An R-rated film about a demonic shape-shifter that satisfies its appetite for children by taking on the guise of a clown just became Hollywood’s highest grossing horror debut.
Hauling in over $123 million on its opening weekend, Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s sprawling novel It—one of numerous recent King adaptations—proves yet again that contemporary literature’s most recognizable purveyor of the macabre is also one of Hollywood’s most bankable storytellers.
Ironically, if you tend to put a lot of stock in review aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes, this scary movie seems to be a very safe bet. Apparently, the widespread fear of clowns hasn’t quelled the enthusiasm of audiences around the nation. Since plenty of Christians consider the horror genre to be anything but safe, though, some initial questions are in order.
When it comes to horror films, the question “Is it scary?” often precedes the traditional “Is it good?” Of course, many seasoned horror buffs will balk at that distinction and simply conflate the two: A good horror film is a scary horror film. The reason that movies like Insidious and The Conjuring keep spawning sequels and spinoffs is because they continue to make our flesh creep.
Press a little deeper, though, and you quickly find that horror isn’t such a simple category after all. Even those who strenuously avoid the genre’s darkened corridors on general principle will recognize a world of difference between M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and the Saw franchise. For better or for worse, fear is clearly not horror’s only calling card, and while it’s true that plenty of horror fans are lured into theaters by the promise of a rising body count, it’s hard to overlook the fact that numerous thrillers, action films, dramas, and comedies traffic in the same appeal. Lurid sensationalism and coarse titillation are hardly limited to horror films.
I’d like to propose another question regarding this genre, then: “Will I care about the characters?” What we remember most about many of the best scary movies is not the abundant bloodletting, but the people we meet onscreen. This is the reason that Brian De Palma’s Carrie remains unsurpassed in the world of Stephen King adaptations. Though the film is a virtuoso display of De Palma’s hyperkinetic camera work and intrepid editing, it’s Sissy Spacek’s wide-eyed portrayal of the titular character that makes this one of cinema’s most heartbreaking depictions of adolescence. From the grueling humiliation of its opening scene in a girls’ locker room to its shocking prom night conflagration, the movie is much more than horrifying; it’s a powerful exercise in empathy.
Unlike Carrie, It is not a great film, but it does have great characters, and an even better cast. Devotees of the book (I count myself among them) have been especially anxious about the onscreen realization of the “Losers Club,” King’s ragtag group of nerds and outsiders who discover an otherworldly strength in their love for one another. Rest assured, It gets the “Losers Club” right, and this eclectic little group more than compensates for the movie’s shortcomings.
Every member of the Losers Club has a unique target on his or her head. Bill has a persistent stammer that attracts merciless derision from his high school peers. Bookish and overweight, Ben’s many hours spent in the town library have as much to do with self-preservation as they do with intellectual curiosity. Beverly lives in the shadow of a vicious rumor about her promiscuity. Recently orphaned by a tragedy involving a household fire, Mike’s turmoil is intensified by frequent racist attacks. Eddie is a frantic hypochondriac who greets any sign of adversity with his asthma inhaler. Stanley recoils from his father’s austere religious devotion, and Richie’s profane fluency in adolescent takedowns certainly doesn’t endear him to his enemies. If Tim Curry’s inimitable turn as Pennywise the clown carried the ill-conceived Lifetime miniseries back in 1990, this young cast ably takes Muschietti’s film from three to four stars.