When the hell did kid actors get this good?
by Thom Yee
I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I was terrified. And I was terrified most of the time too. I was terrified of looking stupid, I was terrified of not knowing the answer, I was terrified of letting people down, I was terrified of never having control of the situations I was in, but most of all I was terrified of the future. I was terrified of growing up. When I was a kid, growing up seemed less to me about gaining new knowledge and abilities and taking fate into my own hands and more a series of tests, crucibles almost, whether it was finding new friends in transitioning from elementary to junior high/junior high to high school, getting through puberty without any deep scarring, passing my driver’s license exams (with the notable hindrance of being a Chinese driver), or getting into the right university and then picking the right career path. It felt like my passing or failing of each of those tests would become the building blocks that would make up who I was, cemented and irreversible whether I wanted to be that person or not. And I just never felt ready for any of it (even though I usually did pretty well on actual tests [y’know, being Chinese and all]). I can’t say for sure what gave me such a scared, intimidated, gloomy outlook on what I inevitably have to face growing up — I didn’t exactly grow up with a helicopter father or a tiger mother (terms that didn’t even exist back then) — but what I do know, looking back, is that fearing the future the way I did took a lot of the fun out of being a kid, and, ironically, it’s that fear that probably made me grow up even faster.
But I was never afraid of clowns.
I mentioned way back in March in our review of Get Out that horror was one of the genres I wanted to increase our coverage of here at GOO Reviews, but we haven’t actually reviewed another horror movie since then (not unless you count The Mummy, which is a horror for entirely different reasons). While there have been a number of horror movies released since Get Out, the truth is we’re not generally looking to review genre movies, be they action, comedy or horror, as much as we look for movies with multiple value propositions (though we do review just about every superhero movie that’s out there [that’s just our bias]). For instance, we came oh-so-close to reviewing It Comes at Night, a movie with horror trappings that had much more to do with family and how we relate to other people (we didn’t because we just ultimately didn’t have enough to say about it), but you’re probably never going to see a review for movies like Wish Upon or The Bye Bye Man here. If you enjoy those types of movies, that’s fine (though those particular two examples didn’t work out too well critically), but those aren’t the types of movies we enjoy writing about. On the other hand, with Get Out, there was a lot more going on than just horror, and now, with IT, we have a horror movie that’s about more than just a killer clown.
What’s it about?
The world’s a scary place when you’re a kid. Your body starts to change in ways you can’t control, bullies are everywhere, adults start acting weird around you, some even seeming to have secret plans for you, and clown-looking monsters living in the sewers rip your younger brothers’ arms off before dragging them into the sewer, never to be seen again. Wait. That last one doesn’t happen too often. But when it comes to the sleepy/creepy town of Derry, Maine, the kids aren’t alright, with more and more of them disappearing every day, and when Bill’s seven-year-old brother Georgie goes missing, he and his group of friends, the self-styled “Losers Club”, may be the only ones who can bring these disappearances to an end. By beating up a clown. Basically some puny kids go into the sewers to kill a clown.
Based on the 1986 Stephen King novel of the same name, it’s here where I’ll apply my usual forewarnings when it comes to books, No, I’ve Never Read the Book and I Don’t Read Books. I guess that’s a bit of a strange thing to hear from someone who derives at least part of his income from writing and I definitely think that, from the outside, it’s a weird set of statements for me to stand behind so resolutely, but hear me out, because this is the only time I’m going to explain my position on the subject (though feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you just want to read about the movie). It’s not exactly an elaborate story or an epic origin, but, like IT, it all starts from a place of childhood trauma. You see, when I was a kid, I didn’t gravitate to the novels littering my father’s book shelves or the encyclopedic tomes on our family’s upper display cases, I, instead, found the comicbooks, lower to the ground in boxes and bags stashed all over the house, and I fell in love with them instantly. I still remember vividly the bright colours and impossibly complex layouts of comicbook artist George Perez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, barely being able to understand what was going on in those pages (because the story of resetting the continuity of DC’s multiple universes and folding its multiple interpretations of the same characters into one prime Earth isn’t exactly the best place to start) but feeling hopelessly enthralled and hungry to learn more, and it’s Perez’s early to mid-‘80s artwork that I still count as my favourite to this day. That was a great time in my life, 6-7 years old (as it should be for all kids), having found some of my first childhood friends and being one of the only kids on the playground, in the heyday of comicbook trading cards, who knew so much about the DC and Marvel universes, but pretty quickly I was forced to read books much closer to those on the school curriculum. What was an early love of reading about heroism, valour, courage, and self-sacrifice soon gave way to reading through a lot of crap I didn’t care about that often felt intentionally dumbed down, and I guess that might be a necessary part of the pre-adolescent learning process, but accompanying it with a near-constant stream of messaging that espoused the virtues of reading the books I didn’t like while putting down and berating the comicbooks I did wasn’t something I took well. Alongside fear, anger is one of the things I felt quite frequently as a child, anger that the things I liked and cared about most were so very wrong and the things everyone — parents, teachers, adults, society — were forcing on me were so very right, and the cumulative effect of all of that messaging added up to almost a mental block that makes it both difficult and undesirable for me to focus on the printed pages of a novel. Even to this day it’s hard for me to crack open a novel and stay focused for more than a few pages. Books ruined everything!
