(I don’t believe in spoilers. If a story is good enough it will be good no matter how much you know. The only spoiler I have is that this movie is scary as heck. Other than that, just read the article.)
The link between genre and theme is crucial. The way a story is told is perhaps as important as the story itself –– especially when that story has an intense emotional or moral message. Like, for example, you wouldn’t use a Rom-Com to explore the relationship between violence and nation building (but if Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are starring in it, I’m there). Horror is an excellent example of this. There are certain dark and mournful narratives within the human experience that can only be told one way. The mode of storytelling must match the weight of its subject matter.
The recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic novel It does this exceptionally well. Though it has recently been criticized for lacking a moral (“evil for evil’s sake” as one described it), I would argue the opposite. I believe the story depicts the inexorable link between humans and fear and the importance of deep camaraderie in handling it. In fact, the film does this so artfully that I would venture to call it a coming-of-age film rather than simply a horror movie. Horror is merely the mode of storytelling for this complex, scary, albeit hopeful story of teenagers maturing as they encounter weighty, scary things.
This is also where I would argue the use of the grotesque is not only valuable, but necessary. The narratives of the specific teenagers are dark –– abusive parents, helicopter parents, violent bullies, the confusion of puberty… Each element of evil the children face are violations of humanity. Violence and sex are the most intimate experiences of humans. Thus the perversion of these actions is the worst kind of evil one can imagine. The use of the grotesque in It highlights the reality of evil mankind experiences by showing real life experience juxtaposed with a metaphor.
Some of these experiences are natural and inevitable. They are the omnipresent patterns of human life. Other problems these adolescents face are tragic, the results of circumstances and forces outside of their power but not necessarily inevitable. Both experiences are tangible for the audience. They are things we all experience. They are things all humans encounter, at once alone and together.
The children in the film face their own specific fears alone, which are symbolic of the issues they face in their lives –– the leper, the woman in the painting, and of course the clown. But as the movie progresses, the teenagers slowly, magnetically band together to deal with their own specific fears and thus work together to combat fear itself, personified by Pennywise.
It is paced tremendously well. There is solid character development, which creates space for drama and even comedy beyond the actual scary scenes. Most of the scares in the film are jump scares, which are often criticized for depending on effect rather than storytelling, cinematography, or editing to create scares. In It, the jump scares serve a purpose –– the catharsis of a build and immediate release fits the narrative better than say a The Shining-esque drawn out horror that provides no release.
As to the claim that the film argues that there is “nothing to be afraid of,” I would completely disagree. Rather, I would suggest that the film argues that there are many things to be afraid of. Furthermore, I would argue that the film presents fear as a gestalt –– it’s more than the sum of its parts. It is an entity all to itself, dynamic and subjective. All of the children are afraid –– and rightly so. The triumph of It is that the children must find a mechanism with which to control fear (I use control here because they do not kill Pennywise in the end… they merely get rid of him with a grim understanding that he will more than likely return).
Activity time! Let’s list the things the kids can be afraid of: the leper, the lady from the painting, Pennywise the clown, the apparition of Georgie, the cave Pennywise lives in, murderous bullies, complex emotions, abusive parents, sexuality, and other stuff. There is a lot to be afraid of. The nuance of the story is that controlling fears is hard, even in community. But it is necessary, worthwhile, and ultimately a triumphant endeavor to approach the terrors of this world in community. Cliche? Maybe. But true? Yes. And told in a creative and (dare I say) beautiful way.
I would also like to say that the very end of the movie is VERY VERY IMPORTANT. Like the very end of the movie. Because that is where the whole theme about fear and community comes to fruition. The kids standing in a circle holding hands and making a blood oath –– that’s the point right there folks. They beat that monster with each other, they celebrate together, and then they walk away different… matured… not fearless, but strong.
Thus I would even venture to say, like a true Covenant student who loves his Covenant theology, that this movie has a heaping big boy sized scoop of COMMON GRACE INSIGHT! You heard me folks. A horror movie with a whole lot of CGI (ayeeee look at that… CGI… common grace insight… computer generated image… what a coincidence!). Actually, not since that great Australian movie The Babadook have I seen a horror movie so laced with meaning and helpful perspective.
This movie does not do three things: desensitize the audience, scare people without purpose, and promote evil. This movie does do three different things that are not the first three things: promote community and deep friendship, make helpful assertions about the nature of fear, give weight to narratives that are challenging and complex.
I highly recommend It (unless disturbing images affect you greatly… I understand that some people have a very hard time with jarring images like the ones in the movie and that is totally understandable and a good thing to be aware of).