Joshua and how the film manipulates the viewer into

Joshua Sokell

Critical Review

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The Psychological Wonder of Stephen
King’s ‘IT’ (2017)

Horror, Nostalgia, Adaptation, Tension,
Production

 

 

Abstract

 

I chose to look
at the 2017 film adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. I want to review this piece
because of my interest in both the psychological aspect of horror and the way
that the story was interestingly told during the course of this film. I look
into psychological horror initially, thinking about Freudian influences and how
the film manipulates the viewer into feeling certain ways through uses of
storytelling and production. I then look at the opposite side, the practical
horror in the film. Analysing jump-scares and tension building by taking a step
by step breakdown of specific scenes in the film. In breaking down these scenes
I look at the music, camera shots and tension building aspects before the
release of the scare itself. Following this I take a dive into the rose-tinted
nostalgia of the film. Comparing IT (2017) to a similar show Stranger Thing and
how these two visual pieces use plot devices. Then how the nostalgic music from
the 80’s plays an integral part in this film. Finally, I investigate the way
that the book has been adapted into a modern film. In this part I traverse the
controversies that the book had at the time of its release and how the writers
overcame these problems.

 

Introduction

 

In this essay,
I will be taking a look into the 2017 adaptation of ‘IT’. I will study the
psychological themes and effects of this piece of work. I will do this by
looking at the different kinds of horror on display in the film, the way that
this film uses its strong nostalgic theme, and how the book overcomes poor
adaptation from the original novel. I would like this essay to provide a better
insight into how this specific film makes you feel so dramatically different
each scene and how through the side of production IT is able to push the genre
of horror films further than ever before.

 

Psychological Horror

 

A good place to
start is with the themes from the 2017 rendition of Stephen King’s IT. When
broken down, these themes are incredibly simple. Freudian Horror is the most
obvious when spoken about, but the way this theme in particular works in the
film is that you can’t always tell that you or even the characters are being
manipulated into feeling a certain way during the scenes. Firstly, it directly
affects the group of main characters, The Losers’ Club, not just from the
obvious monster aspect but the psychological trauma these children are put
through. Angela Connolly (2003) states that “Burke and Jung see in the
encounter with the Negative Sublime or with the Shadow the possibility of
widening the boundaries of ego consciousness and of integration of ‘otherness'”.

This in particular is interesting when applied to the characters. If you look
specifically at the journey of The Losers’ Club, going from these timid kids
with a lot of very deep, even traumatic personal and psychological problems.

They use their individual problems, their ‘otherness’, to solve complications
and bond tighter as a group and pushing the narrative further. There is another
side to this kind of horror however, from the words of Nadezhda Mandelstam in
the journal written by Angela Connolly, “Anybody who breathes the air of terror
is doomed, even if nominally he manages to save his life. Everybody is a victim
– not only those who die, but also all the killers, ideologists, accomplices
and sycophants who close their eyes and wash their hands – even if they are
secretly consumed with remorse at night”. This is something that again can be
directly applied to the characters in this film. For one character in
particular; Beverly Marsh, this kind of lasting horror is something that
plagues her at many points in the film. She struggled from sexual abuse from
her father, although never explicitly shown but through subtle actions from the
actors and certain lingering shots this is incredibly apparent. Although
contrary to the previous quote I do not think that Beverly’s father is filled
with remorse, but this could be because of the universe the film is based in
rather than real life, from which this quote was taken.

 

After looking
at the library of Stephen King’s work, the devices he uses for building worlds
and pushing a plot forwards become apparent because of the repetitive way that
he uses them. The one in this universe that is obvious is that adults are, in
general, horrendous to children where they lack basic understanding and compassion
in regard to what is going on around them. This adds to the overall feeling of
lasting psychological horror and unease in the film, the fact that no one but
the kids actually know what’s happening in the town and having many characters
portray absolutely no remorse in regard to what is happening is a key device
used in the piece.