Stephen King’s IT has had a slightly more unusual trip from the page to the big screen than most of the prolific writer’s other works simply because it’s a property that’s already so well and fondly rememembered in its original live-action form, the IT television miniseries broadcast on ABC (and CTV!) in the early ‘90s. That there was a television adaptation of a Stephen-King story on network TV isn’t all that notable, but the specific imagery of the vicious clown that haunted the children of Derry, Maine left a definitive mark in the broader pop cultural landscape that made this modern interpretation of the story much more viable in our age of remakes and sequels and it clearly made this new IT much more likely to succeed. And succeed it did, earning $123 million in its opening weekend on its way to breaking records for biggest September-opening movie, biggest fall-opening movie, biggest R-rated horror movie opening, and biggest opening for a horror movie in general. IT is a big success to be sure, but it’s the kind of success that I don’t actually think can be replicated again, at least not so well. You can, of course, point to IT’s marketing mix, its striking visual appeals, and its pinpoint accuracy in combining the nostalgia we have for the original TV movie with our current nostalgic craze for mid-‘80s kids adventure stories by telling the story in an ‘80s/Stranger-Things-esque setting, but one of the biggest factors that contributed to the success of IT is that every new movie for more than a month before IT’s released sucked. It’s not as if this past weekend was a monster for any other movie, IT’s nearest competitor for the weekend being Home Again, a movie that earned more than thirteen times less money, and there still generally are no movies generating any excitement right now other than IT. People wanted to see IT, sure, but people have also wanted to see a new movie for a while, and nothing new in the month of August was very good, building a pent-up demand that IT fed off of like a supernatural nightmare clown feeding off the fears of young children before eating them.
Is it any good?
The story of liking IT, for me, is a story of two separate but intertwining parts, much like the novel’s swings from childhood to adulthood (of which I know about, but, for reasons outlined above, obviously haven’t read). As a concept, IT isn’t a monster movie so much as it’s about all of the things you fear or suspect as a child. That fear of the dark, that fear of what’s out there waiting for you, the fear of not being listened to, not being able to speak and being labelled things that you’re not, that feeling that there’s something wrong with your town specifically and you might never escape, that feeling that all the adults around you are giving you bad advice on purpose, and everything you might feel when things start to go wrong in your young life, whether it’s how the feeling of being left behind when your friends move away forever or how profoundly it changes everything when life gets serious and you might lose a sibling. It’s that creeping, building feeling you get when you realize at a young age that you might be prey far more than predator. And it’s also about a clown/monster thing running all over a small town killing its children.
Our heroes in IT, the Losers Club, are all at that age when you haven’t yet learned to hate your parents, but they’re becoming far less integral parts of your life. For the most part the adults in IT are a mix of absent and a source of horror to the kids, either faintly but discernibly creepy or full-on abusers, and there’s almost a sense in IT that whatever weird things are happening in Derry are things that the adults must also be in on. That’s never made explicitly clear in the movie itself, but it’s a feeling that hangs over the town implicitly, because Derry is a horrible little place to live in, far more accepting of and resigned to hatred and terror than it should be. Henry Bowers, the town bully who terrorizes the Losers, goes much further than the typical bully, threatening them and assaulting them like you’d expect, but also going so far, at one point, to carve his initials in the belly of his victims with a knife. He’s a real psychopath and a genuine threat to the Losers, and in the few instances where the adults see what he’s capable of, they just drive on by. This is all fertile ground to explore in IT, particularly when you learn about the town’s tragic, haunted past as Ben, the new kid and an outsider at school, teaches the other Losers about some of the finer points of Derry’s history, which includes significant occurrences of death, murder, disappearances, and mass explosions.
