Collins’ Crypt: How Can Anyone Think IT Isn’t A Horror Movie?

Some folks are playing that "psychological thriller" card, and BC ain't havin' it.

When writing about The Funhouse last week, I mentioned that the film didn't quite check the boxes of a typical slasher movie, even though that's what it's frequently referred to as. Much like pornography, "you know it when you see it" when it comes to whether or not a film counts as one (at least to me), but I would never flat out disagree with the notion that it was one. Ditto for Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is even further away from the traditional slasher to my eyes - but it's also got a guy in a mask chopping up teenagers, so on some level it's kind of the definition of one. It's more of a tone thing for me when it comes to whether or not to classify a film as a slasher, but others categorize them based on the narrative, or simply because a lot of teenagers end up dead at the end of one. The point is, when you get into sub-genres, there's a lot of wiggle room and disagreement, and ultimately it doesn't really matter all that much, as it's not like there's a video store that divvies up the films into niche categories - they'd just be in HORROR and that'd be that.

However, when it comes to the bigger picture, I get far more annoyed. It took all of five seconds after the initial box office reports started coming in for people (both professional and Twitter randos) to start calling It a "psychological thriller", or even a "drama with thriller elements", and other equally idiotic things. There's probably a healthy debate going on somewhere as to whether or not It is a "monster" or a "supernatural" horror movie, but at least these theoretical people agree that it's a goddamn horror movie, and there is literally no room for debate on the matter. The movie - and the book it is based on, and the original miniseries - is about a murderous clown that can take the shape of other terrifying forms in order to succeed in its goal of murdering/eating children, and every few minutes, something scary happens. I defy anyone to tell me that isn't a horror movie, and then I encourage them to shut up and stop being so wrong about everything.

As our own Scott Wampler beautifully noted: "IT isn't a horror movie" may be one of the worst takes I've ever seen, full stop. That anyone would even consider saying it astounds me." I too, was kind of amazed that this one would fall victim to the same debate, as unlike say, Silence of the Lambs, there wasn't any push from its makers to call it otherwise. It director Andy Muschietti has referred to it as a horror film, and Stephen King, who wrote the book - noted as being one of the best-selling horror novels ever - calls it horror. One of the studios that made it, New Line, is literally "the house that Freddy built" and tipped their hat to their former premiere boogeyman by establishing the August 1989 setting with Nightmare on Elm Street 5* playing at the theater. The cast has done PSAs about how scary it might be for kids. Etc, etc, etc. I mean, I almost thought people were joking at first, sarcastically saying it's "not horror" because it dives so deep into the genre's playbook and has such rich history within it, like in that same sarcastic tone one might bemoan the newest Transformers film being shut out of the Oscars. Its horror cred is not only firm, it's also kind of legendary - not only does it have the book to compete with, but the previous miniseries; Tim Curry's Pennywise is often lumped in with Robert Englund as Freddy and Doug Bradley as Pinhead in the annals of classic performances - and he only had one movie to do it in! A TV one at that! On what planet would this not be a horror film? Some people tried to defend their position by saying "I wasn't scared", but that's a load of bullshit - I don't think the Police Academy movies are funny, so should I say that they're not comedies? 

Cliché thriller image.

The argument is not new, and it's certainly not exclusive to IT. If it was, I'd just ignore these people, but this comes up whenever there's a big hit like this and I find it so insulting, as if a mere horror movie is somehow incapable of being respected by top critics and making more money than the newest Spider-Man on its opening weekend. Again, we saw this kind of thing with Silence of the Lambs, a very gory movie about a cannibal who helps catch an equally terrifying killer, because it ended up being nominated for a number of Oscars and therefore some of the folks behind it didn't want to hurt their chances by calling it a horror film, employing the "it's a psychological thriller" line that became rather ubiquitous throughout the '90s (Fangoria even had a recurring column called "It's Not A Horror Film!" where they'd report on movies that had worried producers downplaying their genre connection). Winning the five major awards (Best Picture, Screenplay, Director, Actor, and Actress) didn't change anything either; in the LA Times report on the Oscar winners, they refer to the film as, you guessed it, a psychological thriller. The word "horror" does not appear in the article at all. 

But again, I can see the argument there, which isn't the case with IT or some of the others I've seen given the same insult over the years. Not only did I feel compelled to similarly defend Cabin in the Woods a few years back, I shit you not, I've even seen more than one person claim that Scream isn't a horror film! A Wes Craven movie that had multiple battles with the MPAA over its gory kill scenes, which starts with one of the all-time most effective jump scares in one of these things (Ghostface spinning at the window), and is literally a whodunit slasher movie featuring a masked murderer, and some people want to claim it's not really a horror film. Why? Because it was popular with the masses (it outgrossed every film mentioned within it) and respected by critics? Because it was smart? That's how I read these things every time I see one: it's like these people are embarrassed to admit that they liked a horror film, because it's the same genre that houses the likes of Children of the Corn 7 and god knows how many awful found footage movies about haunted asylums. They have conflated "horror" with "dumb", and so if the movie is smart, it can't be horror, I guess. Or, because the genre has produced so many stinkers, it's just a "bad" genre, and therefore the good movies have to be called something else? 