 

Practical Horror

 

That was a look
into the psychological horror that is applied in this film, but what about jump-scare
horror, the use of scary shots paired with music and the climactic release of
building tension. As is expected in this kind of film, there is a lot of tense
scenes that end up with a shocking scare that makes both the characters and the
audience jump. But there is one scene in particular that I think demonstrates
this perfectly. It is a scene 24 minutes into the film during chapter 3, where
Ben, the ‘new kid’ is sitting inside the library in Derry. This is before he is
introduced to the rest of the Losers’ Club. The scene starts with Ben writing a
love poem for Beverly. It is followed by a slamming of a book on the table next
to Ben and then a short back and forth conversation with the librarian about
how Ben should be outside enjoying the summer rather than stuck in a library.

Being reluctant to go outside Ben then starts reading this book that was given
to him by the librarian on Derry’s unorthodox history. Up to this point there
was cheerful music playing when Ben was writing the poem, it falls silent when
the conversation happened and afterwards starts to pick up a more ominous feel.

As he is flicking through the pages there is a close up shot of each image on
every page. Until he reaches a page with a travelling circus in the background.

At this point you hear children singing what seems to be a faint nursery rhyme,
and it cuts to a wide shot of Ben looking slightly puzzled as he turns onto the
next page. In the same shot, out of focus in the background, you see the
previously innocent librarian turn and stare at the back of Ben, smiling
unnervingly. The singing gets louder and the camera zooms in on an image; a
group of children. The next page has a news article that reads ‘Easter
explosion kills 88 children, 102 total’. The music then turns to the sound of
crackling fire with faint screaming, and the following shot is one of Ben
perplexed and the old lady now much closer grinning from ear to ear. It
climaxes with the nursery rhyme getting louder and louder with the lyrics
changing to ‘and here comes the chopper to chop off your head. Chop and chop
and chop and chop’ all in time with Ben turning the pages faster and faster as
the images of dead children get worse and worse on each page. Ben slams the
book closed and at the same time you hear a child’s scream echo and the
librarian has moved closer again. The camera cuts to the cover of the book ‘A
history of Old Derry’ followed by a child’s laughter, then a wide shot of Ben
looking behind him as a red balloon (the sign of Pennywise, the villain) moving
from one side of the room to the other as the dainty sound of a jack in the box
plays (IT, 2017). This scene, being a prime example of the way this film builds
up tension, uses jump-scare horror as one of the key ways release it. The scene
carries on into a chase between Ben and Pennywise after he follows the balloon,
but this also marks the first time one of the main characters goes through this
kind of trepidation. Unlike most films that space out their jump-scare scenes
this film goes through a 30-minute period following Ben’s scene where there are
4 other jump-scare scenes. In the story, this is because Pennywise goes to each
member of the Losers’ Club to see if he can inflict terror individually before
later taking them and killing them. I think this was a brilliant choice on the
part of the Director and writers as I feel it adds a lot to retaining the
interest of the audience whilst dodging the potential pit falls of
oversaturation. In an online blog, however, a quote taken from a podcast
featuring Jack Nugent stated, “as soon as a horror
film establishes a pattern of how the jump scares work, they lose their oomph.”. And later in the
same blog there is a quote taken from a Slashfilm contributor, Alex Riviello
saying, “It’s been a technique that’s constantly been used. I don’t think it’s
ever going to go anywhere because it is so effective. The problem is that you
know we’re so conditioned now to expect scares that it’s hard to scare audiences.” (Studio 360, 2017). Both of these extracts show that the use of
jump-scares, like previously stated, can lead to oversaturation, where this
film shines. It mixes up these scares incredibly well, some being interrupted
by other characters, some ending with a confrontation between the monster and
the child, even some ending with the death of a character. Because of this
variation, including many other outcomes that I didn’t write about, keeps the
audience on its toes. If you are not sure what to expect from a scene you
cannot become used to it. This is true for many other films where there is no
variation, yes, these films might frighten you in the moment but when looked
back on there is not a lot of reason as to why they did it or what is directly
added to the progression of the film rather than just to add a cheap scare.

Again, this is something that IT does well. Each scare, especially in this
tense 30-minute space, has reason and character development, some even pushing
certain characters together so that you can flesh out a love triangle or
psychological trauma. This is the kind of story telling that both intrigues you
as a viewer and makes you want to keep watching to find out more.

