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How to make a horror movie not suck (a no spoilers IT movie review)

I don’t actually like horror movies. I’m not afraid of them or anything like that. I mostly just don’t care for them.  It’s actually kind of weird that I don’t. I tend to actually like genre fiction a lot. And in fact I find the genre conventions of horror fascinating (and in fact, if you’re a horror fan, even as a non-academic, I totally recommend you read Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Carol J. Clover). The thing is, I find the literary theory behind horror way more interesting than I actually find the movies (or books) themselves. I just can’t get into the storyline the way I can with say superheroes or sci-fi or fantasy or even YA future dystopia.

So, since I feel that way about horror, it’s probably not surprising that I’m actually not much  of a Stephen King fan. I sort of recognize his genius and his talent, but there a large portion of his most popular work that I just don’t really care about at all. Shawshank Redemption is a nigh perfect film, and the novella it’s based on is up there too. But Carrie? Yawn!!! I know, weird right? I mean, I’m behind the concept and love the critical theory behind it. If you want to present a paper on the metaphoric usage of blood and horror to denote the trauma of menses of a pubescent girl and the associated Freudian male fear of the association between death and sexuality that sexually awakening teenaged girl represents? I’m fucking there, dude. But do I want to actually watch it? Meh.

As such I was kind of lukewarm on seeing the adaptation of IT that was released this weekend. I was curious, because IT was reviewing well, and I know enough other people were really looking forward to IT and far be it from me to shy away from a cultural event like that. But as far as personal excitement… Meh… I mean, I’ve tried to read the IT before. I got bored. Too much horror wankery going on. I know the story… because I’ve seen the 1990 miniseries version and iIknow enough fans (including my mother and brother) and have read enough horror theory that I know the changes that were made to IT that I can piece together the rest of IT… and yeah… horror wankery. Meh.

So with all that said, I’m amazed to say that I kind of enjoyed IT. I did. I had fun. And I think the reason I had fun was that IT really is a good movie.

IT‘s not an amazing movie. The buzz IT‘s been getting has been making IT sound like IT‘s the best horror movie ever. IT‘s not even the best Stephen King horror movie ever. I mean, IT‘s not The Shining. And yes, I like The Shining. I’m not a savage, people! IT‘s no Shining. But IT‘s good.

And the reason IT‘s good is that IT does something that most horror movies that I’ve seen are unable to do. IT forgets that IT‘s a horror movie!

Genre is comforting. Genre provides shortcuts that bring the audience into a story. When used correctly it makes those who understand the genre feel like they’re automatically drawn into the story. The key here is to have a story for them to be a part of. To take my genre of choice, superheroes, we can look at Captain America: Winter Soldier. If you know nothing about the characters or the conventions of the MCU or the Captain America world, it’s still an engaging spy flick. Similarly, if you’ve never heard of Ant-man before, that film is still a fun heist movie.

On the other hand, if you lay too heavily into a genre and don’t pay attention to building a compelling story, your film suffers. This is what happened with Batman v. Superman. If you are unfamiliar with the world or the genre conventions of superhero movies or the mythology and lore of the DC universe, that movie is just downright unwatchable. There’s just bullshit happening left and right that has no place in the film, is unexplained and convoluted and detracts from the movie overall.

To move back into the horror genre, think about how the jump scare works. At essence the reason jump scares are… uh… scary… is that humans don’t like sudden loud sounds or for unseen things to move out and surprise us. But many horror movies are predicated on the idea of scaring people over and over again… people who, as fans, are actually hard to scare because they’re aware enough of the genre conventions that they can’t be truly surprised by them. So the movies fake it. In order to make the jump scare work, the films have to artificially create serenity and silence, something that is kind of otherwise uncommon in a ilm predicated on the idea of people running around and screaming their heads off. In other words, jump scares in most horror movies are telegraphed by the film suddenly slowing down and getting quiet so as to give itself the opportunity to suddenly get loud and surprising. And deep down the horror fan knows this. They’re not really scared. They’re just trained to react to that moment. And that’s not a bad thing. They like it. But to those of us who don’t care for it… it is annoying as fuck.

IT found a clever way of solving this problem. They just didn’t fucking do it. Seriously. They just didn’t bother. I don’t know if the movie is scary “per se.” I suppose it is, i you’re into that sort of thing. And there are things that jump out on occasion… when it makes sense for them to do so. But they only happen when they serve the story. Similarly, they dispensed with all other useless horror tropes and conventions except when they were necessary. This is actually a deviation from the book. And a good one! In fact, the movie was much better than the book. Without spoilers, I will say that a big part of what I didn’t care for in the book is that there is a lot of horror wankery in it. There’s superfluous supernatural mumbo jumbo bullshit and self-referential Stephen King mythology building. If you’ve read the book, you know the things I’m talking about. These things annoyed me and made me never bother to finish IT because I don’t care about weirdness for weirdness sake. This movie… doesn’t have any of that. In fact, given the basic supernatural premise of the story, there’s surprisingly little supernatural stuff. What’s there is just enough to serve the story. Because there is a story. A story that is actually intriguing and interesting.

And that’s what makes IT work. For the most part, I remained engaged for the whole 135 minutes. While many people might find the beginning somewhat slow, I actually would have taken even longer to get to the first kill. I wanted a little more time to get to know and care about that character. In fact, my main complaint is that I wanted to be more attached to several characters in the film that essentially come across as canon fodder. There are people who I know simply exist in order to become IT food, and they’re pretty easy to predict. If the film paid a little more attention to them, I might have felt more about them during their demises. Of course, that would be hard. There is a large cast to serve already, and I felt as though some of the living characters also didn’t get enough character building screen time. They have some, I know who they are. I know their motivations. The actors portraying them did a good job. But I wanted a little more.

And I suppose that’s a good thing. Leaving me, a non-fan wanting more, rather than dying to get out of the theater is probably the best that IT can hope for. And IT got it.

So no, IT‘s not the best horror movie ever, but IT is definitely worth going to if you are a horror fan, and its enjoyable as a non-horror fan if you’re being dragged along.

★★★½☆+🎈 (3.5 out of 5 stars… plus a balloon if you’re a horror fan… because you’ll float too)

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