When I was a kid, I often listened to the Mister Rogers song, “You Can Never Go Down the Drain.” The rain may go down, he assured me, But you can’t go down. You’re bigger than any bathroom drain.
Pennywise begs to differ.
The Dancing Clown lives in the dank, dark underworld where the drains of Derry, Maine, lead. He’s led many a child down drain and tunnel. It’s just a matter of asking nicely enough. Pulling hard enough. Cutting deeply enough.
Going down into Pennywise’s world is easy. It’s the leaving that’s hard.
Georgie Denbrough finds that world during a rainstorm, following his paper boat down the gutters until it vanishes into a storm drain. Georgie peers into the darkness … and he vanishes, too.
People plaster posters across town, begging for information on Georgie’s disappearance. But soon they’re papered over by those of another missing child. And another. And another.
Even children who don’t disappear begin seeing … things. A picture of a twisted woman comes to life. Burning hands claw through cracks in a door. A headless child haunts the library.
And then there’s the clown, of course. Always the clown, with his bright red hair and rat-like teeth. He stares from shadows, hides in boxes, lurks in the drains.
The adults seem oblivious. Clueless. But the children … they see. They hear. They know.
You can go down the drain.
Fear is a funny thing. It can cause us to shrink into ourselves and turn cold and selfish. But when we find the courage to face our fears, we become better people.
Bill Denbrough, Georgie’s older brother, has as much reason as anyone to be terrified of what’s lurking under Derry’s streets. But the boy, about 12 years old, is determined to find his brother—or at least find out what happened to him. He implores his friends to help him on his quest, telling them (quite truthfully in context) that it’s up to them to deal with the evil underneath. “What happens when another Georgie goes missing?” he asks his six friends.
Not everyone is particularly interested in following Bill on this crusade. But they stick together (mostly) and form what they informally call the Losers’ Club. And there’s something about their bond that seems to work. The movie tells us that we’re stronger together than apart, that when we work together we can do what would seem to be impossible.
The kids’ bond is even effective when dealing with more real-world dangers, too. While each member of the Losers’ Club has suffered mightily at the hands of Derry’s bullies (led by the truly sadistic ruffian Henry Bowers), together they find the strength and the will to stand up for themselves and others (albeit sometimes in violent ways).
Pennywise’s power is inherently supernatural. While he often shows up as a clown, the evil inside the monster shifts shapes at will—transforming into everything from a living painting subject to a little boy. And while the movie never overtly tells us that Pennywise is a demonic entity, the story’s imagery often ties the clown to Christian depictions of hell: At one point, Pennywise introduces himself by dancing in front of a wall of fire.
Stan, one of Bill’s friends, is Jewish—the son of the local rabbi, in fact. He’s preparing for his bar mitzvah, and we see him attempting to read from the Torah in a Jewish synagogue. Some of Stan’s friends quiz him about what a bar mitzvah is and joke about circumcision. A bully uses Stan’s kippah as a Frisbee. We briefly see the exterior of a church.
Let’s talk about Beverly, the only female member of the Losers’ Club. For years, she’s been the victim of vicious rumors at school, accusing the girl (all of 13 years old) of sleeping around. (We hear her called various uncouth names, and one of her supposed paramours taunts her by grabbing and stroking his crotch.) Some of the Club members believe the rumors at first—pointing to a school play in which she kissed the leading man. “You can’t fake that kind of passion,” one of them sagely says. But Beverly later tells Bill that the rumors aren’t true: She’s only kissed one boy.
While that may indeed be true, she also seems to hide an abusive secret: incest. While the film never explicitly tells us that Beverly’s father has sexually assaulted her, everything we see suggests as much. Her dad repeatedly asks Beverly if she’s still his “little girl,” stroking her hair and shoulders. She obviously fears him. And Beverly’s father also asks her whether she’s doing “womanly things” with the boys she’s hanging out with, then throws her to the ground as if attempting to rape her.
Beverly is an object of fascination for the other Club members as well. When they go swimming in a lake, they strip down to their underwear and splash around. And afterward, when Beverly lies sunning herself in a bra and panties, the boys stare at her—as much in wonder as lustfully—when she’s not looking. Both Bill and Ben have crushes on Beverly: Ben writes her a brief love poem, and both wind up kissing her. (She returns the kiss of one.)
It’s worth noting that Pennywise capitalizes on what people fear the most. And the film may suggest that Beverly fears turning into a woman (perhaps because of her father?). While her friends are chased by clowns or leprosy victims, Beverly is attacked by blood and hair shooting out of her bathroom sink drain (possibly representing the harbingers of adolescence). When she confronts Pennywise itself, his mouth opens impossibly wide and turns into a massive, toothy slit—perhaps a visual echo of the myth of the vagina dentata.
Boys in the Losers’ Club frequently make obscene, sexually charged jokes about masturbation, the size of their anatomies, their sexual experiences or prowess, and the supposed promiscuity of one another’s mothers.
Elsewhere, a girl scrawls “loser” on someone’s cast. The cast’s wearer tries to change the middle letter so the words read “lover.” Beverly flirts with a very old, creepy pharmacist—distracting him while her friends make off with some needed medical supplies.
