Join Screen Critics Sam as he points out why modern horror films could learn a few things from the recent, successful horror outing, IT.
Stephen King’s new film adaptation of IT has been making waves in the film industry over the past couple of weeks, and for a very good reason. The film boldly rises above its clichéd modern horror counterparts by presenting a believable setting, cast of characters, and antagonistic force of terror in Pennywise the Dancing Clown. However, there’s a few things modern horror filmmakers could learn from the experience. Welcome to the second feature article of To The Point. Today we dive into Andy Muschietti’s modern horror masterpiece, IT.
*Warning: minor spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.*
To just get it out of the way, I’m not taking a jab at all modern horror filmmakers and their work. In fact, I’d say we’re witnessing a pretty good incline of good to great horror films erupt into the mainstream spotlight. Most recently, Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil lifted the curse of prequels actually outshining their original films, and David Sandberg’s Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation proved that the director has a great future ahead of him in the genre. James Wan, the acclaimed filmmaker behind Insidious and The Conjuring, has long since been my favorite horror filmmaker working in the industry, and I still find myself getting excited for any new project he tackles, be it within the horror genre or not. However, after seeing IT in cinemas a few times, a few amazing things have stood out for me regarding what they’ve accomplished in Stephen King’s new adaptation.
Something IT gets incredibly on the nose is the setting, child actors, and tightly woven script – all beautifully melded together by a tremendous vision by Andy Muschietti. His keen attention to detail also sets the film apart from your typical jump-fest. Everything from the late 80s vibe to the quirks and snarky banner exchanged between the kids screams of careful consideration – drawing plenty of inspiration from Stand By Me and The Goonies, ironically. Muschietti did not just want to make a great horror, but a touching coming of age tale too about the pressures of growing up, banding with friends against insurmountable odds, and the nostalgic feeling of isolation from the adults, in a world where other kids can only understand kids.
Where most modern horror films fail in this regard is the lack of immersion or stylistic vision. Suspenseful scenes of winding tension and build-up are exchanged for the cheapest jump scares on the market. IT decidedly avoids these tropes by delivering justifiable jump scares that are accompanied by the horrifying nightmares Pennywise conjures up, and not just a false scare from a loud noise (a trend I’d rather see die in modern horror films). IT, thanks to Muschietti’s ability to ease audiences into the impending scare of the moment, manages to assault your senses in the best possible ways. The sound is drowned out before the score shatters your ears, all the while a visual nightmare unfolds on the screen that’s simply hard to divert your eyes from.
Most of all, IT takes pride in building a relationship with its characters. The chemistry works to great degrees between a terrific cast of child actors who all feel genuine in their roles. Their budding friendship resonates more than once throughout, and we’re given a surprising amount of heart at the core of the film. As a result, the horror is built around the characters and not the other way around. It forces the characters to take action and move the plot along that feels natural to their character progression. For example, the character Beverly fights off her abusive father after realizing she can endure an onslaught from Pennywise, which ultimately gives strength and resolve to her character development. Every character in the film experiences this, and it’s absolutely astounding how the filmmakers managed to culminate their progression in the end when they triumph over Pennywise.
The failure of bad modern horror films can also be attributed to their grasp of the characters, or lack thereof. Most of the time, we’re given cardboard cut-outs of stereotypes and walking clichés that don’t have an inkling of common sense or intelligence. Instead, they succumb to the horror in grizzly ways like a piece of meat. The children in IT graciously don’t have the intuition of a wooden block. They react the way a kid would, and likewise, don’t make awfully dumb decisions that lead to their downfall.
From a technical standpoint, IT works across the board. Muschietti’s direction is incredibly bold and stylish. He knows how to manipulate the camera to bring out the most horror from each scene, and doesn’t shy away from revealing Pennywise very early on in the film as a force to be reckoned with. Not only does this paint the menacing clown as the terrifying, very visual antagonist right from the beginning, but also allows time for the audience to grasp Bill Skarsgard’s performance, which is absolute pivotal in making him a real and dangerous threat. Most modern horror films simply lack this finesse, this sure-handed attempt to stand out from the crowd. If the director doesn’t have a particular kind of vision for the film, it’s doomed to fall into the discard bin of unimaginative or bold scares, especially in a genre that’s so cut-throat on having films stand out among the rest.
As a huge horror fan, I absolutely love that modern horror is beginning to take off in the mainstream and actually have an impact on cinema outside of its genre. The greatest horror films of the past have all stood out because they, like Andy Muschietti’s IT, have dared to be different and splice great ideas and themes together for something entertaining and introspective. The worst imaginable modern horror films can’t muster this ingenuity or creativity, rather snuggling into a generic bracket that cares more about the profit than actually making a good, worthwhile horror film. If modern horror filmmakers can at least take away one thing from IT, it’s this: the more you care about making a good movie, the more likely you are to actually make one. A shocking revelation to Hollywood, I know.