Studio horror movies are in something of a renaissance right now. It wasn’t that long ago that Hollywood’s idea of a scary movie stretched from cheap J-horror knockoffs to uninspired remakes of iconic classics. Good horror movies have always thrived along the edges of the industry, finding cheap ways to make audiences jump while functioning as metaphors for reality’s ills. That is still the case today, but mainstream studios have caught on to a formula that works too.
This year has been especially great, what with Get Out becoming a veritable phenomenon, Annabelle: Creation overperforming critical expectations, and mother! sparking conversational controversy. But It dwarfs them all in terms of success, seeing as it just became the highest-grossing horror movie of all time this last week. It is poised to cross the $300 million mark within the next 2 weeks, which is insane for a movie without a name actor or director. On top of all that, its word-of-mouth has not slowed down, which means It will stay near the top of the box office for a great length of time.
Bad movies make a lot of money all the time. But It avoided falling into easy horror movie pitfalls by following a formula established in the early 2010s by Insidious and Conjuring director James Wan: tell a character-driven story and let the scares grow organically from there. Other mainstream directors who have successfully pulled this off this decade are Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil, and then Doctor Strange) and Andy Muschietti (Mama and, whaddaya know, It). These men have taken an approach that has worked forever in indie horror and applied a slick studio budget. Surprise! Movies are better when they not only look expensive but care about their characters.
It, based on the 1986 book by Stephen King (which is 1116 pages, by the way- 1116 pages!), introduces us to a group of seven kids growing up in the town of Derry, Maine, in 1988. The town is under a curfew, due to the recent disappearances of several children. Our seven protagonists are all social outcasts at their high school; they call themselves the Losers Club. One by one, they have encounters with a terrifying evil force in the town. The force, which they call It and which often manifests as a malevolent clown named Pennywise, preys on their fears, taking the form of whatever will frighten them the most.
It also targets their problems at home to break them down and divide them. The main character, Bill, has a brother, Georgie, who was taken by It; It manifests as Georgie throughout the movie, taunting Bill’s helplessness to save him. Mike’s parents died in a fire, so It takes the form of disembodied arms reaching around doors engulfed in flames. Beverly, the lone girl, has an abusive father, so It plays with her emotions surrounding his perverse feelings for her.
The movie is at its best here, at the intersection of the kids’ insecurities as high schoolers and It’s terrifying presence. Horror movies are usually better and scarier when they are about something, and It, for all of its jump scares and horrifying imagery and the extreme levels of gore, is ultimately about growing up. A lot of movies are about growing up, but It makes growing up seem absolutely petrifying. It’s horrors are supernatural, but the supernatural scares of It expose the natural scares of adolescence in a world where evil is real and doesn’t look like a clown.
I read It when I was in high school and related to its portrayal of outsider kids. I would not have called myself a loser back then, but I definitely wasn’t a part of any cool crowd either. The book put into words that in-between feeling I had as a teenager, scared that people would see me for who I really was, still a child yet not a man. The movie captures this too, in images rather than words. The best horror movies are about something, and It is one of the best.