Horror is a unique genre in that I think, to truly enjoy it, you need to be fully immersed. Seeing a movie in theaters is a great way to do just that, and despite my consistent revalidations that horror is best left to at-home viewing with the lights turned off and a significant other close at hand (since moviegoers particularly love to talk during horror movies more so than any other genre for some reason), I wonder if IT (2017) will usher in a new, better age of wide-release horror.
The first age of widely-released horror was undoubtedly the 1980s. Horror movie after horror movie came to theaters and brought us Halloween icons that, much like the characters themselves, will never die. The end of the 1970s may have sparked it, but the 1980s really defined the American horror genre, probably to a fault. The trashy and grotesque for the sake of being grotesque was commonplace and the B-movie feel became a defining quality outside of the franchise circuit. While the genre did find a sense of humor in its self-awareness, it was too often cheap, with a brainless pun here or a maniacal proclamation there. Or, worse yet, it wasn’t meant to be funny, giving horror an “it’s so bad it’s good” reputation. (Sure, movies like Evil Dead kick ass on innumerable levels, but those are exceptions to the commonality.)
That’s not to say that I don’t love much of the horror the 1980s produced. Trashy and grotesque are nowhere close to deal breakers, and those adjectives certainly don’t encompass every film. But 1980’s horror resulted in two undeniable consequences: horror was seemingly forever relegated to niche cult status, and the genre’s preconceived profitability relied on franchising, demoting the standalone horror of the 1970s to B-movie funding of the 1980s. And if a B-movie garnered a cult following and encouraged high-level funding? Its original charm was pretty much guaranteed to be defecated upon. (Look no further than 1983’s Sleepaway Camp.)
The first film adaptation of It came out in 1990, and it just wasn’t that great. And the 1990s in general was pretty weak on the horror front. For one thing, the best ones are barely-horrors like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), or rehashings of 1980’s horror like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Army of Darkness (1992), or MTV-style blowup hits like Scream (1996) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). (Meanwhile, Asian cinema was creating brilliant, original, hard-horror masterpieces, but we’re talking strictly American horror here.)
And since the 1990s, the ripple effect that the 1980s had on the genre has remained consistent. Until recently, that is. And I wonder if 2017’s IT officially marks the dawn of a new day, one that overshadows the 1980s in a redefining capacity, most importantly in terms of taking it out of the budget-crippling, audience-minimizing niche market and officially putting it in the mainstream.
2017’s IT absolutely obliterated the box office record for the month of September, and it opened to $123.4 million, the 27th highest opening weekend at the time of writing this (which is kind of creepy considering the usage of the number 27 in the movie.) $123.4 million opening weekend?! For a horror movie? I mean, it has the Stephen King appeal, but that’s absolutely incredible. And in the wake of The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), two more high-quality, highly successful horror movies, and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), the best PG-13 hard-horror ever made (which had a budget of about $12 million and made $81.7 million in the box office), there seems to be a promising trend, one that involves a variety of horror universes simultaneously being released to huge successes and a resounding applause from critics.
That’s unheard of. There hasn’t been a cinematic horror landscape comparable to this since the 1970s.
It’s fitting that IT would be the movie to set in motion a new gold standard of American horror cinema timelines, as it has a lot of the elements we love about 80’s horror with a healthy dose of contemporary horror capabilities: the children seem to be the only sane people in town, taking it upon themselves to save the day by working together and empowering each other to overcome their fears. The nature of IT as a villain pits victim against their worst fear, leaving endless possibilities for uniquely frightening moments, which the creators really played with without backing down. Plus, the promise of a happy ending always appeals to mainstream audiences. IT has everything going for it, and it has everything going for me as someone who wants to keep seeing more like it.
And trust me, I’m happy with low budget horror, and mainstream, wide-release horror would do nothing if not help grow its audience. All I know is that the theater has been long suffering from a lack of high quality, non-established horror movies, and the genre itself is largely relegated to September and October releases — not exactly the hottest time slots. I blame the 1980s, which had taken the masterpieces of horror cinema of the 1970s and reshaped the common conception of the genre to highlight its worst qualities. And while horror will continue to hold the risk of flopping without the name recognition of a horror icon like Stephen King or a franchise universe, it’s quite possible that IT is just another step closer to broadening and intensifying the horror genre that could come close to eliminating the damage done by the 1980s.
It’s pretty disappointing that bad horror so easily taints good horror. You don’t normally hear people say that they hate comedies just because you saw a few bad ones. And listen, if you’re afraid of being scared, that’s fine, but it’s also just a movie and you’re a grown adult. Watch it with the lights on and be willing to let a movie get under your skin a little bit. If it’s able to get your blood flowing, that’s a good thing, trust me. You feel more alive when you watch horror. Think about it: there’s a very fine line between the feeling you get watching an action movie shootout and the feeling you get watching a clown chase a bunch of kids through an old house.
Plus, a horror movie doesn’t have to scare you to be great. Don’t believe me? Watch It Follows (2014). Hell, watch Halloween (1978). Both spooky, but not exactly scary, and they’re phenomenal films you’d be missing out on simply because of horror movie prejudices, which includes the idea that it will definitely scare you. Some aren’t even meant to.
Also, if a horror movie really, sincerely scares you, then you secretly love to be scared, because you know it isn’t real but you’re letting it get to you. Admit it, you love it. Yeah, you love it. Look at you, smiling bashfully while half-heartedly kicking the playground mulch, you know you love horror.
Horror is literally the only genre that consistently laughs at itself, and yet everyone loves to laugh at it instead of with it. I’ve always thought that we, the collective audience, need to stop holding horror up to a higher standard, especially when the entire genre hasn’t really taken itself seriously since 1982. But now, given the accessibility of special effects and the growing mainstream desire to go to the theater and see a horror movie, as IT has officially proven with that insane box office showing, maybe horror filmmakers should embrace the expectations (and continue to surpass the hell out of them).
If they do, it won’t be long until horror evokes images of contemporary quality rather than low-budget, 1980s niche flicks. And we’ll all be better off for it.