So far this year has been a whirlwind not only for horror fans but for the minster lovers that live inside all of us. We have been given psychological horror with Split and have witnessed the resurrection of an icon with Kong: Skull Island, and it needs no reiteration but all of us here are anxiously awaiting The Mummy in June. However, for me personally I am most looking forward to September and the new vision of one horrors biggest and best voices, and that of course is Stephen King and the new IT. With that in mind this month I will be looking at the master of horror himself and kick it all off with a bang. This is my Sunday with…IT!
This month I am going to be deviating away from my usual review style articles in favor of looking at and taking in these works in their whole, meaning not just films but also the books they are based off. Before I get into the work allow me to gush over the man that is Stephen King. In this genre we all know and love it is so difficult for anyone to not only achieve real sustained “credible” success but to be accepted and loved by the main stream. King has made a career out of that, churning out story after story of not only financially successful work but also critically successful work. However, even those who are accepted by the main stream still carry a stigma. To the unacquainted the name Stephen King just brings up visions of hack and blood horror and that is so unfortunate. Aside from his terrific horror, King is an exceptionally talented writer who has the amazing gift of not only capturing human emotion but investing you into the characters that he writes. I will argue that no one has captured the essence of a “damaged” or struggling person better than Mr. King. His characters are real and that makes the troubles or horror that befalls theme that much more credible to an audience. For me personally King is one of if not my favorite writers, and IT is my second favorite book ever written, so I’ve been chomping at the bit to get this one going!
For the uninitiated, IT is the story of the “Losers Club,” seven children living in Derry, Maine. Each child, dealing with their own unique struggles and upbringing are thrust together for several reasons first of which is the constant fear of Henry Bowers and his gang of greaser thugs. Bowers bullies and terrorizes each of them to the point where they rally together so they aren’t alone. However a much deeper and insidious demon is slowly prying it’s way into their lives. Known to the children as Pennywise the dancing clown, this entity takes on the form of whatever the children fear most. The town of Derry has a long and dark history with deaths and disappearances, especially among children and the root of that seems to be Pennywise. Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Losers Club, has been most affected by Pennywise as he is the reason for the death of his younger brother Georgie. Tired of being scared and feeling the call to end this the Losers Club take to the Derry sewers where they intend on coming face-to-face with Pennywise and ending his terror. After a close confrontation the Losers Club vow to return to Derry if the evil of Pennywise were to ever return. Fast forward three decades and the child disappearances and murders are back, and Mike Hanlon, the sole remaining member of the club in Derry is tasked with calling his old friends and reminding them of the vow they made, but will they remember the traumas of their childhood, and can they once again come together to battle this evil? IT is a sprawling novel set over two different time periods, 1957-1958, when the Losers Club encountered this evil as children, and 1984-1985 when they return to encounter him as adults. IT is a masterpiece and this small recap barely touches the surface of what this book is. Like Pennywise hiding beneath the surface of Derry, It not only pulls you in but terrorizes you long after the last word has been read.
As with any beloved piece of literature the argument over if it would translate well onto the big or small screen has been battling since the book’s inception. Many fans, myself included, fear that there would be no way to encompass everything into a film that made the book so amazing. In 1999, fans got their first glimpse of this beloved work as it was adapted into a two part mini series. Now the first thing that ever comes to mind when you hear IT or Pennywise is Tim Curry and his amazing performance as the titular character in the mini series. His performance here is burned into the mind of almost everyone who saw it as he perfectly combined an almost comical sense with the under the surface evil that made the character memorable. Curry looked terrifying and every time he was in screen you felt unnerved but in the back of your mind you couldn’t help but chuckle at most of what he says. The visual presentation of the character may not have been exactly as he was described in the book but his performance was so iconic it more than made up for any inconsistencies. The rest of the mini series was “passable” as most of what is seen is cheesy, devoid of much of the violence or serious adult themes that played such a critical role in the novel. The fact that this was on TV also played a huge role into how it was adapted. The mini series did a solid job casting the kids version of the Losers Club as they all felt like they fit not only the time period but the roles they were cast in. The adult performances were a little less convincing, coming off more as b-movie comedy than really serious and character developing. The lasting impression of the mini series is of course Tim Curry and while many die hard fans of King and the book weren’t thrilled with the TV version they were happy with the legacy and image that Curry left with casual fans.
Even though the mini series wasn’t really beloved the thought that no one else could play Pennywise like Tim Curry was a constant point since the mention of an IT remake in 2009. This past Thursday the hungry masses got their first look at the new vision and I can only speak for myself here but HOLY SHIT I can not wait! The new trailer looks as if it will have a much heavier, darker tone than the mini series and focus on more of the adult themes and messages of the novel. As far as Pennywise goes he looks nightmare inducing which is a great thing. Time will tell if the performance of Bill Skarsgard is as iconic as Tim Curry’s but I for one cannot wait to check it out.
