When I was growing up, I was obsessed with the horror section in my video store. I would walk up and down the aisle and look at all of the grotesque cover art that promised something beyond my imagination. These movies were forbidden and mysterious. My friends and I rented every single movie in that aisle—the more ridiculous and nasty, the better. Shoddy B-movies became beloved favorites that we quoted constantly. Every once and a while we’d stumble into a great film. I still remember how the original Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre cut through the noise when I first saw them. They stunned and captivated me.
I miss real horror movies. Most modern horror films lack originality and commitment. They aren’t exciting or dangerous. If it’s not the bland franchise movies at the multiplex then it’s the over-serious art house releases that critics say “reinvent the horror genre” but are actually meant for people who don’t even like horror (I’m looking at you, It Comes at Night). The only standouts last year were The Witch, Don’t Breathe and 31. Everything else I could live without. I was not at all interested in the new It movie when I first heard about it. I assumed it would be yet another entry in the endless stream of PG-13 horror reboots, remakes and sequels.
The Lititz Borough Police Department in Pennsylvania posted a Facebook message after finding red balloons tied to sewer grates around town. The playful message made national news and freaked out the teen girls who executed the prank. When I saw this story on the news, I got really excited that a little red balloon tied to a grate got everyone so worked up. It felt like an urban legend come to life but it came about organically, not as a marketing ploy. Once I got the sense that this movie was already permeating the national psyche I really hoped it might turn out to fit into the great American Nightmare tradition in horror – horror that taps into something deep and dark in our cultural subconscious. I looked a little deeper and saw that the cinematography was done by Chung-hoon Chung, who shot nearly all of Chan-wook Park’s films, including Oldboy and last year’s masterpiece The Handmaiden. SOLD.
Early in the film I was reminded of the Netflix series Stranger Things, which pays homage to Stephen King and is steeped in 80’s nostalgia. I liked Stranger Things but thought that the nostalgia was too front-and-center. What’s surprising about It is the way that it subverts its nostalgia. It shows the ugly side of 80’s childhood. It’s not sanitized. It examines cruelty and bullying in a painful way that cuts right through the cuddly version of the 80’s that mainstream film and television trade in. The casual homophobic slurs, racial violence and communal slut shaming that occur in the film are jarring and disturbing. This aspect of the time period is rarely depicted in genre film, and it’s very effective here. The stark portrayal of cruelty isn’t one-dimensional: it also serves to bond the characters in a poignant way and helps the audience feel for the crew of misfits at the center of the story.
What about the clown, you ask? Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise is the one truly excellent thing about the original It miniseries. Curry’s Pennywise scared the shit out of me and my siblings as children and we would frequently play games where we had to battle It (whom we imagined was hiding under our beds or in the closet). He stood with Freddy Kruger and Candyman as one of the most terrifying boogeymen in my young mind. Bill Skarsgård does an admirable job of updating this character for the 21st century. Curry played Pennywise as an angry and hostile clown who loved to play tricks and generally be a dick. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a sinister creature playing innocent and that fake innocence makes him scary. He’s a salivating wolf in sheep’s clothing just waiting to bust out and eat some kids. He plays Pennywise as more unpredictable and unstable in a way that connects the character with distinctively modern anxieties. The only thing I’d complain about is the use of digital effects to show his ferocious movement. These effects are distracting and don’t add anything—I almost always favor practical effects in horror.
It did not disappoint me. It was bold, inspired, and had teeth. So many sequences were full of dark imagination. Chung’s images are refined, clean and deeply creepy, and they stand out in comparison with the recycled and worn out aesthetics that are typical of most recent horror films. This is top shelf stuff. It is terrifying and fearsome when it wants to be, but also funny and melancholy in an endearing way. This is pop filmmaking at its best.