The real strength of IT comes from its young cast, all of whom inhabit their roles so fully that it’s easy to forget how bad kid actors usually are. They’re all the types of kids you’ve met in school, outwardly quiet and unassuming but fun and boisterous when in their comfort zone with each other, and they all look like typical kids too, the kind who probably aren’t going to grow up into movie stars or models. It’s watching them grow up, learning about their fears and fascinations, and confronting their nightmares that makes the story of IT work, and purely as a kids-getting-into-danger movie, IT stands amongst the best of its peers. I also want to mention here what a good job the costuming department did, because these kids look terrible in the same way we probably all did back when our parents bought clothes two sizes too big so we’d grow into them and before we’d developed any sense of fashion and/or shame.
On that side of IT, following these kids and seeing them grow, there was a lot of fun but also a lot of truth. They swear, they take dumb risks, they get mad at each other, and they fall in love in that kid way, the kind that won’t last but you need to experience to grow up. The kids in IT are more literally vulnerable than any of the other town’s inhabitants, but they’re the only ones capable of seeing the things that happen in the movie clearly and the only ones willing to take it upon themselves to do what’s right because they don’t yet feel the things that hold us back as adults. Thematically there’s a strongly resonant authenticity in that and a true sadness that informs the movie as we watch Bill try desperately to find his lost brother when all of the adults have given up. I almost shed a tear at one point when Bill starts to realize how lost his brother is to him.
That almost overwhelming sense of sadness and sympathy, though, points a little bit to IT’s weakness as a horror movie because it’s not the scariest movie in the sense of bone-chilling terror. IT is very much a horror in the entertainment sense of the word, tuned specifically to be fun more than terrifying or dreadful. It’s a good time to be sure, but it won’t necessarily linger too long in your brain, its horrors lying primarily in just how striking the image of IT is as a sinister-looking clown. If you’re afraid of clowns and you have the desire to feel scared, the scares may work on you, but if you’re a little more discerning or horror-resistant, there’s not as much here. On the plus side, IT’s jump scares generally do feel earned, appropriately unnerving rather than just being startling, and some of the ideas in IT, something scary having been here all along and maybe waiting for you specifically, ready to jump out at you even though you think you’re just the observer watching a screen or reading a book, can work if you want them too. I should address that this is a funny movie too, but it’s not my kind of humour, so I’ll speak of it no more, motherf*ckers!
So should I see it?
Alongside films like Star Wars, Jaws, and Titanic, IT is a really great and really crowd-pleasing movie the likes of which the word “event” were made for. It’s exciting and fast, dramatic and intriguing, and a real movie person’s movie, very much designed to entertain but not necessarily fashioned in a way that sacrifices essential intelligence or further examination. If you’re interested in seeing IT at all, you should make sure to see it while it’s in theatres, and I don’t think there’s any way you’ll walk out without having been entertained.
But IT’s not perfect. And quite frankly, I’ve never been a huge Star Wars or Jaws fan either. And I’ve still never seen Titanic.
Every part of the Losers Club’s adventures in IT works as a truthful and genuine coming-of-age tale that draws you in, finds common ground with you, and makes you remember what it was like to be that young, and there’s something to be said for how well IT captures the naivete at the core of being a kid that’s necessary to stand up and stand together against the horrors that surround us every day, something that maybe can only happen at that age because it’s the one time in our lives where we’re closest to being equals rather than being divided by money or social status or illness or misfortune. IT’s a great looking movie too, a real piece of pop art where you can imagine every shot giving a specific feeling even without having to know the greater context.
It’s not very scary though, at least not in the indirect ways that creep into your soul and stay with you. Many of the scary parts are telegraphed by the movie’s score and a lot of what happens in those scary moments allow our heroes an unusual level of agency. Rather than fear, a lot of the scariest moments in IT aroused a sense of rebellion in me instead, the need to gird my loins, face my fears, and fight back. Thematically that’s kind of what the movie’s going for, but that helplessness that you need to feel to be truly afraid is mostly absent.
Thom’s IT final score
On the Edge
- Weird that that music at the beginning turned out to be Bill’s mom (or someone like that) just playing the piano. What a creepy choice of music to play in the house.
- Considering the time period, I wish there had been more ’80s cars in the movie.
- Cattle gun, f*ck yeah!
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