In one of the scarier moments of “It,” Andy Muschietti’s smash-hit movie adaptation of the 1986 Stephen King novel, seven kids survey a map of their Maine hometown, searching for clues that will help them battle the child-murdering clown known as Pennywise.
The slide projector they’re using suddenly starts behaving like a demon-possessed zoetrope, and to the kids’ horror, the sharp-toothed Pennywise himself lunges into and out of the frame, obliterating the boundaries of the screen.
It’s a potent illustration of the idea that cinema can take on a terrifying life of its own. Or, indeed, that life can suddenly turn into a horror movie, as it no doubt feels for those who have interpreted “It” as a thinly veiled parable of life in Donald Trump’s America.
What better stand-in for this most openly antagonistic of presidents, the argument goes, than Pennywise, a once-amusing popular entertainer warped beyond recognition, who now feeds on human fear and terrorizes the most vulnerable among us?
King himself acknowledged the parallel in January when he publicly quipped, “We just elected Pennywise president.” In a recent guest column for Entertainment Weekly, the speechwriter Samantha Becker took the comparison to even bolder extremes. Describing the new movie as a “rallying cry for the Resistance,” she posited that King’s young characters — members of the self-designated “Losers Club,” a name with the ring of a Trumpian insult — represent different groups (women, blacks and Jews, among others) that have been insulted, persecuted or disenfranchised by the Trump administration.
Unlike, say, FX’s winkingly au courant “American Horror Story: Cult,” which centers on a liberal voter driven to madness after the results of the 2016 election, “It” isn’t an explicit or premeditated commentary on the Trump era. But that may be precisely what makes it an effective one. Set in a small American town populated by bullies both demonic and human, it’s a bracing reminder that movies can become unexpected, even unintended repositories of meaning.
And so it scarcely matters that King wrote “It” three decades before Trump’s rise to power, or that Warner Bros. began developing the film not long after President Obama was sworn in, or that the movie, updating a narrative strand originally set in the ’50s, takes place in 1989. (Maybe that last part is relevant: As Becker notes, Pennywise’s 27-year hibernation schedule means the inevitable “It” sequel will be set in — shudder! — 2016.)
What matters is that Muschietti’s movie, like King’s story, draws much of its power from the kinds of social divisions that were with us long before Candidate Trump brought them to the surface. The anxieties on which Pennywise feeds may have been exacerbated by recent events, but they did not begin with the Trump administration, and they will not end with it, either.
Besides “It,” 2017 has brought us horror pictures as unique and fascinating as “It Comes at Night” (no relation), “Get Out,” “Split,” “Annabelle: Creation” and “Life.” Not all of these reflect the same degree of topical engagement. But cumulatively they suggest not only that American horror stories are having a moment, but also that horror might, in fact, turn out to be the signature genre of the present moment.
You might say the Trump presidency is itself a horror movie come to life — and a very bad one, at that. Cheap jolts and jump scares abound: personal insults on Twitter, divisive attempts at policy change, embarrassing blunders in response to major crises at home and abroad.
But there are also genuine reasons to shudder. Are any of the zombie hordes on “The Walking Dead” scarier than the sight of torch-bearing white supremacists bearing down on Confederate statues? Can any fictional dystopia match the anxiety of our commander-in-chief baiting other world leaders in ways that could set us, in the words of Republican Sen. Bob Corker, “on the path to World War III”?
All this comes at us daily with the jabbing, sadistic rhythm of someone, or something, that many believe will bring an end to our grand democratic experiment. Not immediately, perhaps; the running time will be padded for all it’s worth. And as with most movies of this type, the buildup can be scary, though not nearly as scary as it is exhausting.
Next to such a bounty of real-world menace, who needs horror films? We do, of course. In times of turmoil the moviegoer may well choose to retreat into an escapist diet of romantic comedies and musicals, but even this relatively squeamish critic can attest to the pleasures of plunging into a few well-orchestrated hours of artificial terror. Which is not to imply that horror is primarily escapist in function. Few other genres give such potent narrative flesh to the audience’s fears, or afford us such satisfaction at seeing our demons, Trumpian or otherwise, symbolically if not actually vanquished.
That satisfaction morphs into full-on roaring catharsis in the case of Jordan Peele’s critically and commercially lauded haunted-house thriller “Get Out,” a sophisticated, subversive product of the Obama era that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival mere days after Trump’s inauguration. In telling the story of a young black man lured into a sinister den of ostensibly enlightened white liberals, Peele’s movie scores its points with shivers rather than speeches, and in doing so reaffirms horror as a richly malleable prism of meaning.
It’s fitting that this brand of socially conscious thriller should arrive the same year we bade farewell to George Romero and Tobe Hooper, two hugely influential horror masters whose pictures did far more than just terrify audiences. They were subsequently analyzed to death by critics, academics and cinephiles eager to unpack their latent, and sometimes blatant, subtext.
