As I sat down for the screening of the new adaptation of Stephen King’s horror fairy tale “It,” I whispered to my intrepid moviegoing companion Katie, “I’m excited: I like seeing children suffer.”
She responded with a look that said, “I’m regretting my decision to marry you,” and replied, “You’re a bad person.”
But what I meant was entirely innocent: What I meant was that I like horror films that focus on young protagonists, because I like taking children’s perspectives seriously, and there’s something fascinating to me about the sweet-and-sour combination of innocence coupled with horror.
It didn’t take long into the film before I realized Katie was right: I was a bad person. And more importantly, I was actually wrong — or at least, imprecise — about what I actually enjoy. It only took the image of one child getting their arm ripped off and dragged into a gutter for me to realize that seeing children suffer is actually terrifyingly awful, and not pleasant in any way.
Still, if haunting, horrifying images are what this movie is going for (and it is), then “It” is successful. And it’s also successful at creating the sweet-and-sour combo that I really intended to mean in what I said in the first place: It’s not just that the film takes serious the fears of children, but (and this is what I actually enjoy — though I still might be a bad person for it) it also allows children to be as potty-mouthed and vulgar as they actually are in real life.
That’s one of the things I appreciated about the Netflix show “Stranger Things,” that it put uncensored words in preteen mouths, recognizing that the “adult” talk that kids use is actually one of the markers of their innocence: They are parroting the language they see in the adult world, and it is always clear that their big talk is masking their first steps into sometimes scary, new terrain.
The parallels between “It” and “Stranger Things” are uncanny, not only because they both involve a ragtag team of kids facing a scary monster in the 1980s, but in the casting of the young Finn Wolfhard, one of those ragtag team members is actually apparently a reincarnation of the same person in both. (Despite his apparent birth in late 2002, scientists have not actually proven that Wolfhard isn’t trapped in some cinematic time warp, only allowed to exist in 1980s storylines.)
I found “Stranger Things” to be the slightly more original, fresh voice between the two — which is funny, considering it was purely a collage of preexisting material, not the least of which being Stephen King and “It.”
That said, some of the ideas the new film has up its sleeve are interesting, and things promise to get even more interesting with the future sequels the film sets up. I was wondering how the three-hour-plus TV miniseries of 1990 would translate into two hours or so of single, isolated movie narrative, but then I remembered that movies are no longer single, isolated narratives, and with sequels, movies are the modern TV miniseries.
But I’m not tired of this one yet. Given the assumption that movies today demand sequels, I found the 2017 “It” to be a totally satisfying episode all on its own, built with a larger narrative arc in mind that sets up a future sequel that will be different enough from the first entry, as it furthers the story and (hopefully) the themes.
I call “It” a “horror fairy tale” because the good-evil spectrum in this universe is rigidly short, and the way the monster might be defeated has something to do with moral fortitude. For the children who sneak into this R-rated film (their punishment being a lifetime of emotional scarring), they will at least take away a message about fear that they might find empowering. (Maybe.)
The story: In the town of Derry, children go missing many times the national average. The culprit seems to be an evil clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), who has teeth for days and takes the form of children’s greatest fears.
Grounding the fantasy elements is the fact that a killer clown is only one of many horrors in Derry, the others being more realistic (though again, mostly morally binary) villains. The young protagonists constantly run away from Pennywise only to run into extreme bullying and even more sinister treachery at home.
These things make for some very unpleasant moments in “It,” and I’m not certain yet whether the movie earns its ticket into the realm of realism. But I do know that the ensemble cast of youngsters are all charming, brimming with energy and life that makes following their stories worthwhile.
Especially strong is Sophia Lillis, who plays Beverly (because like in “Stranger Things,” there may only be one girl in the group, but she gets the best role). What she’s dealing with at home is the most horrible of anything in the movie, and she brings believable courage, fear and warmth to the screen.
If we must live in a world that demands sequels of every blockbuster, I like this approach: Set things up with a satisfying first entry, and take things in a totally new place with each subsequent entry. Hopefully the new singular narrative of cinema is the x-number-of-movies arc, where x is determined from the start, or at least with a strong ending in mind planned — for some point.
I’ll be in for the next entry of “It,” and there’s a possibility that future stories will make this one even more resonant. Either way, for bad people like me, “It” is not a film to skip.