Warning: IT spoilers float down here too.
The crowd at my midnight screening of IT jumped at the menacing painting lady, Bill Skarsgård’s book-loving monster, and that super comforting clown casket room, but the moment that created the biggest gasp by far came when Pennywise turned into Beverly’s dad in the sewer.
After watching Alvin Marsh (Stephen Bogaert) menace his daughter (Sophia Lillis) with uneasy overtures toward his “ownership” of her budding sexuality, Pennywise donning Mr. Marsh’s face in a last-ditch effort to terrify Beverly sent a shockwave through the audience. That shockwave obviously turned into enthusiastic cheers when she, no longer afraid, slammed a metal implement deep into It’s face. That was the turning point of the climax, where a group of children battling a creature that fed on their fear turned the tide by overcoming what personally frightened them.
Each fear was legitimate–Bill’s persistent state of mourning, Stan’s creepy metaphorical painting, Mike’s memory of his parents’ violent death, Eddie’s unease with sickness–but Beverly’s was viscerally threatening. Her father could strike at any moment. Hers is more than an existential crisis; it’s a physical, sexual, mental terror that looms over the bullying she already experiences at school.
That a midnight crowd responded more strongly to the human villain than the shape-shifting boogeyman isn’t all that surprising, though. This is precisely how King structures his horrors, and the team behind IT obviously understood that the fear which Pennywise fed on had to come from somewhere relatable, from us.
In all of King’s films and miniseries, his otherworldly baddies channel classic childhood fears: vampires, werewolves, and aliens. It’s the fear of going into the dark forest. The fear of encountering something that hasn’t heard (or doesn’t care) that we’re supposed to be at the top of the food chain. From zombies in Cell to a giant bat in Graveyard Shift to The Master in Salem’s Lot, King doesn’t stray too far from the understood mythologies.
But the adaptations that are focused too strongly on the monster also tend to be the weakest (ahem: Silver Bullet, The Mangler, The Night Flier). While sometimes frightening, King’s creature features are too often thin and uninteresting beyond whether someone will get eaten or, you know, accidentally date a cat-person youth vampire. In each of those cases, the monster simply isn’t enough, and the human characters facing danger are more like fodder for the slasher mill than sympathetic heroes. Without mankind’s worst instincts, these stories suffer.
Conversely, some of the very best King adaptations are the ones where humans are dead center. Shawshank and Misery and Stand By Me don’t need anything supernatural to prove that people are capable both of cruel bloodletting and (sometimes) profound kindness.
But what’s most fascinating in King’s catalogue is what happens when humans and monsters vie for villainy. In every case, humans end up at the top of the evil trash heap, leaving monsters in a secondary role, even if they instigate people’s bad behavior.
The unseen Lovecraft clones in The Mist are scary, but psychopathic religious zealot Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) is truly horrifying. The old god in the cornfield is powerful, but the murderous children choosing to worship it are the sinister ones. The Overlook Hotel’s haunted hold on people is unnerving, but Jack Torrance’s behavior before his possession is extremely disquieting. And once he is possesed? The hotel offers him no special powers, because it doesn’t have to. His stomping feet and swinging ax are violent enough.
The movie that best captures this is Carrie, where the title heroine is both a supernatural monster and the focus of our sympathy. Her mother is a raw source of fear, and the preppy young assholes (with no super powers to speak of) are the engine that keep Carrie timid and frightened. It’s the apotheosis of this particular theme in King’s work: not only do we care about the werewolf or vampire; we’re rooting for her when she attacks.
Bullies are a main current running through King’s work. So is the question of how a supernatural evil can draw out humanity’s worst traits (think Needful Things and Tommyknockers and The Stand). IT practices these ideas through the sociopathic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his cronies, as well as Greta Keene (Megan Charpentier) and her trash-tossing minions who terrorize Beverly.
But the film also quietly deals with the latter King theme by offering us a pessimistic view on what adults must be like in a town that has to deal with widespread tragedy every 27 years. The greatest evil has become a brand of apathy. Yes, it’s deeply upsetting when pharmacist Mr. Keene (Joe Bostick) leers at Beverly with lumpy middle-aged desire, but it’s also strange to think that he’s unconcerned with his own daughter’s safety in the middle of a crisis of missing children. Has his wealth insulated him that completely? Or is he merely comfortable with the inherent cost of living in Derry? This is a movie about a sickness that no one dares recognize. It’s a movie without a harried PTA meeting. It’s a movie almost devoid of adults.
Those that make it on screen are either overt monsters of absentee well-meaners (like Bill’s mother) who have somehow made peace with their despairing malice. It’s no accident that when a car of adults passes by Henry carving an H into Ben’s belly without stopping to help, one of It’s red balloons pops up in the backseat. It’s not because he’s controlling them; it’s because he’s present whenever fear bubbles up from the actions (or inaction) of people. In that sense, Pennywise is just an animal in search of a buffet, but humans are the chefs doling out all-you-can-eat pain and punishment.
Pennywise spends most of his time as a humanoid monster, too, which further cements our fear. He isn’t solely a beast looking for a meal, but a thinking animal with a keen understanding of how to draw out his prey. Sharp claws can elicit an animalistic flinch, but Pennywise spends his time as a clown, a melting woman, a shuffling leper, a dead little boy, a children’s television host, a headless child, and other humanoid forms. Perhaps that’s a mechanism of cinema–that movies demand this kind of imagery to work with a story like this–but it’s more likely that Pennywise relishes in looking like us because he (and King) understand that’s what scares us most.
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win,” King once said. In his best work, we lose.
Images: Warner Bros., Columbia Pictures