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Stephen King’s It is horror at its most unconventional. The new film’s trailer is the exact opposite.

Is the film leaning into modern horror clichés, or is the trailer just badly edited?

Pennywise isn’t really a clown, but nobody ever remembers that part.
Warner Bros. / YouTube
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The upcoming silver-screen remake of Stephen King’s It has generated a massive amount of attention. The new trailer floated up nearly 200 million views in its first 24 hours, smashing a world record for first-day trailer traffic previously held by Fate of the Furious.

But It hasn’t had the smoothest road to theaters. In 2015, True Detective director Cary Fukunaga walked away from the film, leaving Mamá director Andrés Muschietti to helm a new version of the script. That script, judging by remarks from a disgruntled Fukunaga, is likely a much more “conventional” version than the “experimental” film he wanted to make.

It’s ironic that the idea of “conventional” horror should have attached itself to such a notoriously unconventional horror novel. The difficulty of adapting King’s 1986 magnum opus for the screen means that until now, Hollywood hasn’t tried to top the 1990 Tim Curry miniseries, which is iconic for Curry’s performance but otherwise mediocre. And the newly released trailer from New Line and Warner Bros. for Muschetti’s film illustrates why adjusting King’s novel for cinema is so daunting.

Put simply, this trailer feels far more conventional than it should. And that’s worrisome.

Technically, this looks like It. It definitely doesn’t suggest an experimental take on It, but Muschetti appears to have painstakingly replicated many of the main elements of the King novel. It has the requisite scary clown and terrified bicycle-riding children’s ensemble.

So if it looks like It and floats like It, why doesn’t this trailer feel like It?

It isn’t a modern horror story

King’s It is all about slow dread — specifically the slow, lingering nightmares that frighten children. Pennywise’s power is that he feeds on the real fears of children, fears so primal that he’s able to return to torment them as adults decades later, continuing his generational cycle of violence. Over the course of It’s sprawling 1,500 pages, the group of children at the book’s center come of age by uniting to defeat It, but evolve into messed-up adults still haunted decades later by their memories. King unfolds their past and present simultaneously in a temporal juxtaposition to emphasize that present fear can only really be dealt with by reconciling with the past.

It doesn’t conform to typical genre norms; its horrors are derived from Lovecraftian weird fiction converging with the building terror of real-life child abductions and scary clown hoaxes that were rampant in the early ’80s when It was being written. King wasn’t writing a genre novel following the typical build-grab-release plot beats that work well in horror movie trailers; rather, he was creating a rich universe with a large cast of characters and a central evil at its core.

The miniseries dealt with this complexity by turning the narrative into a two-part series. The film adaptation has reportedly been cleaved into two separate movies — with the sequel relaying the adult half of the story after the kid’s half. (The trailer would seem to support this, as we don’t get a glimpse of the kids as adults.)

Suffice to say, King’s novel isn’t one that would seem to translate easily to modern horror, and there’s been plenty of skepticism that the onscreen adaptation could do It justice. Writing about the problems adapting It in the Guardian, Charles Graham-Dixon sums up this basic conflict:

New Line wants a film with jump scares and other typical multiplex horror cliches, but the terror of IT has nothing to do with cheap shocks. Many of the novel’s most unnerving passages do not take place at night in haunted houses, or have screaming cheerleaders chased by knife-wielding boogeymen... all these unforgettable moments take place during the day in a town so painstakingly evoked that we feel like citizens ourselves.

The trailer, then, gives us our first glimpse of how the new film might navigate these potential pitfalls.

It doesn’t really mesh with modern horror trailers

Modern horror movie trailers like this new one for It tend to mimic the structure of modern horror films, with the same suspenseful build-up and release — even if that’s not what the film is really like. In the case of It, it’s possible that Muschietti has embraced a more conventional approach to King’s story, one which, as Graham-Dixon fears, relies heavily on “cheap shocks.” But it’s also possible that the trailer’s editing is suggesting beats that aren’t in the actual movie.

For instance, what most people remember about It (apart from that orgy) is its most conventional scene of horror: the opening, when Georgie Denbrough meets Pennywise in a storm drain. This is the scene we get the biggest glimpse of in the trailer, but Georgie’s drawn-out, paralyzing fear as described in the novel — which jumps back and forth in time to great effect in this scene — isn’t present here. Rather than introducing Pennywise as an eerie anomaly, a glitch in the universe, the trailer presents the moment as a straightforward jump scare.

The trailer’s conventional beats continue for the next two minutes. The introduction of the film’s tagline (“What are you afraid of?”) over scenes of escalating horror feels especially off-kilter for those familiar with the story, because these scenes aren’t escalating — It’s narrative doesn’t build to the kind of natural climax that works well in a typical horror trailer.

The painstaking evocation of slow, creeping suburban dread that King achieved with It is completely antithetical to the tone and pacing of most modern horror movie marketing. Judging from this trailer, we can already see a discrepancy forming between expectations, marketing, and the film’s actual content.

This discordance between expectation and reality in horror trailers has a recent precedent in the polarizing but critically acclaimed The Witch. Even though The Witch doesn’t really have any of the typical horror beats, its trailer is edited to make it seem as though it does. Because it’s structured like a typical horror trailer, it built up an expectation among horror fans that The Witch would be a typical horror movie; when it wasn’t, the ensuing outcry from disappointed viewers prompted Uproxx’s Chris Eggertsen to note that the film’s marketing had “sold audiences on a movie they apparently didn't even want.”

In The Witch’s case, audiences got lucky, because The Witch is amazing. But with a beloved and iconic property like It, it will be even more crucial to judge the film by its content — not by the way that content is presented.

In a way, seeing through It’s trailer is a trick like seeing through It itself. You’ll need to look carefully at the onscreen images and dialogue, ignoring the way they’re being enhanced through editing and audio, to see how well the movie is recapturing your childhood terrors — and how faithful it’s being to King’s original vision.

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