HEAT VISION

Is 'It' a New Kind of Horror Franchise?

Never before has there been a series that's been closer to being the 'Avengers' or 'Star Wars' of the genre.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Never before has there been a series that's been closer to being the 'Avengers' or 'Star Wars' of the genre.

Horror as a safe commercial bet isn't a new concept. It's a genre with a low buy-in and an absurdly high ceiling. A $15,000 investment could get you a $190 million return if that investment is in Paranormal Activity. And franchising horror isn't a new invention, either. Exhibit A: Annabelle Comes Home, to date the least successful film in the ever-burgeoning Conjuring universe, which nonetheless managed a tidy $223.5 million gross. Horror has long lent itself to serialized narratives: Slashers á la Halloween, gore-fests á la Saw, housebound spookiness like Conjuring and Paranormal Activity, and kicking off September is It: Chapter Two, the continuation and conclusion of Andy Muschietti’'s 2017 adaptation of Stephen King's decades-spanning 1986 novel. The film opened over the weekend with $91 million, the second biggest horror opening ever behind the first chapter.

At a glance, It does what all horror movies ripe for franchisement do. It provides audiences a figurative campfire to gather 'round together and a scary tale to attend. It is the kind of horror that deserves a big screen and a big audience; it is, after all, a big story, following seven children across years as they first fight and defeat a transdimensional monster in the sewers beneath their sleepy Maine hometown, then return as adults to fight and defeat the monster for good. Moviegoers flocked to chapter one in 2017, and will flock again to the sequel on Friday. There's nothing like sitting scared stiff with a crowd full of equally petrified people.

But there, the similarities between It and its contemporaries — The Conjuring's endless offspring and the Purge films — end. There is no newness, per se, but a freshness, combined with a familiarity, to It that holds it apart from other horror series; if franchises aren't new to horror, then event movies, tentpoles of great scope and greater ambition, are. Think of the Avengers films, or the Star Wars films, both such colossal entities in pop culture that they own outsized real estate in pop cultural discourse even when they're not taking up real estate on screens.

It, of course, isn't anywhere near as large, but it follows a similar tack: Cast a bunch of known stars (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader and possibly Isaiah Mustafa, everyone's favorite Old Spice spokesman) and put them in a well-funded, richly shot visual playground echoing with their chemistry and banter. Hire a director with an eye for memorably twisted visuals. Allow for one-liners and swelling emotional beats for each of them. Emphasize existential stakes for these characters, and for their quest, with as much gravity as possible. Market the hell out of the total package with slickly cut teasers and trailers in multiple.

But with only two films to its name, It is larger than its competing properties. Consider: It: Chapter One did around 40 percent of the Conjuring series' combined global gross with just the first installment. It: Chapter Two's success remains unwritten, but short of disaster the film will cement this duology among the genre's greatest blockbusters. Chalk that up once more to King's name; that alone gives It: Chapter One and Chapter Two a built-in audience at a moment when the author's material is a ubiquitous hot commodity. (See: April's Pet Sematary re-adaptation, Hulu's Castle Rock, the upcoming Doctor Sleep and In the Tall Grass.) Give credit to It's shapeshifting antagonist, Pennywise, too, a movie monster tailor made to scare the bejesus out of a wide viewing audience. Spiders might be your worst nightmare. Maybe werewolves. Maybe diseased hobos, mummies, your abusive father, your dead brother, a kindly old lady lurking naked in her kitchen or, last but not least, clowns. It has all of these (plus a very cute pomeranian that isn't actually so cute after all).

The films are smorgasbords of fear triggers, haunted house attractions designed to entice people who love horror and people whose interests are horror-adjacent. They're also massive, clocking in at a combined 303 minutes, which for perspective is just shy one half hour of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame's combined running time. To an extent, the duration is unremarkable. It, after all, is a really big book, 1,138 pages in length. There's no way to squeeze that much word count into one movie, much less two, without allowing for long duration.

There's a hard ending here, of course; after Chapter Two, that's all there is. No more It movies will follow. But the fundamental lesson both chapters have to teach will likely be repeated for years to come by clever (or craven) studio execs: Add design, star power and pre-existing intellectual property into a blender and set to "liquify," then take the box office receipts to the bank. Which properties they may gravitate toward is its own question — AMC just turned Joe Hill's NOS4A2 into a TV series, for instance, but Hill is King's son, and eventually horror event franchises will need to get away from the King legacy. Regardless, the potential payoff of a film like It is impossible to ignore, and studios won't ignore it for long. They'll take those lessons to heart.

Not to say that the lessons are necessarily good or make a foolproof formula for good movies; they may encourage creative types to try only to ape It's success rather than make their own. But for better or worse, these lessons will be It's legacy as the 2010s give way to the next decade and horror's dominance continues.

  • Andy Crump
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