And yes, the horror genre probably does have the most lopsided ratio of shitty movies to good ones, for a number of reasons. The biggest being that they're cheap to make; when films with five figure budgets like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project both make well over $100m, it's hard to argue that these films - unlike say, sci-fi or action, require lots of money being spent in order to appeal to audiences. So basically anyone with that much money feels they can be the next big thing, and clutter the market with ripoffs. There's also the law of diminishing returns; Halloween is actually preserved in the Library of Congress for being so damn great, but I doubt we will ever see it joined by one of the infinite number of copycats that followed over the next few years, as John Carpenter's skillful direction and emphasis on suspense eventually devolved into "How many kids can we kill and how many different weapons can the killer use to murder them?" scenarios, with each new film (including Halloween's own sequels) merely trying to "top" the previous one, with zero artistic merit on display or possibly even considered. The fact that most horror films succeed without any expensive stars (including IT) also makes them easier to get made, so when you add it all up - yeah, the genre has produced a lot of shit, simply because there isn't a lot you need to make one. Hell, you don't even have to know how to load film anymore.

Standard drama shot.

They're also easy to sell, and that's where the audience is to blame. Horror fans are not the most discerning lot (p.s. please buy Cathy's Curse!), and there is a bewildering amount of acceptance for bad horror movies that no other genre can quite muster - has anyone ever asked you to come over because they wanted to have a few beers and watch a bad drama or comedy? We show up for sequels to movies we didn't like all that much to begin with, often putting them into profit on their first weekend and thereby green lighting another before anyone has time to really think about improving things, and no one has any real incentive to try to make them good. Or they don't have time to; because of their practically guaranteed success, studios like to keep their franchises going like clockwork, thankful that they don't have to wait for busy actors' schedules to clear up. The Saw and Paranormal Activity series stuck to a pretty firm schedule of annual releases, but some would even churn them out even faster than that. Universal had Child's Play 3 in theaters less than 10 months after Child's Play 2 (they were not two parts of the same production like the Matrix sequels, mind you), and Paramount didn't even try to make anyone believe that F13 Part 4 was truly "The Final Chapter", as they had A New Beginning in theaters less than a year later - the shortest "wait" for a new sequel in the entire series. Neither film performed up to par with ticket sales; neither film ended their series, either.

So I can kind of see why someone might hesitate to lump those kinds of things in the same genre as IT, with its big budget look, epic length (it's the longest film in this weekend's top 10 box office entries), and critically lauded performances from its young cast. Studios rarely bother to offer this kind of A-list treatment to a horror film, because time and time again we're kind of telling them they don't have to. But that doesn't mean it's not a goddamn horror movie! There have been a number of horror films over the years that were given the same level of talent afforded to any number of Oscar bait type films (many of them also from Warner Bros - The Conjuring is a good example, and let's not forget they gave us The Exorcist), so it's not like IT is the first. Hell it's not even the first Stephen King one; there was a time where films based on his novels routinely secured A-list actors and sizable budgets - even Dreamcatcher (WB again!) scored an Oscar nominated filmmaker (Lawrence Kasdan) and a $70m budget, and that's a movie about shit weasels. They might be rare, but they do exist - and the success of IT can hopefully help make them a little more commonplace.

But only if people cut it out with this "not horror" crap. Studios rarely learn the right lessons from these kinds of out of nowhere smashes (they haven't even officially greenlit the sequel yet), but one thing they should be able to take away from it is that horror (R-rated horror at that) isn't necessarily a hindrance to potential box office returns, especially when fellow R-rated Annabelle: Creation is going to top $100m this week at some point (the only August release to manage to do). I'm sure we will see more Stephen King movies, probably a bad killer clown movie or two, and they might even try to revive Freddy Krueger again (his cameo in Ready Player One notwithstanding), but thankfully, one thing I know for sure is that they will be looking for more HORROR movies to fill out their slates, unless they listen to nutjobs trying to claim that the film doesn't qualify as one. IT's a horror film, and it's a damn good horror film to boot - stop trying to take that away from us.

*All of the films that play at the theater are Warner Bros or New Line titles. Nightmare 5 is hardly anyone's favorite movie in that series, nor was it particularly successful, so they could have gone with Young Einstein to achieve the same effect.