Yes yes, I know, I’m late with this. I didn’t get to see IT until now, its third weekend in theaters, and to be honest if it weren’t such a seismic hit in mainstream culture, I probably would have just waited until it hit video next year. But I felt as if I had an obligation to catch this one in theaters if I’m to retain my title as “horror guy”.
And yeah, IT is good. Really good. Not the scariest movie in the world, but scary enough, and more imporantly, it’s fun. Not the kind of horror that gets deep under your skin and makes you feel vague dread hours or days later; it’s more of the “haunted house” type of horror with build-and-release moments that make you laugh as soon as you’re done screaming. Scares are balanced well with naturalistic humor and really strong character building. In fact, if I had to pin down the one thing that makes this IT so successful, it’s the focus on characters. The Loser’s Club is made up of seven kids, six of them boys, and yet all are given distinct personalities, quirks, strengths, and flaws. You know their names. You care about their safety. It seems too obvious to be worth stating, but so many movies – horror and otherwise – fail to deliver on this aspect, resulting in movies that feel airless and unmemorable.
The new Pennywise, both in clown form as we all know him and in several other monstrous shapes, is great. Creepy, feral, and funny all at once, he feels truly dangerous and overpowered. I personally felt that the clown version was the least scary form of IT, but they get a lot of mileage out of that creepy clown, popping up in all sorts of unexpected places.
But I’m going to level with you – this is sort of where the review ends. What I really want to talk about is how thoroughly this movie is engaging audiences and what that may possibly mean for the future of horror and general cinema.
A few weeks back I started drafting an article called “Save Us Horror Cinema, You’re Our Only Hope”. In it, I argued that the business side of Hollywood was allowing itself to drown by not capitalizing on the market potential of horror. Once again, I cited the annual failure to put an adequate number of horror films into theaters during September and October, instead opting to dump even great, crowd-pleasing ones into the early Spring dregs, and put all of their chips on a single Saw or Paranormal Activity sequel released on the very last weekend of October. It’s a baffling, stupid business strategy that probably made sense on a 20 year old spreadsheet but fails to account for what audiences actually want during Halloween season.
As I started to research the article however, I discovered that this year is actually shaping up to be pretty strong for Halloween horror. There’s a new horror movie coming out in wide or semi-wide release almost every weekend in September and October. That’s something that hasn’t happened since I started this website over seven years ago. I was writing this just prior to the release of IT, and already it was obvious the buzz was strong. I just underestimated how strong. An R-rated horror movie with zero movie stars is breaking box office records left and right, packing auditoriums to the gills during the worst theater attendance year of the decade.
And let me tell you, while we’re on the subject: This is a movie you want to see in the theater, preferably with a full house. IT connected with my audience better than any scary movie I’ve seen since the first Paranormal Activity. People screamed aloud and then laughed at all the right moments. As everyone was filing out of the theater, I overheard a bunch of people talking about their favorite scenes, and how hard they jumped during this part or that part. Nobody looked underwhelmed.
This means something. Mere weeks before this, The Dark Tower was released. A Stephen King adaptation with a rabid fan base, who have been waiting for a movie version since the late 90’s. Starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, rated PG-13, released in the Summer… and it completely bombed. Came and went. I don’t know anybody that bothered to go see it. On paper, The Dark Tower and IT’s box office takes should have been reversed. So what happened?
Well, according to reviews, Dark Tower sucked (please, nobody jump down my throat because I didn’t go see it myself), and IT doesn’t suck. But there’s more going on here. IT didn’t just “not suck”, it tapped into a vein of desire that mainstream audiences have always had since movies were invented: the desire for a fun, crowd pleasing, genuinely scary movie, released during the appropriate time frame, that doesn’t insult your intelligence. IT is hardly an original property (remake of an adaptation anyone?), but compared to Saw 8 or Tom Cruise Runs From The Mummy, it’s downright revelatory. I’ll repeat this: A hard-R rating, no movie stars, no city-flattening CGI battles. Just likable characters and good scares.
Oh, and everywhere you go there are plastic skeletons and jack o’ lanterns and, yes, creepy clowns staring at you from store shelves. I know it’s only September, but even the normals are feeling this Halloween stuff whether they know it or not. If your job is to put out movies, there’s absolutely no reason not to take advantage of that.
I’m hoping that IT’s mad dollas ($400M gross against a $35M budget, and that’s just the start) send Hollywood the correct signals, but experience has tragically shown me that Hollywood tends to learn the exact wrong lessons from both its successes and its failures. I fear that the takeway here will become “more clown movies”, or “more kids in peril movies”, or “an expanded IT cinematic universe of perpetual spinoffs”. And they’ll all come out in April.
But if we’re lucky, someone will correctly read the writing on the wall, and the horror renaissance we’re currently enjoying on a semi-underground level will burst to the top, and Halloween season will once again be dominated by cinematic horror, as the gods intended. Let’s pray to Pennywise that’s the case.