I am waiting on a decision on whether I will receive a offer for a job I desperately want and pretty much must get, so I had to get out of the house and get my mind off things, leading me to see this, which I only had mild interest in. Still, this did unexpectedly well at the box office, and mother! did unexpectedly poorly, so I was also getting curious to see what audiences like in horror, since we already know what they hate, Hate, HATE in horror. So let’s cut it up, lay it out, and examine it!
The movie is both well done and not very good at all. It is also a big commentary on how television is leading entertainment at the moment. For one, because this movie is clearly following Stranger Things in assembling a bunch of Spielberg-type quirky kids in the 1980s, because we have recently discovered that current adults really love nostalgia for that time in their lives, as well as the movies that were popular then. The other reason is that the movie is structured like television, in a series of scenes, and a series of scares, that tell the story through a very linear “and then, and then, and then” structure. One thing that works to the film’s detriment is that pretty much every scene, and by that I mean EVERY SCENE, ends in a scare. We join this character, and it builds to a scare. We join that character, and it builds to a scare. Repeat. The scares are quite good, but geez, after a while it all starts to get quite the same.
The novel is in two parts, with this film just covering the first part. The second part will take place when the kids are all adults, and they will face the monster again. That’s all interesting, and we’ll get back to it, but in making this film they have updated the time period from the late 50s to the late 80s. Smart choice, but the seams show badly. For one, the kids are all clichés and stereotypes imported unchanged from Stand By Me, ET, The Goonies, or any other 80s feature with a bunch of adorable, quirky “loser” kids, and… the young actors have to work hard to overcome the artificiality of their characters. It’s like with JJ Abrams’ Super 8… the kids are a copy of a copy, a recreation of something you remember was genuine once. And perhaps another indication that kids today, spending hours staring at their screens, are simply not cinematically interesting. And plus we adults need to pretend that we’re still in this world where childhood is about having bikes and goofy friends and crazy adventures, not just watching television while monitoring likes on Instagram.
The other issue is that their childhoods here are 50s childhoods, not really 80s childhoods. They make paper boats. They write names on their bikes with magic markers. They jump of a cliff at the local watering hole. They hang out in a small town with a butcher, a pharmacist, a librarian, and the other “adult” characters of a typical small town. There are no video games. There is no MTV. It doesn’t destroy the film, but for anyone old enough, it’s clear that we’re getting a 50s version of childhood wrenched, only barely updated, into the 80s.
So what’s good about the movie? The scares are good. The director, who did the Jessica Chastain horror film Mama, knows how to create a gradually-escalating horror scene (and does it many times in a row!) and knows how to SHOW the horror (as opposed to hiding it) and still make it scary. Alexander Skarsgaard also does an excellent job as the terrifying clown, who receives more onscreen time than most monsters.
The movie also benefits greatly from its historical perspective, which gives the whole thing a depth and scope most horror films don’t have. Turns out the baddie is an evil entity from another dimension that returns every 27 years to eat children. Thus the town’s history is made palpable in prominent historical murals, old photographs, and old buildings around town. The movie and characters also benefit from us knowing that we will encounter them 27 years from now, and it’s all a generational thing. That said, I would have much preferred that the evil in town spring from something the town’s ancestors did, like witch trials or something, instead of some interdimensional entity, and while the movie sort of tries to have it both ways, I think it would have been stronger with a more solid subtext, as in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, where the children are forced to suffer for the sins of their parents.
So there we are. Quite good in some ways while simultaneously being not very good at all. That’s the way the world is now. I can see why it’s connecting with audiences, because it serves them a steady diet of more-creepy-than-terrifying scares mixed with all that comforting nostalgia.