In the horror/ monster landscape there are certain names and images that are synonymous with the genre, and Pennywise has to be one of them. The reason that Pennywise is so effective runs deeper than the Curry performance and of course begins with the character. Pennywise is, in my opinion, King’s perfect villain; from the physical appearance to what he represents. Starting with the appearance, clowns are something that for most should garner visions of childhood fun. On the surface a clown is intended to be a happy jokester for the enjoyment of children and adults alike. However, and I can’t be the only one who feels this way, there has always been something off about clowns, something sinister beneath the surface. Clowns have always come across to me as untrustworthy and that is why Pennywise is so effective. King wonderfully plays with the notion that this thing that should be bringing joy to people isn’t what it appears to be. The idea that a clown is something that wouldn’t inherently be scary to a child makes the character even more effective because he is using this charm to get what it wants. This is something that we in the real world worry about everyday and that is someone using a false appearance to harm or abduct children, unfortunately it happens more often than not. Pennywise is, in essence, the destruction of innocence and aside from his appearance that is also seen with how he takes on the form of your biggest fears. A character that can not only scare you but manipulate you with what you fear inside is the biggest threat because you are never safe. That is seen throughout the book and the series as Pennywise preys on the fears of the Losers Club in an effort to break them. Psychologically the scars he leaves will never be healed and in good writing like we see here that is more effective then the physical attacks. Finally the fact that Pennywise mainly feeds on children makes the character that much darker and scarier. There are really two things that are taboo in the horror world and that is children and pets and King has no problem breaking your heart by killing off either! Children are the embodiment of innocence and something that no matter who you are you feel you must protect, and having a character feeding on that makes the audience that much more uncomfortable and feel that much more unsafe. In the end the character of Pennywise feels like broken trust, he breaks the trust of your own mind to terrify you and breaks the trust that children are innocent and protected and that is what makes him such an intricate and great character.
As mentioned in the opening Stephen King is often overlooked as a writer who can flesh out real human characters that almost anybody can relate too. It is no secret that King himself battled many demons and that in my opinion makes his writing especially about “damaged” people that much better. There are many themes in Kings novels and IT is no different. Here we are presented with the ideas of the horror behind the small town charm, the importance of memories, as well as trauma and fear. Every theme is explored to the letter but the latter two especially so, as every main character is the personification of a fear or trauma. The idea of humanizing these fears and traumas is perfect and adds a deeper layer of relate ability to these characters. Bill is the leader of the losers club and his character is stricken with the grief of losing his younger brother. Bill feels somewhat responsible for his little brothers death. Bill is the embodiment of family trauma. We all fear losing a family member especially one as close as a brother or sister. His family dynamic changes after Georgie’s death as his parents become more distant and cold to him. He also suffers from a severe stutter that only worsens after the loss of his brother. As an adult it isn’t until Bill realizes it wasn’t his fault that Georgie died that he was fully capable of battling and destroying IT. Ben is another member of the Losers Club who struggles with being bullied because of his weight. He is often criticized because he is overweight and it destroys his confidence. Ben personifies body trauma or fat shaming. This is a fear that most of America deals with, being unhappy with not only your appearance but being unable to change it. Beverley is the sole female member. She comes from the poorest part of town and is often abused by her overbearing father. When we are reintroduced to Bev as an adult she is involved in an abusive relationship, much like the one she has with her father. Bev is the poster child for the cycle that is an abusive relationship. It is a vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to break. The scenes with her and the blood in the bathroom also bring up the fear of maturation or the unknowns that puberty brings on. I found it fitting that King gave her six male counterparts that act as her safety net and it isn’t until later in life that she realizes how important they were to her and enables her to break the abusive cycle that was her life. Richie is the life of the party, always quick to crack a joke. He is rarely alone and always the center of attention. As an adult Richie becomes a shock jock or comedian (book and movie) and is always surrounded not just by people but by a party, and mentions his previous marriage. It isn’t until Richie is alone and all the noise is quiet that he is most vulnerable. Richie represents the need in all of us to be wanted and needed. This constantly leads to self-doubt as seen when they return to Derry as adults. He comes across as loud and full of himself but inside he is timid and self conscious. Eddie is the smallest and frailest of the group. He lives with his over bearing mother who constantly tells him he is sick and can not do things because he will hurt himself. Because of this, Eddie is a hypochondriac constantly looking for his asthma medication even though as an adult he knows it’s all in his head. He grows up to marry a woman who is overbearing and protective just like his mother and even though he has achieved success this relationship still suffocates him. Stan is the skeptic of the group. Even after seeing Pennywise he doesn’t truly believe it is real. This skepticism and disbelief eventually leads to his death as he cannot handle it when he gets the call as an adult. The final member to join the club is Mike, and he is the “light keeper” who stays in the town after the other leave. Mike is black and embodies all of the racial bigotry and divide especially in small town America. The strength of this story comes from the characters. Each one of them have qualities that everyone of us either have or felt at one time in our lives. It is the strength and ability to relate to these characters that leads to the true success of IT.
Even though the mini series and book were different the characterization are for the most part the same. Minor details are changed but the heart of the characters are the same. In my opinion IT should be mandatory reading material for anyone who loves horror or just good stories. The mini series, while not as good as the book, is still entertaining, especially the performance by the legendary Tim Curry. The remake is set to premiere September 8, 2017 and I will be counting the seconds until that date!