When I finally caught up with the smash-hit horror film “It,” it wasn’t hard to divine the secret of the movie’s success: It’s a spooky but reassuringly programmed terror app — the world’s most deluxe Freddy Krueger film. It’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street 8” with Stephen King benefits. Pennywise, the monster clown who shows up at regular intervals to terrify a handful of 13-year-olds in small-town Maine (at a running time of two hours and 15 minutes, that’s a lot of intervals), is a demon jester who laughs at everything, including his own image. Rabbity and carrot-topped, like Bozo crossed with Klaus Nomi, and with a face that opens up into nightmare jaws, he turns jolts into jokes and jokes into bloody mischief. He’s the film’s icon of superstar evil, and also its ringleader (Step right up and see how wide my jaw will bend!), and the film treats each of his appearances as a set piece.
It’s that rhythm, as much as Pennywise’s harlequin-from-hell image, that’s the real Freddy factor. I‘m far from the first observer to make a note of the link between Freddy and Pennywise. Andy Muschietti, the director of “It,” is even on record as saying that the filmmakers considered including a sequence in which Pennywise morphs into Freddy — but decided against it because, as Muschietti told the British website Digital Spy, “It’s distracting and it didn’t feel right, for some reason. I wanted to bring fears that were a little more layered and related to childhood trauma and more surprising in general.” He added that since both “It” and the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise are owned by New Line, “I thought it was a bit too meta.”
That’s all very fine spin, but a more obvious reason for why Muschietti might have had doubts about including that scene is that he didn’t want Freddy Krueger to upstage his movie’s own star. As it is, the glorified slasher-film structure of “It” consumes most of what’s interesting about Stephen King’s novel. Layered is what the shocks of “It” are not.
When Freddy Kruger first showed up, in 1984, in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” he was following six years of slasher films, going back to “Halloween” (1978) and “Friday the 13th” (1980). The form was just played out enough that it needed a dash of spice, and Craven provided it, in the form of turning his mad killer into a comedian: a disfigured MC who looked like a melted scarecrow and treated child murder as a maniacal form of late-night talk-show effrontery. The fact that Freddy could take over your dreams, kill you, and turn the whole thing into vaudeville changed the chemistry of horror cinema. Some of the greatest horror films had sparks of macabre comedy (“Psycho,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”), but Freddy didn’t just invite you to laugh. He made murderous mutilation into something with ironic quotation marks around it. He practically jumped off the screen and sat on the seat next to you to crack up at his own gruesome antics.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” was good sinister fun, and at least one of its sequels — the third entry, “A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors” (1987) — had a poetic pop-art loopiness, but the series established a formula of fear/gore/wisecrack/release that snuffed most of what was left of the mystery in mainstream horror. From then on, it would all be blood-soaked showbiz.
“It,” of course, has a major pedigree: the 1,138-page Stephen King novel on which it’s based — or, at least, the first half of it. The novel came out in 1986, 22 months after “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (though King claims to have been immersed in writing it long before that film’s release), and it is, in many ways, an expansion of “The Body,” the 1982 King novella that “Stand by Me” was based on. “It,” as a novel, truly is a tale of teenagers’ lives. In the film version, the young actors are excellent, but part of what’s a little off-kilter about the movie is that while it seems to be interested in their stories, it still treats them as glorified window dressing. There’s no more depth to the kids here then there is to the kids — Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp — in the “Nightmare” films.
That’s because the movie version of “It,” far more than the book (and more than the two-part 1990 TV-movie version), is structured as a funhouse ride. Pennywise is supposed to be a dream-creep psychological trigger — he’s tapping into all their traumas — but really, he’s just a monster with a bag of tricks and three sets of teeth (an image ripped off from “The Conjuring 2”). I never got tired of looking at him, but I so wish that the movie had more scenes like the opening one, in which the devious Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård, from inside a sewer, gets to play Pennywise in his own rhythm. It’s the most unsettling scene in the movie.
“It” just became the top-grossing horror film of all time, which means that we’ll not only be seeing a sequel (which was already set to go), but, in all likelihood, a sequel to the sequel. Yes, respect must be paid to the second half of Stephen King’s novel. But for a repeat of the phenomenon that “It” has turned out to be, even more respect must be paid to the new giggle-fit ringleader in horror: the clown who’s laughing all the way to the bank. You can bet that his antics will now be market-tested and, in the sequel, amped. From Leatherface to Michael Myers to Jason to Freddy to Pinhead to Chucky to Jigsaw to Pennywise: The bloody baton must be passed. Next time out, though, he’s coming for all of us.