A rare remake that outdoes the original, It is as cathartic as it is escapist.
When times are tough, people watch horror. From the flux of 1970s slasher films following the Vietnam War, to the post-9/11 torture porn genre, to even the virgin allegories of Twilight, one way or another periods of great collective anxiety have a way of manifesting themselves on screens to which the masses then flock in search of both escapism and catharsis.
Consider it a sign of the times then, that after a period of record lows at the US box office, It should come along and break opening day records. Better the orange-haired devil you don’t know?
But of course people do know this monster. A remake of the 1990 two-part made for TV adaption of the Stephen King novel of the same name, 2017’s It once again visits the ostensibly idyllic town of Derry, a place where children ride bikes around the lush tree-filled suburban streets before going missing without a trace.
The culprit, as it was then, is Pennywise, a monstrous flame-haired clown who lurks in the sewers, feeds off fear and from whom the moral corruption that infects the adult population of the town seems to stem.
With the governing forces of the town indifferent to the suffering of the youth, the only ones to really notice what is going on is a ragtag group of adolescent misfits who one by one encounter Pennywise and realise that together they may be able to stop him - that is if the switchblade wielding school bully doesn’t get to them first.
If this all sounds a bit Stranger Things, that’s because it is. In a case of art imitating art imitating art, the influence of each incarnation on another is palpable, with the Netflix hit having clearly been both heavily influenced and heavily influential on It’s 1990 and 2017 versions respectively. So much so, that one of Stranger Things’ child actors - an incredibly charismatic Finn Wolfhard as the fabulously foul-mouthed Richie Tozier - appears here as well.
And it works. With a massive increase in humour and some very well-placed music cues, the hallmarks of the ‘80s are dialed up to 100 here which, rather than diluting the terror, gives us a far more immediate grasp on the protagonists who experience it.
Still, at a time when American history could hardly be more conspicuous or contested, it is interesting to note that none of It’s ruminations of idyllic small town childhoods gone wrong even come close to contemplating the horror embedded in the very recent past.
Of course, the filmmakers could hardly have predicted just how extreme things in 2017 would become. But with such a large group of children all competing for screen time, it does feel conspicuous that the role of Mike, the single black character, is scaled back so significantly, while any mention of race - an issue handled very, very poorly, but at least earnestly, in the original - is elided completely.
Still, with some slightly shonky source material (read about the dodgy stuff that goes on with Stephen King’s Bev in the novel’s Wikipedia summary, I dare you) and a good but highly dated predecessor to work with, It is a resounding success.
At a time when we are forced daily to unpack and inspect our deepest concerns, It’s depiction of abject horror and cruelty is not so much an intellectual exercise as it is a physical and emotional one, packed with suspense, jump scares, and images so terrifying that you can’t help but shield your eyes. As such, It is an exhausting experience but also enormously satisfying.
Of the very few films in this age of terrible remakes that stand to benefit from an update, It is perhaps the ideal candidate. Though the time period remains locked in the nostalgic sweet spot that is the late ‘80s, the humour, aesthetic and overall tone here feels significantly sharper and more current than the then-contemporary setting of its predecessor. In fact, with no significant or overt changes to the setting, the town of Derry - a small idyllic town populated almost entirely by cruel, fearful white people - is more terrifying than ever.