IT: How Not to do a Horror Film

Warning: minor spoilers for the movie IT (2017).

I should first come out and say that I actually enjoyed Andy Muschietti's IT when I went to go see it at the cinema last week. It's a decent dark fantasy movie with some solid editing and a perfectly creepy atmosphere. Not only does Bill Skarsgård deliver an astonishingly bloodcurdling portrayal as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but each child playing the members of the Losers' Club also put in strong performances which is particularly reinforced by the strong chemistry between each of them. The decision to make the film a two-parter was also wise as it allowed the pacing to feel more comfortable rather than rushed like the 1990 miniseries. To me, IT is probably one of the best films of the year, but I don't think it is a very good horror movie.

Firstly, let's begin with the obvious; Pennywise is a clown. Some people have phobias of clowns. Personally I don't have a problem with them, but I can definitely see where the fear comes from. This is what IT preys on. Coulrophobics are going to be the main crowd scared by this film, because frankly there's not a lot else I found to be too terrifying here. We see a lot more of Pennywise in the opening moments than we do in the original miniseries. In fact I think the design of Skarsgård's version of the character is a little too overtly scary to begin with, which actually makes it less creepy.

Everything about its appearance screams "I am a horror monster" and this ultimately makes it more of a distraction unlike the Tim Curry version, who resembled more of an ordinary clown with enough odd mannerisms to make it seem disturbing. If you think about some of the horror movies widely regarded as the scariest, such as The Shining, It Follows and Psycho, you begin to realise that sometimes the worst thing imaginable in something very realistic.

This also brings the reliance on phobia in horror to the discussion, which I find to be especially weak. A specific phobia is an unreasonable or irrational fear of something which often leads to a person suffering great anxiety and stress from exposure to it. So when the main fear factor that comes from IT is from being afraid of clowns, it says less about the skill of the director to scare the audience, and more about the exploitation of phobias. To me, the best horror comes out when a creator can scare me by making anything shocking. 

So when it comes to how frightening IT is, there's only really that and another cheap ploy by horror directors: the dreaded jump scare. I shouldn't need to explain why unnecessary jump scares are the worst thing a horror film can do, but in essence it's the director deciding that a scene could be made more tense by adding in a loud noise and have something pop out onto the screen. There's nothing creative about it, because anyone will jump at one. It's a bit like me shouting "BOO!" at you versus me telling you a scary story. While you may be scared for a split second at the former, it's the latter that will ultimately stay with you the longest.

More horror creators need to realise this is not how to create tension or form an everlasting horror experience. I'm not saying that jump scares are completely terrible, as films such as Mulholland Drive and The Exorcist III have done them extremely well, but when you have a film that relies on jump scares then it won't stick with me as long as it should. There's a reason two of my most favourite horror films from recent years have been Get Out (2017) and The Witch (2015), which both rely on atmosphere and subtlety to build the suspense.

So to reiterate, IT isn't a bad film. It just isn't scary. Of course, it doesn't need to be hair-raising to be a good horror film. There are films such as Shaun of the Dead and Little Shop of Horrors which would definitely classify as good horror despite not being that daunting. The difference between those and IT is that the latter tries hard to be scary and that effort actually has it fall flat on its face. Perhaps if they'd spent more time building on the tension and exploring the backstory of Derry it would have been better, but sadly this was not the case.

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