Compared with, say, the Vietnam-era echoes in Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” or the bloody eulogy for the American family in Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” the message in “Get Out” doesn’t require too much unpacking. It’s right there on the surface of a movie that plays like the love-child of Wes Craven and Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which evil lurks behind a smiling white face and a cup of tea.
That message, of course, might have been even more resonant under the presidency of Hillary Clinton, whose supporters are very much in line with the progressive villains being skewered in the movie’s Stepfordized vision of upstate New York suburbia.
The political messages are harder to read in “Life,” the unnervingly elegant science-fiction thriller that came and went earlier this year, but bear with me a moment. Directed by Daniel Espinosa with a heavy debt to the “Alien” films (the latest of which, “Alien: Covenant,” clawed its way onto screens this past summer), “Life” follows an international crew of astronauts as they study and nurture a Martian life form. The specimen seems delicate and vulnerable at first, but it doesn’t take long for Calvin, as they name it, to prove far stronger and more adaptable than anyone anticipated.
Its appetite is insatiable. It viciously attacks anyone within reach. What once seemed harmless, even cute, has soon mutated into a blob-like monster with multiple far-reaching appendages and an uncanny ability to mimic the scientists’ own physical attributes — as if it were holding up a dark, distorting mirror to humanity itself.
The movie is so in-the-moment gripping that it’s not until afterward that you might find yourself pondering some of its subtler, more playful implications. Is Calvin a stand-in for ISIS? Or perhaps Trump and his followers? (Who hasn’t had a political disagreement with someone who might as well hail from another planet?) For me — and be forewarned that some spoilers follow — the stealth electoral commentary is sealed by the movie’s ending, which feels like not just a twist but an upset.
One firewall after another collapses. Two adversaries switch places at the last minute. A hugely destructive force reaches a destination it was never supposed to reach, and the world will never be the same.
The world as we know it has already ended in Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night,” an artful post-apocalyptic thriller that reveals the often monstrous human cost of survival. Subtly chilling and skillfully made, the movie resonates all the more powerfully at a moment when environmental decay and nuclear/chemical warfare are no longer the distant prospects they once were.
The audiences who handed it a “D” CinemaScore clearly disagreed, no doubt having taken one look at the title and expected something more tangible to leap out of the shadows and say “boo!” The same expectations likely fueled the even more hostile reactions to “mother!,” Darren Aronofsky’s uncompromising Rorschach blot of a home-invasion thriller, which most viewers clearly wanted to behave more like a straight-up horror movie than a deranged auteur provocation.
It’s a depressing if instructive reminder that even horror, ostensibly predicated on the fear of the unknown, is expected to adhere to a template, particularly if it has any hopes of commercial viability. “Get Out,” subversive as it is, satisfies traditional genre demands as robustly as more conventional thrillers like last year’s “Lights Out” and “Don’t Breathe.”
So too does “It,” which recently eclipsed “The Sixth Sense” as the highest-grossing horror film of all time in North America, making it the kind of success story that some are hoping might save Hollywood from its otherwise dismal box-office performance.
Horror filmmaking has long been prized for its relatively low risk and reliably high turnout. “It” may be a plusher, costlier model than upcoming grindhouse cheapies like “Leatherface” and “Jigsaw,” but its smash-hit status is an important part of this cultural equation. So too is the fact that it was drawn from a bestselling novel that had already been adapted into a well-known 1990 miniseries, and thus offers — not unlike the recent Netflix series “Stranger Things” and the spate of recent King adaptations this season — a welcome measure of nostalgia.
It might seem curious to talk about nostalgia in the context of horror if Hollywood weren’t so clearly in the business of recycling audience favorites. Audiences embraced M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” not merely because it was a clever, nasty romp through the splintered psyche, but also because it was hailed as a return to form for the often-embattled director of “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.” (It also turned out to be a fairly blatant setup for a Shyamalan cinematic universe.)
And nostalgia surely played no small part in the enthusiasm for David Lynch’s spellbinding, often horrifying “Twin Peaks: The Return,” which succeeded in expanding the structural and aesthetic boundaries of long narrative storytelling, in part, by building on viewer affection for the original series. And Lynch rewarded that affection by not only expanding the story’s universe outward but also contracting it inward, pushing toward a powerful inquiry into the origins of the evil that first set the show’s mysteries in motion.
That horror can be so easily adapted to the needs of sequels and reboots is a testament to the genre’s power but also, in some ways, a diminution of it. Our favorite ghouls, demons and mass murderers may return to haunt our dreams tomorrow, but that suggests that they somehow failed to complete their task in the present. The resurgence of myths, campfire legends and popular horror brands is cyclical — just like politics.
There is comfort in that thought, but also perhaps some cause for alarm. Trump became president, in part, by preying on a country’s most retrograde fears and promising a dubious return to an America of the past.
That so many voters were seduced by that promise represents a failure of not only compassion, but also imagination — an inability to move toward a vision of genuine human progress. We crave the comfort of the familiar and reject the possibility of the unknown. In life, as in art, we get the horrors we deserve.