Can watching a film in a theatre with a badly behaved audience affect not just your enjoyment of the film, but the overall quality of the film itself? This is the question I’ve been asking myself in the days since watching IT, director Andy Muschietti’s updated adaptation of Stephen King’s widely lauded horror novel. Although transforming King’s novel in to a post-Conjuring jumpscare machine is a worthy criticism, I can’t help but feel my criticisms were amplified due to watching it with a packed cinema loudly talking through the scenes that weren’t designed to scare – and then delivering ridiculously over exaggerated reactions when the big, not to mention obvious, jump scares arrived.
An adaptation of the period sections from King’s novel (here updated from the 1950’s, to a presumably Stranger Things inspired 1980’s), the film documents the friendship of “The Losers”, a gang of routinely bullied misfits, who are being terrified by nightmare, hallucinatory visions in broad daylight. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the de facto leader of the losers club, is still struggling with the sudden disappearance of his younger brother eight months earlier. After finding him fleeing from being beaten up, the gang finds Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), whose status as a new kid in town has led him to research the mysterious goings on- including the fact that their hometown of Derry has America’s highest child abduction rate in the country.
The gang also joins forces with Beverley Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a bullied girl repeatedly abused by her father, as well as Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), aiming to get to the root cause of these supernatural going’s on- while a manifestation of the children’s fears repeatedly appears as Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard), aiming to kidnap children across the town and take them to the sewers to “float”.
Despite the recurrent theme of child abduction, as well the bubbling undercurrents of sexual and racial abuse inflicted on some of the young protagonists, the central flaw with IT is that it feels too sanitised. King’s novel dealt with these distressing themes bluntly, which naturally has to be toned down when adapted to the screen. The only issue is that the scares too have been toned down from abstract pontifications on the nature of fear, to easily accessible jumps designed to delight multiplex audiences who only care about horror movies during the most sinister sequences – and talk loudly throughout the remainder of the film.
The book is widely regarded as Stephen King’s best, and this adaptation certainly has satisfied the majority of its biggest admirers; for me, it merely felt too safe, too ordinary, with the distinctively Stephen King moments feeling like a “greatest hits” compilation of other cinematic King adaptations.
We have the bloody menstrual allegory, previously shown in Carrie, which is here treated via a bathroom sequence which is one of the film’s few effectively staged moments. The camaraderie of the boys is highly reminiscent of the characters in Stand By Me, who were equally fleeing bullies and making jokes about each other’s mums. To a certain extent, there’s also some Shawshank Redemption in there, as one of the characters complains about going in to the sewers due to walking round in shit – exactly what you’d need to crawl through to escape from Shawshank.
This isn’t to say the film isn’t at least partially successful, as the chemistry between the young actors is affecting and worthy of a far stronger horror movie than this limp jump scare offering. Yet, it still remains sad that a movie about children in danger of being kidnapped by the personification of their nightmares feels so perversely safe – even the danger the children encounter in the real world feels toned down, as the abuse Beverley and Mike receive from their father and the racist bullies respectively feels designed in a manner chosen not to offend.
For example, as relieved as I am that I didn’t hear racial slurs uttered here (especially as its the last thing we need in a blockbuster movie considering the nightmare reality we currently live in), hearing bullies racially attack somebody without using that disgusting language felt like an odd decision – especially seeing as the screenwriters are fine with liberally using the homophobic slur “faggot” elsewhere in the screenplay. How I would love to be a fly on the wall in that production meeting, where they made the correct decision that racism shouldn’t be overtly displayed, but that homophobia is fine, I guess?
It is a horror phenomenon precisely because it caters to what mainstream audiences want: a handful of non imaginative jump scares, and enough character development for audiences to continue their conversation while the film is playing out. This film is tailor made for cinemagoers who refuse to shut off from the outside world to engage with a film, offering momentary distractions, but nothing of any substance – and certainly nothing scary enough to remember upon exiting the auditorium.
Stephen King may be pleased with this adaptation, yet his dislike of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining makes his love for this even more puzzling; one adaptation leaves you in perpetual fear after viewing, whereas the other is only momentarily scary when it makes you jump, ceding back in to a state of over familiarity straight after. It certainly isn’t a worthy adaptation of a universally regarded horror tome responsible for millions of nightmares worldwide.