Beep-beep, gentle readers: very mild IT spoilers to follow.
Sometimes people like to say hacky things like, "When you get right down to it, (location in which a movie takes place) is basically a supporting character," and when they do this I tend to roll my eyes: even when they're right, it's a tired, worn-out observation. It's also an observation I'll be making in the next paragraph, and I'm not sorry.
The town of Derry, Maine is just as important to Stephen King's IT (and both adaptations it's inspired) as the doomed people we meet there. A character unto itself, Derry is a seemingly-quaint little burg situated atop a roiling bed of decay and horror. The evil being manifested there - all the racism, child abuse, casual violence and cruelty - is eventually revealed to be a symptom of the town's oldest resident, Pennywise, who lives beneath Derry and emerges every 27 years to feed on the town's justifiably-terrified children.
In Andy Muschietti's IT, this evil peeks its head out in a number of ways: there's the creeptastic pharmacist who not-so-subtly hits on Beverly, there's the couple who witness (and willfully ignore) Ben being terrorized by Henry Bowers and his gang, there's the town's disregard for the children who've already been lost to Pennywise's insatiable hunger (old "Missing" posters are casually papered over with new ones). Of the many, many things that IT gets right, the film's preservation of the creeping sense of dread that's long infested Derry is among the most impressive. They absolutely nailed it.
And in one particular scene - in a moment that occurs so quickly and so subtly that I've now spoken to multiple people who hadn't even noticed it - Muschietti orchestrates an absolutely brilliant scare around the concept.
The moment arrives early on. The school year has ended, and the majority of Derry's kids are spending their summer getting into misadventures ... except young Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor, a standout amongst an entire cast of standouts), who's hunkered down in the library, reviewing the history of the town he's only recently arrived in. The librarian mildly scolds him for spending his summer indoors, and then we get a shot of Ben flipping through a scrapbook documenting one of the town's grislier accidents. You can see that very shot at the top of this page.
We alternate between this same shot of Ben and Ben's POV as he flips through the book. The back-and-forth draws the audience's eyes to Ben's as he turns one page after another, eventually landing on a newspaper clipping showing a child's decapitated head lodged amidst a tangle of tree branches. On its own, it's a pretty freaky moment. Nothing special, maybe, but well-executed.
That said, my advice to you is not to focus your attention on Ben during this scene, but on what's going on behind him. Go ahead and take another look at the photo at the top of this page. See that old lady standing in the background, just out of focus? She's there through this entire sequence, leering at Ben and almost going into a crouch, as though she's about to pounce across three tables at him. As a friend pointed out on Twitter, that may well be a double of the librarian, who we see across the room in a later shot. And if that's the case ... well, it wasn't the librarian who gave Ben that book, was it?
Either way, it's a wonderfully subtle gag, one that works on a couple levels: it's a precursor to the terror Ben will shortly go on to experience in the library's basement, but it also deftly communicates that sense of dread and rot we discussed earlier, the one that suggests something's terribly wrong with Derry's adult population.
Look, maybe you noticed this right away, on your very first viewing (I know I did; I broke out in goosebumps as soon as I realized what was happening) but as I mentioned before, I've spoken to a few people now who simply didn't pick up on it: they were too busy watching the horror dawn on Ben's face as he flipped through that darn scrapbook. If you're one of those folks, definitely look out for it on your next viewing.
Anyway, if there's a downside to any of this, it's that we don't get another scare like this throughout the rest of the film. Obviously, Muschietti and company opted to change things up as the story unfolds, communicating the same message ("EVIL IS EVERYWHERE UP IN THIS MUG") via a variety of methods. I suppose we should admire that sense of restraint, and - for the most part - all of their alternative methods work beautifully ... but none are as subtly horrific or as haunting as that fleeting moment in the library. In a film overflowing with scares, it was my absolute favorite.
What was yours?