In the run-up to the release of the latest Stephen King adaptation, It, Scott Wampler of Birth Movies Death would regularly upload a publicity still of Pennywise the Dancing Clown poking his head out of a pipe. With each repost he would add another foul element of American life to keep the cosmic force of evil company. Pretty soon, Pennywise was joined by the likes of Bill Cosby, Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson, and, of course, you-know-who. It’s a funny gag. The reason it worked was because it understood that Pennywise is more than a creepy clown. It is a manifestation of everything evil lurking beneath the veneer of American normalcy.
SURPRISE: Tonight we're ALSO welcoming Bill Cosby to The Pipe. This one's looong overdue. Sorry about the delay on that one, folks. pic.twitter.com/IxYrluo4Oh
— Scott Wampler™ (@ScottWamplerBMD) July 11, 2017
In King’s 1986 novel, It becomes most visible at flashpoints of injustice in the Maine town of Derry. It appeared when the Maine Legion of White Decency burned down a popular nightclub for black soldiers. In 1984, when the Reagan administration still refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic, It claimed a young gay man who had been thrown off a bridge by a group of homophobic bigots. Basically, It appears whenever American bigotry becomes hyper visible, and now a film adaptation has – with eerie coincidence – been released in the wake of a summer marked by the Charlottesville riots.
Horror fans know that the genre can be especially cathartic during times of personal difficulty. These films can force us to confront our deepest fears in relative safety. (This writer has a penchant for David Cronenberg films.) So, when a horror film like It comes along and breaks box office records, it would suggest that larger societal fears are being projected onscreen.
What might those fears be? An orange-haired clown? Perhaps, but the clown is just an extension of something more elusive and far more sinister. In the book, what makes It so scary is how it makes the adults of Derry complicit in its child-killing spree. When It kills another kid, the previous victim is swiftly forgotten, just as a barrage of government scandals and abuses makes it difficult to maintain focus. This complicity trickles down into mundane occurrences. The film touches on this when Ben is being attacked by Henry Bowers’ gang of bullies. A couple of average Americans drive past, see what is happening, and choose to ignore it.
The coming-of-age element of the story is important, because puberty not only signals burgeoning sexuality, but also an increased awareness of the way society operates and sustains itself. Any childhood faith in a fair and just world crumbles as you become more aware of the mundane horrors in your own town. The connection between It and the sewer is symbolically significant, because the sewer is where all of society’s waste is sent to be out of sight and out of mind. The film foreshadows this connection early by establishing rubbish as a motif: a scene opens with Bill, Richie, Eddie, and Stan dumping their school books in the bin.
Meanwhile, Bev is introduced in a toilet cubicle, where a group of bullies pour garbage water over her. Like sewage, nations discard the bits of history they don’t like, particularly when it concerns racism and other forms of bigotry. It’s no coincidence that the Losers Club counts a Jewish boy, a black boy and a girl among its members. They go down into the sewers and confront It, the personification of all the injustice they have faced.
The interconnected histories of racism, homophobia, and misogyny in America provide ample evidence of the mainstream attempts to sweep these abuses under the rug as if they never happened, or were simply the product of a bygone era. It is disappointing that in moving the setting from the 1950s to the 1980s, the new film makes relatively little use of its new historical setting beyond a Gremlins poster. An early scene involving the slaughtering of a sheep seems to suggest a forthcoming critique of Reagan-era political attitudes, but it never quite comes together.
The film similarly touches on bigotry but always seems to shy away from it. In the book, Henry Bowers’ bullying of Mike Hanlon is shown to be the result of generations of white racism. Henry’s father is a bitter farmer who harasses Mike’s family because they are more successful than he is. Although race is seemingly acknowledged in the film (Henry tells Mike he “isn’t welcome” in Derry), it is severely downplayed.
Henry’s father is a cop rather than a farmer. Introduced late in the film before being promptly murdered, the character makes little impact on the film. His sole memorable line – “nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble” – serves to condemn a general toxic masculinity, rather than one informed by white supremacy.
If the film downplays racism, then it emphasises misogyny through Bev. Slut-shamed by her peers and drooled over by adult men, Bev is someone who is only seen through a sexual lens by the other characters, even the other Losers. The only adult woman who speaks to her is Eddie’s mother, who calls her “dirty”.
Most significant is Bev’s relationship with her father, whose incestuous desires are made more overt in the adaptation. The film is effective at showing how the misogyny she experiences is deeply woven into the fabric of Derry.
On the other hand, this singular focus on Bev being marginalised by her perceived sexuality risks reducing her character to just that point. Even worse, the climax of the film is triggered by Beverley being kidnapped by It, a departure from the book that turns Bev into a passive damsel that needs rescuing. For a film that emphasises the damage wrought by patriarchy, It remains curiously unaware of its own role in perpetuating sexism.
The story of It is ripe with potential to examine American bigotry through the generic lens of horror. It can peer beyond the spectacle of violence that such hatred can erupt into, and offer a glimpse into the subtle horrors that permeate within the souls of people around us, and even ourselves. This new film showed potential in living up to that promise, and the audience turned up to listen. But in the end, the film is reluctant to delve further into the murky depths of what Pennywise represents and instead shows us a pale imitation of the horrors in our world.