 

Nostalgia

 

Another of the key themes in IT is
the nostalgia. This is something that the storytelling relies on heavily. If a
lot of these scenes and chapters took place in modern times then technology we
have now could be used to remove a lot of the tension in the film. But nostalgia
is not a revolutionary device to be used in filmmaking especially not recently
when we have the likes of Stranger Things (2016) on Netflix doing something
very similar if not a bit toned down from IT. It is interesting to compare the
two however as they seem to operate in the same space, both being set in the
1980’s, both featuring a group of young teenage kids and both being very horror
focused. But it is important to look at how nostalgia is able to elevate these
shows above other, more recent horror film and TV productions. In Beyond Stranger
Things (2017), the director, writers and cast of Stranger Things are questioned
about their reasons behind certain pieces of plot within the show. There was a
brief part in Episode 2 where the writers were asked about the technology and
how it helps in the storytelling of a show or film set in the 80’s. “It’s so
much easier as a writer, well you don’t have to do the cliché of a horror movie
where I can’t get the signal” referring to mobile phone tropes of modern horror
films. Shawn Levy says “If the internet and cell phones existed in this story
we’d have to completely reconceive it. Because the availability of contact and
information would kind of kill all the mystery”. This is exactly what IT does
well, using nostalgia to retain the mystery of the universe by having only
those who are directly involved in the horror as the ones that can experience
it. If the writers had Bill live tweet his confrontations with Pennywise, it
would let the outside world know what is going on instead of the feeling that
these characters are completely isolated from everyone other than the rest of
the group. Apart from this kind of storytelling and uses of certain story
devices of the period there is a lot that the film can do from a production
side to reinforce the feeling of nostalgia. Music plays a huge part in the
film. Most of what is played in the film was composed by Benjamin Wallfisch,
each being orchestral and designed to have a scary, unnerving feel to them.

However, there was some popular 80’s music being played in the film and it is
referenced heavily. The most spoken about is the band New Kids On The Block.

The writers used some of their most popular songs in the film. The song Please
Don’t Go Girl plays a huge part in one of the opening scenes between Ben and
Beverly. Ben is playing this song on his Walkman as he fumbles over himself
dropping things the first time these two meet. Beverly then asks what he is
listening to as she takes the headphones. The two joke about the band being a
guilty pleasure and how Ben being the new kid in the school is a mirror to the band’s
name. As Beverly walks away she says, “Hang tough new kid on the block” and Ben
replies with “Please don’t go girl.” (IT, 2017). This is obviously a direct
reference, but it is a strong device bonding these two characters and sets up
budding feelings the two have towards one another. Later in the film the song
Hangin’ Tough plays as Beverly discovers a New Kids On The Block poster in
Ben’s room as the group are trying to figure out the mysteries surrounding
Derry. Again, this is not exactly subtle but it provides an interesting and
loving moment between these characters as they reference the first scene
between them earlier in the film. The strong synth sounds and auto tuned
sounding voices provide a feel that only 80’s music can. Even if you are not
from the 80’s you can immediately recognise this era of music and it immerses you
into the time period that this film is set and helps the story, providing key
plot devices.

 

Adaptation

 

