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.
Despite their rich history and jocular appearance, clowns have come to symbolize an almost archetypal form of evil to contemporary audiences, a grotesque caricature of innocence in greasepaint. Pennywise the clown, certainly one of Stephen King’s most appalling villains, epitomizes this modern anxiety. Not only does the makeup conceal a monster, but this creature also uses its counterfeit innocence to prey on children.
At the risk of sounding callous, Muschietti’s film gives us a fairly generic evil clown. Tim Curry’s portrayal had a very distinct personality, which made it all the more invidious and believable. The series may have been little more than a Halloween-themed soap opera, but Pennywise was an actual character. Conversely, this latest incarnation is more of a special effect—a prop that belongs in an amusement park, not a movie. Though the film’s budget ensures that the CGI is fairly seamless, it also hides what could have been a powerful performance behind a plethora of gaudy masks.
Muschietti has the unenviable task of appeasing a loyal fanbase, as well as an author who pulls no punches when it comes to filmic interpretations of his work. King has never warmed to Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, for instance. Kubrick took a Stephen King story and made a Stanley Kubrick movie. King may wince at Kubrick’s decidedly more psychological take on the source material, but the film succeeds precisely because it refuses to surrender its human elements to the supernatural. Sure, The Shining has its share of monsters, but none of them can match the lunacy on Jack Nicholson’s face. (It doesn’t hurt that Kubrick has a preternatural gift for capturing the menace in a human face.) Conversely, Muschietti doesn’t seem to recognize that even the best monsters wear out their welcome very quickly: Witness the repeated misfires in the Alien franchise, all of which depart from the superb restraint of the original. In the case of It, the film succeeds the most when Pennywise is absent.
It does take some wise artistic liberties, though. Instead of proceeding through flashbacks as the book does, this adaptation trains its lens on the childhood of its characters, reserving part two for the more somber revelations of adulthood. This device makes the pacing much less cumbersome. The movie also jettisons a very problematic (and frankly bizarre) orgy. Following in the footsteps of Stranger Things, the writers have moved the events from 1963 to the ’80s, allowing the movie to serve as a veritable time capsule of pop culture trivia.
Even though the subject matter of It is incredibly dark, this is a very warm-hearted film. More than anything, King’s story is a paean to the wonders of friendship amid adversity, and there’s simply no way to convey this tremendous power without real chemistry between the actors. Because of Muschietti’s extraordinary young cast, we see that “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24)”—and, more importantly, we believe it. In the context of our deeply divided culture, I suspect that this movie’s popularity has a lot more to do with the kind of friendship it celebrates than the scares it delivers.
Since we’re awaiting a sequel, any final evaluation would be premature at this point. What we can say is that the adult cast will have some very big shoes to fill. Many of the book’s most devastating consequences are reserved for its adults. Though we may be in for a much bleaker sequel, let’s hope we care as deeply about its characters.
Cameron McAllister is a speaker and writer with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). He lives in the Atlanta area with his wife, Heather. You can find him online @cammcallister7 on Twitter, and listen to him talk about signs of life in today's culture on the Vital Signs podcast.