place to acknowledge how short a stretch it is to compare this seemingly foolish, pumpkin-haired, evil trickster who pedals in blatant untruths and fork-tongued promises in order to draw in the most gullible population, to the prince of lies he seems intended to represent. Stephen King, who once stated that “a Trump presidency scares me more than anything else,” prompting POTUS to block him from his Twitter account (!), has gotten the last laugh by seeing his character morph into a metaphor for Twitler himself.
Muschietti’s revisionist version of IT is a pitch black joke, satiric commentary for our politically toxic modern times and the insidious, septic undercurrent coursing through the country, like the sewers beneath Derry, diverting our normally reliable moral compass. Released as it was in the wake of Charlottsville, and having broken several box-office records, IT delivered a reassuring message at the very moment the nation needed to hear it most. Written thirty years ago, this tale of the crazed clown who holds an entire land under his corrosive spell never seemed more timely than it does right now.
Tapping into the country’s zeitgeist, the extended national nightmare that is Donald J. Trump, Muschietti’s adaptation refracts our collective fear back at us. As Bill heroically exhorts his friends on the steps of the haunted house, there comes a point where one must take a stand, rather than continue burying their head in the sand as everyone else in the town has. And the onus is placed on the adults in the audience to face it down, conquer it, and remain vigil forever after, to ensure IT never reemerges to feed off the country’s suppressed societal ills again.