It's Complicated; or, Why I Never Formally Reviewed It and Chapter Two
Content warning: contains references to suicide, child abuse, and sexual assault.
No matter what version of It you look at, It is a narrative driven by irrational fears. For example, I fear ever picking up a Stephen King novel that runs more than 800 pages again. It, the novel, is one of those texts that turned me into a fan of Stephen King’s short stories. Contained to a single story in a small format, King limits his ideas and cast of characters into twisted vignettes of life and anxiety defined by past trauma. In a meandering long form novel, he just keeps introducing more characters and more ideas that start to contradict each other until nothing makes sense.
The only thing I find more complicated to examine than the novel is the pop culture phenomenon surrounding the It film released in 2017. You know me. I love a good horror moment in pop culture. I hated Paranormal Activity but loved the marketing campaign that made it a must-see horror event and launched an incredibly successful franchise of low budget horror; I especially loved the renaissance of low budget horror releases and experimentation with cinematography as a narrative element. But I digress.
I don’t always review everything I see. I’m trying to get better about doing just that (I miss working so much in the medium of criticism), but there are times where I just don’t think it’s worth it. I need something to latch onto to draw me in for further analysis. I also need to weigh, for my own sense of well being, whether or not I’m willing to deal with the storm that can come from bucking the critical consensus or even the source of the critical consensus itself. Just because I can confidently explain why I think It (2017) is not a great film doesn’t mean I can confidently deal with backlash from justifying my opinions. I’m also not in it to crush dreams and discourage people from watching what might interest them.
It definitely has a great plot. It is a past and contemporary text by design, shifted by a generational divide of 27 years. 27 years ago, the town of Derry suffered a horrific year of childhood death and disappearances. A young boy named Georgie is found dead in the streets, his arm torn out of its socket. Soon other children follow, putting the town in a state of panic. A group of misfits led by Georgie’s brother Bill, called the Losers Club, begin to see visions of It based on their worst fears. They decide that they will stop It at any costs, venturing into the sewers and successfully stopping Its year of terror. They swear to return to Derry if this ever happens again. In the present, they are called back to Derry by Mike, the only member of the group to stay in the town. It is back and It wants them. The fears and trauma the Losers Club faced during their childhood in Derry have shaped all of their lives, even if they don’t quite remember what they really feared about living in Derry until it’s too late to turn back.
It—as a franchise, a concept, a source of inspiration—is a complicated area of discussion. The novel is a problematic text for a number of reasons. Foremost on my mind is the end of the childhood storyline. The Losers Club decide that they are going to secure their bond with each other by sleeping together. Bear in mind that this means Stephen King decided a crux of his plot in a horror novel about some evil being literally feeding on the fears of children every 27 years was a bunch of 11 and 12-year-olds having sex to prove they’re adults and not afraid of anything. It’s gross and unnecessary, the kind of scene that any horror novelist other than Stephen King would be told to wipe off the face of the planet and pray that no one ever finds a draft of in the future, lest it sink everyone’s career who touched that novel. I’d be convinced that this would be the stain that eventually destroys his literary legacy in the future if he didn’t also have a bad habit of otherizing and/or killing the token not-white character in his novels.
The novel It also leans heavily into another problematic Stephen King trope: Native American mysticism. This is a man obsessed with a knowledge of Native American culture derived from Westerns and other Hollywood media (cursed burial grounds and confusing rituals involving smoke and plants). In the novel, the solution to defeating It is revealed when one of the children performs the Ritual of Chüd. Bill inhales some smoke and can communicate with Its ancient enemy, an all-powerful turtle that reveals exactly how to get rid of It. Shortly thereafter, the children share a blood oath promising to return to their hometown if It comes back.
That blood oath is its own problematic element of the text. Timing is a rough thing for creatives. For example, I had an original horror musical sunk years ago by the release of a touchstone horror film that was developed at the same time with the exact same heart-wrenching climax. No one involved in the conception of the production could have anticipated that people working on an independent film in another country came up with the same tear your heart out moment of grief in a horror text. Shoot, we were surprised that anyone else was even trying to play with the same intentionally mismatched genre elements. The point is, there are elements of our narratives and how they are perceived that are beyond our control. What works in theory can be ruined by timing and not everyone has the option to pull the plug on an idea that will no longer work the same way.
Stephen King started drafting It in 1981. This was before the HIV/AIDS crisis became common knowledge. A blood oath—where people would cut open and then shake their hands—was a pop culture mainstay for decades (derived from Westerns where some cowpoke would learn it from a helpful Native American character). Nothing bad could happen from it. By the time the novel It was published in 1986, the world knew about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, even if that knowledge was used to stigmatize queer and minority cultures and treated as a rightful plague to rid them from society (spoiler alert: the 80s were gross). Obviously, Stephen King could not have planned for the rise of a deadly blood borne epidemic, but it’s one of the iconic moments of the novel that could have been adjusted to not encourage young people who would inevitably stumble upon the novel from trying the same thing. Its inclusion is even more troubling when you realize the event that leads to the Losers Club coming back together is a homophobic attack in their hometown kicking off a new string of child murders.
