Talking ‘IT’ over with Keri and Ben

With the big screen adaptation of IT in cinemas now, and well on its way to becoming one of the most commercially successful horror movies of all time (not to mention a very good horror movie in its own right – read Keri’s review here), Warped Perspective editors Keri O’Shea and Ben Bussey sit down to discuss the impact of the film, and that of its iconic creator, Stephen King…

Ben: So, to paraphrase In The Mouth of Madness (or rather, say what they meant to say anyway) – do you read Stephen King?

Keri: I certainly haven’t read IT. I have seen far more adaptations than I’ve read; the last King I read was Dolores Claiborne about 12 years ago. You? Are you familiar with the novel behind IT?

Ben: I’m actually just tackling it now for the first time. I’m a bit of a weedy reader, and excessively long books tend to put me off – hence I’ve never read The Stand all the way to the end (once got about 350 pages in, then put it down for a few days and just struggled to get back into it). But yes, I’ve read a small portion of his extensive library: Christine, Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Pet Sematary, Night Shift, Gerald’s Game, a few others. But I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a King scholar, there are loads I’ve yet to pick up. And like yourself, I’m ultimately more familiar with the screen adaptations; read a few articles recently ranking the King-based movies and TV shows, and calculated I’d seen about 27 of the 70-something in existence.

Keri: As I said in my review, it says a great deal that so many King books have made it that far. Why do you think that is, when, say, Richard Laymon, James Herbert, Shaun Hutson et al are rarely considered?

Ben: It is fascinating how quickly he was swept to Hollywood’s bosom. Carrie was published in 1974, Brian De Palma’s movie came out two years later, and in no time at all you had every director worth their salt adapting King: Hooper doing Salem’s Lot, Kubrick’s The Shining, Cronenberg’s Dead Zone, Carpenter’s Christine. A lot of it, I’m sure, was purely business: they knew his name alone sold. But at the same time, I guess his writing tapped into something, particularly in the American consciousness, that these filmmakers connected to. No other horror writer could capture the zeitgeist the same way, no matter how they might have tried.

Keri: I guess that brings us neatly to IT, then. What is so particular about IT that has seen it re-emerge now? Something about American childhood – hence bringing it up to date so many viewers are looking at a film where they recognise their own childhoods?

Ben: Indeed. It’s fascinating that the film adaptation of a 31 year old book, which was already adapted to TV fairly successfully 27 years ago, could capture the public imagination in a way no new horror movie has in I don’t know how long. The decision to update the kids’ scenes to the 80s is a curious one. Like you say, it would seem to be about presenting a world today’s 30-40 year olds can identify as the one they grew up in. That said, I didn’t feel they weighed it down too heavily with period-specific references, New Kids on the Block jokes notwithstanding.

Keri: It got under my skin to a certain extent as I recognised little things like the clothes kids were wearing, though I think it would have worked as well had they left the time period alone. So much of the film is about those universal fears of childhood which come to us via storybooks and urban myths. These change a little but not very rapidly – remember the clown craze last year?

Ben: I certainly do; there was a sighting near my kids’ school, which was enough to bring local TV news down! Nice to see that this has since given way to people tying up red balloons over sewer grates. I agree though, the whole point is that the terrors of childhood are timeless; they take different shapes, but it all comes down to the same thing.

Keri: You have to wonder which came first – did Pennywise filter into people’s consciousness or was he created out of the same fear! People loathe clowns it seems, even if they’ve never seen one! So, how effective do you think the new version of IT was at creating that terror? Were there any particular scenes which you thought nailed it?

Ben: Well, it wouldn’t be too hard to accuse it of being a bit over-reliant on jump-scares, but in this context I thought those moments worked really well; It is trying to elicit a response of outright terror, so naturally he’d behave that way. The slide projector scene was pretty damn freaky, if more than a little Ring-esque (of course, having not read the book I don’t know if that scene existed beforehand), and for some reason the moment when Beverley sees him dancing in the machine weirded me out a bit. I’ll have to be predictable and say that I wish they hadn’t relied so much on CG, though; I have to wonder if the leper and the woman from the painting would have been more effective as practical creatures. On which note – how do you feel Bill Skarsgård measures up to Tim Curry (the one thing everyone can agree worked in the miniseries)?

Keri: The new IT, whether for creative reasons or time constraints, had a fast pace and moved through its scare scenes in the same way. The projector scene was great (though reminded me of Insidious to an extent) and I think the first scene, with Pennywise peering out of the sewer, landed a hit really well considering it’s probably the best-known scene from the miniseries (and a scene which launched a thousand memes.) As for the CGI, I actually didn’t mind it. As it’s a host of things relative to kids’ terrors, it made sense to me that they looked a bit unreal. They sort of were! Bill Skarsgård did a fine job. The slightly boss-eyed thing was a small touch which worked well. For a lad in his twenties, he does stellar work as a timeless, shapeshifting demon! Though, Tim Curry will always own that role regardless, I’d say. The shock factor of that initial performance changed *everything*.