Arguably, IT’s most graphic moment takes place in the movie’s opening minutes and involves poor, doomed Georgie. When the boy reaches into a storm drain to retrieve his boat from the lurking Pennywise, the clown’s rat-like teeth suddenly turn into rows and rows of fangs. He bites into the boy’s arm, and the next thing we see is the little lad—missing an arm—frantically trying to crawl away from the drain. He doesn’t make it: He’s pulled in, leaving behind a roadway stained by blood and rain.
That’s just the beginning of the grotesque horrors awaiting us.
A man gets stabbed in the throat with a knife, and his blood coats his body and the chair he sits in. A monstrous mouth clamps down on someone’s face, leaving behind bloody tooth marks. Someone breaks an arm in a fall, with the arm wrenched into a sickening angle. (A friend painfully sets the arm later.)
Henry literally carves the first letter of his name into someone’s belly, and later he nearly plays target practice with a cat. Mike, a member of the Losers’ Club, works with his grandfather in a meat packing plant that apparently processes sheep. We see one animal shot in the head with a bolt gun (a small spray of blood accompanies the act); other sheep are killed in the same way just off camera.
Dead people—either truly walking dead corpses or creations born of Pennywise’s bag of tricks—shamble through the movie in all their stalking grotesquery. One such manifestation looks like a leper, with parts of his face eaten away. Other zombie-like beings haunt the sewers. Blackened hands reach out from a door, as if trying to escape an inferno below. We briefly see the top half of a body (apparently bisected) hanging from chains but still alive. A headless boy chases someone. An old photo shows a boy’s severed head lodged in a tree. People get thrown around. Supernatural entities are hit and skewered repeatedly. A child is apparently shot in the head with a bolt gun.
Beverly is attacked by her father. Someone falls from a tremendous height, never to be seen again. A man is hit in the groin and, later, coldcocked by the lid of a toilet tank. He lies on the bathroom floor, either unconscious or dead, with blood pooling around his head. People pelt each other with rocks, sometimes leaving bloody marks on their foreheads. Members of the Losers’ Club make a pact that involves cutting their palms with a piece of glass and holding each other’s hands.
We learn that Derry has been the scene of unimaginable tragedies in the past, including an Easter-morning blast that killed 102 (including 88 children).
Bad news: We hear plenty of bad language here. Worse news: Almost all of it comes from the mouths of children. The f-word is used about 40 times. The s-word is uttered nearly 25 times. God’s name is misused twice, Jesus’ name three times. We also hear “a–,” “d–n,” “h—,” “t-ts” and “f-g.” We see at least one obscene gesture.
While her friends swipe medical supplies from a drug store, Beverly makes off with a pack of cigarettes. A bully smokes. Beverly’s father is shown drinking sometimes—a regular habit for him, the movie suggests.
Bill, suffering some sort of sickness, talks about vomiting. The kids splash around in sewage “gray water.” Beverly has a bunch of disgusting trash dumped on top her while she’s in a bathroom stall. Henry Bowers licks his hand and smears spittle across someone’s face. Losers’ Club members make a ton of grotesque jokes at each other’s expense. Someone’s mother is deceptively manipulative.
It takes a lot out of a kid to deal with a supernatural entity that wants to kill and eat you. And finally, Stan—the quiet, studious son of a rabbi—has had enough.
“This isn’t fun!” he hollers at Bill. “This is scary and disgusting!”
The same might be said about this movie.
Listen, I understand that some folks will likely find IT “fun.” There’s a reason why Hollywood keeps making horror movies, and why people keep seeing them. Sometimes people like to be scared. (And as someone who enjoys a good roller coaster ride now and then, I get that.)
And IT—for all the many faults catalogued above—does at least offer a certain moral with its massacres. Our innocent protagonists are doing what they feel is right and what they feel they must, pushing back against an unimaginable and spiritual evil.
I recently talked with Gary Dauberman, who wrote the screenplay for IT, about those themes. He explained why he has a special affinity for writing supernatural horror stories.
“I think that has to do with me really being a believer that there’s something that’s greater than all of us, and that death is not an end,” he told me. “So writing and researching these stories kind of reaffirms that for me in a way. Even if there’s a demonic presence, I’m always going, ‘If there’s a demonic presence, that means that somewhere out there there’s good.’ And a lot of times in these movies, the good comes from within.”
We see that goodness displayed in IT’s young protagonists, without question. The movie, for all its content, still exudes a strange sense of innocence. It can almost feel at times like a Steven Spielberg coming-of-age caper, albeit one with far more f-words and senseless mutilations.
And therein lies IT’s problem. The movie’s heart doesn’t dispel all the terror and carnage and extraordinarily adult problems that our young heroes must deal with. It does not expunge the fact that the adults here are often shown as impotent impediments to the task at hand. It does not mitigate our heroes’ own questionable words and deeds—the constant swearing or the near skinny-dipping or the shoplifting. A bevy of children may star in IT, but they’d be ill-advised to watch it.
Pennywise lured young Georgie into the drain by promising fun and adventure. This movie promises the same. But for those who venture down this drain, it will be a dark, haunting trip indeed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.