Still, and I cannot stress this enough, the concept of It is wonderful. The enemy of the novel is an all-powerful being who feeds on fear. Children are an obvious target, but adults are just as susceptible. The 27 year gap between attacks allows for a two-part narrative that can explore complicated issues. Frankly, I find the second part of the novel is much stronger than the first, exploring how childhood trauma can impact the lives of adults as well as the lingering influence of learned behavior. King doesn’t land all of these concepts (poor Beverly somehow gets it worse than a character who dies by suicide rather than return to Derry), but I actually applaud the effort. I still wish I could take a red pen to the book and make it a tight 300 page thriller jumping back and forth in time as the Losers Club return to their hometown to unearth generations of trauma and tragedy created by a being of unthinkable evil, but this is not a poorly conceived novel by any means. Long, sure, but solid in the concept.
I’m actually a big fan of the It miniseries from 1990. This was unavoidable when it came out and was just as big of a media sensation as It (2017). Tim Curry’s Pennywise is easily one of the greatest horror performances of all time. The miniseries plays as a greatest hits of the novel, as the original four-part, eight hour miniseries was reduced to a two-part, four hour miniseries when it went into production. Part 1 is the Losers Club as children; Part 2 is the Losers Club as adults. I think Part 1 is a much stronger story as there isn’t enough time in two hours (minus commercials) to get into the how and why of the Losers Club 27 years after they first encountered It. That said, Stan’s death by suicide is handled incredibly well by the miniseries and I love the audacity of Pennywise’s true form. The vision quest is saved for the adults and is an act of desperation as a new generation of children are being consumed by fear with no other way of stopping It. Otherwise, this version avoids most of the problematic tropes of the novel.
It (2017) is a scary film. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a well-performed horror villain. The young cast of actors anchor a very dark story with believable performances. The scares are well-conceived and the groundwork is laid for the idea of It infecting the entire town of Derry rather than just being an evil being in Derry. The opening sequence with Georgie’s demise is the most effective telling of that scene we have. I think the film overstays its welcome, but it’s pretty good.
There are really smart decisions made in It (2017) that I appreciate. The adults of Derry are treated as more of a threat from the start. You might be able to ignore, say, the old woman’s inaction when she sees Georgie playing with (and then bleeding around) a sewer drain in her front yard. But you can’t ignore Eddie’s mother gaslighting him into believing that he’s severely ill and cannot be safe unless he never leaves her, or Beverly’s father only being concerned about his daughter’s reputation because he’s abusing her, or even Mike’s family point blank telling him if he’s not willing to kill, he will be killed. The role of the adults becomes more menacing as the story goes on, meaning the Losers Club cannot trust anyone else to help them with It, an unspeakable being of pure evil that can manifest as anything they fear.
The focus on the house on Neibolt Street is an excellent decision. Cinematic horror thrives on a central icon. We know early on that something is wrong with the rotting house in the middle of the neighborhood that no one goes near. The house becomes its own character, looming in the distance, incapable of striking on its own but posing an immediate threat to anyone who dares to come close to it. It, at its best, is a haunted house story about a town rotted to its core by fear and trauma. The Neibolt Street House is the visual representation of that decay and it works.
It (2017) wisely gets rid of the vision quest to discover the origins of It. The children are smart enough to realize that It feeds off their fears and manifests itself in visions of their own creation. They use this knowledge to defeat It.
While there is (mercifully) no celebratory sex scene among the Losers Club, the writers of It (2017) find another gross way of approaching that same concept. Poor Beverly. She has a bad reputation built on the lies of the bullies and that makes her peers avoid her and adults distrust her. Her father is very clearly abusing her, demanding Beverly be his “little girl” as he strokes her arm or brushes a hair off her face. He gets very disappointed in a scene where Beverly comes home with feminine hygiene products, meaning she’s not just his little girl anymore. And for some reason, Pennywise can’t control her as easily as he can control the other children in Derry. She’s different. This whole aspect of her character and confrontation with Pennywise gave me terrible flashbacks to Split, a film I found so upsetting in its treatment of the same character type that I refused to watch the follow up film Glass. Miss me with the narrative conceit that survivors are special and immune to further trauma, especially children.
All of this brings me to It: Chapter Two. I have not seen it. I do not trust it. I rewatched It (2017) in anticipation of watching Chapter Two and I can safely say I do not feel safe watching it in theaters. I will wait until I feel like I can safely engage with the film at my own pace.
As I’ve grown older and taken the time to deal with my own past trauma, I’ve found it harder and harder to engage with modern films that go there. We know better in 2019 then we knew at the height of exploitation films in the 1970s. Many filmmakers successfully find ways to address these subjects without being gross. I don’t think It (2017) hits that mark and I don’t trust it enough to sit through almost three hours of a sequel that has to build on what happened in the first film.
Horror is a genre where we get to safely explore the worst things imaginable. Good horror builds this darkness into the narrative; bad horror throws it out there with no narrative purpose for shock value. Isn’t there enough messed up stuff in Stephen King’s actual meandering words to not have to go there just because? What I’ve heard of Chapter Two and the changes made to the story lets me know that I do not want to waste the price of a ticket to be that angry and frustrated by a horror film. I have a voice and will find time to have my say, but that time is not now. It’s complicated.