Ben: Just learned recently that the other two actors in contention for the role in the miniseries were Malcolm McDowell and Roddy McDowall. A couple of fascinating what-ifs! But even beyond It, King does seem to be having a bit of a big screen resurgence, with The Dark Tower coming out last month (which I didn’t see), Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game coming to Netflix soon, and The Stand in development. And it’s almost inconceivable that more new movies, even based on his books that have already been adapted to the screen, won’t follow now. Do you have any particular favourites from the existing Stephen King movies/TV adaptations?

Keri: I liked Salem’s Lot, both film and series; I like The Shining, though I think King himself didn’t? Pet Sematary had a big impact on me as a kid. Some I think have been sadly abysmal (Langoliers!) but it’s interesting to see so many new versions of his work lined up. Oh, and 1408. I loved that. Do you have favourites? Or indeed any ‘dear God no’ adaptations?

Ben: Yeah, The Shining was a big deal to me when I was younger; interesting how it seems to be a more divisive film now, I think primarily because of how far it diverges from the novel. I can understand why King and his more purist fans might not like it, but a film has to stand apart on its own, and I think what Kubrick did with it was iconic. Beyond that, Carrie made an impact on my adolescent self – that tracking shot in the shower alone, obviously – and I’ve always loved Creepshow. And, say what you will, I absolutely adore Maximum Overdrive.

Keri: I’d like to talk about the reception of IT, if I may…

Ben: Certainly. Could this be anything to do with the bizarre spate of comments suggesting it somehow isn’t a horror movie?

Keri: Indeed!

Ben: I mean, WHAT THE FUCK.

Keri: I’ve only seen a little of this – could you elaborate? Even a tentative glance at this stuff is just bizarre…

Ben: Well, I don’t want to name and shame any specific Twitter users, but there’s a whole bunch of people saying things like “actually, it’s more of a psychological thriller, just like the book was,” and declaring that it’s “reductive” to call it a horror movie. Basically it all boils down to the moronic argument that something can’t be horror if it’s anything more than a guy in a mask stabbing cheerleaders. How ANYONE can say a film, or novel, centred on a shape-shifting demon which feeds on the fear and the flesh of children is anything other than horror is completely beyond me.

Keri: Ah, the old ‘I enjoyed it, and I am an intellectually complex being – horror isn’t, so it can’t be horror’ tangle. I’d say it covers pretty much everything I’d expect of a horror film! Newsflash: horror causes psychological thrills. It’s what it does. Whether this be input-output simple scares or deep-rooted anxieties about life. It’s so odd that we live in a world where horror is still something to distance oneself from.

Ben: Absolutely, and I daresay that’s why It has seized the collective consciousness in such a way: King seemed to be going out of his way to tell the quintessential horror story, with the quintessential monster; the embodiment of fear itself. And he may have succeeded. And as regards the real-life resonances of horror – history, I’ve no doubt, will find it notable that It conquered the box office the same weekend that Hurricane Irma hit. (Side note: did you know The Monster Mash was the US number one during the Cuban Missile Crisis?)

Keri: I didn’t know that, and I suspect we could look further into this and find many other examples of horror being made more and doing better in times of real-life problems… Certainly it’s no great surprise to see a horror riffing on the generation gap, powerlessness, surveillance and fear in the current climate.

Ben: There’s always arguments to be made there, like how the extreme horror wave of the 70s echoed the social upheavals of the time, or how torture porn was born out of 9/11 and the war on terror. But as we’ve also acknowledged, fear itself is timeless, death and pain are always inevitable, and as such there’s never a time that horror isn’t relevant. Cheery.

Keri: So did you feel that the reframing of the film as just the childhood sequences worked? And what do you hope for in Chapter 2?

Ben: Again, my lack of familiarity with the novel probably helps there; been a while since I watched the miniseries, but I seem to remember it being fairly clear-cut between the 50s scenes and the 80s scenes. I do wonder if they might have given some clearer indications as to the otherworldly nature of It, and the whole scenario; did feel a bit of a cop-out to have Beverley tell us that she’d seen a vision of the future, without us actually seeing it for ourselves. But fair play, they went into production on this knowing that the sequel was by no means guaranteed, so maybe they didn’t want to commit to anything they couldn’t deliver on. In the miniseries, I remember finding the adult section a hell of a lot less effective than the kids’ section. So I just hope they cast it right. As some people have noted, it may be strange when the new actors are all 40ish, and they’re still running in terror from 20something Skarsgård. (That said, people 20 years younger than me still freak me out a lot of the time.)

Keri: Well, it will be interesting to see. And the success of the first one means it seems likely to run to a second film…

Ben: Yeah, it’s pretty much a given. Think they announced by Saturday that they were going ahead with It Chapter Two (if that’s the title the end up going with).

Keri: I guess horror fans of our age spend a lot of time chasing the sort of imaginative fears we had as children. So I’m hopeful that the next film can raise something engaging on that theme. All told, although It feels very modern and made for horror fans who expect the jump scares to an extent, I’m pretty gratified to see a supernatural horror (HORROR!) doing so well.

Ben: Absolutely. Hand in hand with the success of Get Out earlier this year, I think It bodes well for the genre; audiences flocking to films which deliver intelligent storytelling, characters and themes, on top of the standard scares. But yes, for the love of all that is holy, call It what it is, and that’s bloody well horror.