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Where does It fit in the horror genre?


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Andy Muschietti’s It begins, so to speak, with a bite; and it continues at a cracking rate for the next 90 minutes.

That it faded towards the finish line and fell just short of the highest distinction is not to dismiss the merit of its ideas and, for the large part, execution. If it had finished before the third act, I have no shame in saying that I would have struggled to walk down the dark alleyway back to the train station. That the fear dissipated was partly a result of loss of momentum, but in fairness to the director the narrative is driven by the characters’ collective overcoming of fear itself.

I should admit that I am familiar with neither King’s novel nor the American mini-series of which the rictus grin of Tim Curry’s Pennywise is the lasting image. Yet the lack of acquaintance with the paraphernalia of the It phenomenon has as its compensation a higher sensitivity to the way in which this 2017 version draws on horror universals. And not just horror universals, but human universals as well.

The suffering of a young black man, accepted by the main group of friends while being tormented by the bullies of the town, is certainly not a token gesture to the fight against racism. Traumatic conflict with parents and fellow school pupils illustrates the evil of which the human heart is capable, more even than Pennywise. The Youtube reviewer Chris Stuckmann expressed the soul of the film well when he referred to the resemblance of the protagonists to the children in Spielberg’s E.T., who battle injustice and learn the value of empathy.

The protagonists are a group of young outsiders whose friendship keeps them sane, and this, along with a healthy distrust of adults and a flame of deeper love, is eventually the entity that conquers the empty signifier of fear, which Pennywise embodies.

This structure already has echoes of Nightmare on Elm Street (the visual reference is telling) and the more recent It Follows (2015). In fact, it is to the themes and narrative arc of the latter that this Stephen King adaptation holds fast. They are both inspired and flawed at roughly a 2:1 ratio, and often for the same reasons. The suspense is masterful at times; yet why does the villain always have to be crushed in a literal fight? The melodramatic denouement takes something away from the psychological sophistication developed up to that point. Horror paradigms become more stark as the film progresses.

But let's dwell on the virtues of It.

In ancient historiography, scholars talk about the embedded focalisation of another's perspective into an author's narration. It exploits this ambiguity in a similarly effective way. Not only through the more obvious elements of reality versus dark imagination, as played out in the scene in which the audience sees a room covered in blood, although an adult isn't privy to this horror—as with many of the children's anxieties, but also in the fate of Georgie, since these painful images are always-already inflected with the older brother's pathological fear.

The verbal comedy in the dialogue doesn't always work, and the bathos sometimes feels cheap instead of deflating tension. The young actors' performances are nonetheless commendable, precisely because they make you care. As for Pennywise, it is a mark of Skarsgard’s conviction in the role of a clown that his menace never once slips into absurdity.

Sexuality creeps its way along the subterranean depths of the film as the children explore the town's drains. The curse mythos is another nexus of overlap with It Follows. The contemporary HIV/AIDS threat (the setting is Derry, Maine, in the late 1980s, transplanted from the 1950s for the purposes of a planned sequel that will address the adult section of the story) is subtly integrated, while the leper scare has a more ancient resonance.

It is perhaps not within the remit of a film based on a horror novel to stray too far from the text, and I have already confessed I have not yet read the novel, but more focus on the history of Derry and Pennywise's pestilential preying upon it would have enriched the film further. The old newspaper cuttings do not leave a paper trail, and one character’s moral courage could have been better fleshed out in these terms.

Then again, when that same character mentions that Derry’s rate of disappearing children is far above the national average, the film at least does not succumb to the temptation to become a murder-mystery.

In terms of other cinematic allusions, when the well was discovered, the threshold of a certain lair, who didn't think of Samara for a moment? Perhaps excessive homage is paid to The Ring in the bathroom scene, too (what is the obsession with regurgitated hair in modern horror?). The blood, on the other hand, is viscerally and disturbingly redolent of the humiliation in King's Carrie.

Let’s hope this film is testament to a horror awakening. For too long audiences have been content with poorly made films in this notoriously difficult genre. Aronofsky's Mother is the next piece of work to submit to that test.

It is out now, distributed through Warner Bros. Pictures. You can read The National Student's review here.

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