Outside of
looking at the themes of this film I think it is important to look at some of
the problems the writers and directors had when adapting this film from novel
to film. Some of these problems were unlike any other film adaptation, because
inside the original book there was a written scene where all the underage kids
are made to have sex with one another. In the book (IT 1986), after the Losers’
Club face Pennywise for the first time in the sewers they are faced with a
problem, they cannot escape. They come to the realisation that they cannot escape
without being completely unified, Beverly, the only female member decides she
needs to have sex with the six boys. This passage from the book reads: “I have
an idea,” Beverly said quietly. In the dark, Bill heard a sound he could not
immediately place. A whispery little sound, but not scary. Then there was a
more easily place sound… a zipper. What—? he thought, and then he realised
what. He was undressing. For some reason, Beverly was undressing.”. The
controversial passage ended up being something that was spoken about quite
heavily in the lead up to Andy Muschietti’s 2017 version of ‘IT’. In the end,
it was decided not to be included in the film, but this did prompt Stephen King
himself to talk about why he included the scene initially. Dana Jean (2013)
took a direct quote from Stephen King and posted it on his official site’s
message forum: “I wasn’t really thinking of the sexual aspect of it. The
book dealt with childhood and adulthood –1958 and Grown Ups. The grown ups
don’t remember their childhood. The sexual act connected childhood and
adulthood. Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more
sensitivity to those issues.”. For me personally, this had a pretty
jarring effect. Even though the book was written in 1986 these topics are
incredibly taboo nowadays and, in my opinion, so they should be. For these
topics to be spoken about in such an open way in this novel was something I am not
sure many people now would be comfortable with reading, let alone viewing in a
film adaptation. This further illustrating the problems that can occur when trying
to take an older novel and modernising it. It is important for the people who
create these modern films to cherry pick the best aspects from a book, parts
that push the story forwards, that intrigue the viewer and parts that work well
as a whole. Going back and reading parts of the novel knowing the fact that
Stephen King was under the effect of drugs when it was written seems rather
obvious, but this made the writers job that much harder. When such integral
parts of the story are written like this then it’s up to the adaptation to
change and correct these parts for a modern audience and I think the 2017
adaptation did this correctly. At no point during the film was I made to feel
uncomfortable because of a poor adaptation of an even poorer written child sex
scene. Quite the opposite, I felt that there was no punch pulled in the
creation of this film in the best possible way. Having brave, powerful children
in an environment that isn’t friendly like most PG films, but having them in
real danger. The first scene, where Pennywise tears the arm off a young child,
sets a president for the rest of the film. This, I think, is adaptation done
well. It contains all of the intense gore and sophisticated plot from the book
and does this without the controversial and poor story devices plaguing the
latter stages of the novel.

 

Conclusion

 

Barbara Creed (1989)
states “In the paranoid category boundaries are blurred, the source of the
horror is frequently the psyche, order is rarely restored, human intervention is
usually ineffectual, the male expert does not figure, narratives are likely to
be open-ended.”. This is a general overview of a psychological horror film, but
is what I think makes IT so unique. Although many people are quick to judge
this film as either a psychological or regular horror film I think it sits
quite comfortably in the middle. I think through its unique setting, brilliant
production, multi-tiered horror theme and intricate adaptation this film is a
marvel of the genre. There are certain points of the film that are lacking, but
these dull scenes are few and far between, something that almost every film
suffers from. Though with the amazing casting and acting paired with, again,
the brilliant production this film is able to make you feel scared and uneasy
all the way through. No character is safe and even when someone runs off on
their own in a horror cliché way, the film is so unique that almost anything
can happen. This film is continuously surprising in the way it delivers
information and plot as well as hitting all the classic horror notes. This film
is a fan favourite among veterans of Stephen King’s work and the newcomers like
myself. I think it is in fact a brilliant piece of cinematography is able to
push the genre of horror further than ever before.

 

References

 

Andy Muschietti.

(2017) It, DVD. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Connolly, A.

(2003). Psychoanalytic theory in times of
terror. Journal of Analytical Psychology Online. Blackwell Science Ltd. Accessed
18 January 2018

Creed, B. and Creed,
B. (1989) Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the
Horror Movies. Screen (London) online. 31 (2), pp.236-242. Accessed
22 January 2018.

Dana Jean (2013)
Steve’s Explanation for Losers Sex Scene. Stepenking.com Message Board, 17
11 online. Available from: https://stephenking.com/xf/index.php?threads/steves-explanation-for-losers-sex-scene.444/ Accessed 23 November 2017.

Michael Dempsey.

(2017) Beyond Stranger Things, DVD. United States: Netflix.

Stephen King. (1986)
Chapter 22 – The Ritual of Chud. In: Anon.(1986) It. United States:
Viking Press, pp.1035.

Studio 360 (2017)
Jump Scares make Horror Movies Work, but how Many is Too Many. Slate’s
Culture Blog, 23 10 online. Available from: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/10/23/how_jump_scares_work_in_horror_movies.html Accessed 22 January 2018.

The Duffer
Brothers. (2016) Stranger Things, DVD. United States: Netflix.