Do Modern Horror Movies Need 'Icons' In Order To Succeed?

Tim Curry as Pennywise in the IT Miniseries

As of this September, Andy Muschietti's IT is the second highest-grossing R-rated horror film of all time. The Stephen King adaptation has made over $370 million at the box office, challenging industry opinions in what has been a relatively flat year in ticket sales. IT: Chapter Two is a guarantee, with a bigger, better production than Chapter One, and a lot of the credit for this goes to the main attraction in the publicity: Pennywise the Dancing Clown, played by Bill Skarsgard.

Pennywise's heavy presence in the marketing wasn't unexpected. Whether due to budget constraints or as a creative choice, the kid-eating killer clown was the right mascot for attracting an audience. Few things are creepier than clowns to begin with; add Stephen King's name and just enough clips of the setting so people can connect it thematically with Stranger Things and a big opening weekend was a given. More to the point, Pennywise and IT marked a return to the kind of icon-driven horror we don't see very much of any more.

Going right back to the 1920s, studio-made horror films have consistently been driven by their eponymous figureheads. Carrying over from the literature they were adapting, Universal kept monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula as the centrepieces of their respective movies because, and made the character the appeal of the movie, not the actor in the suit. While Universal were tinkering away at their makeshift cinematic universe, budget horror films began to become trendy, fiddling with the genre and experimenting with what could be achieved under tight monetary constraints. Waves of cheap productions were released like this, some using public domain characters, others just going their own way. Zombies and haunted house movies became popular, each broad trope becoming its own sub-genre.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho

The “budget” approach inspired other filmmakers to try something more limited in scope; Hitchcock's Psycho is the most notable example of this and, arguably, the turning point for what would become the modern horror canon. His realization of Norman Bates was terrifying at the time; an in-depth, intimate exploration of a deeply psychotic mind. Bates was the one that stayed with people after the film had ended. Psycho's success would help spur on such genre-defining works as Friedkin's The Exorcist and, a year after that, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The latter, with John Carpenter's Halloween and Ridley Scott's Alien, would turn horror on its head in the '70s and create the mold for 'horror icons' as we know them today.

Jason, Freddy Kreuger, Chucky, Pinhead et al owe some degree of their creation and popularity to those three films, and together they became the de facto faces of horror in popular culture. They're larger than life creations that embody the fears, paranoia and desires of the cultural climate that birth them whose films captured more contemporary sensibilities and production values. Though a common trait among each is that really only their first outing (or first two) is a stone-cold classic, the rest of their respective franchises usually holds some sort of a cult following, whether ironically or not.

One of the side-effects of so many sequels and imitations of these characters was horror turning towards a more self-effacing, post-modern, anti-icon approach in the late '90s. Wes Craven's Scream epitomized the deconstructive, self-aware style that rolled into Final Destination and the wave of 'gorenography' of the 2000s. Mainstream horror rejected the necessity for the terror to have a physical form - an icon like Pennywise - and played on how much audiences loved to watch victims suffer. They made the antagonist into "regular" people, like in Hostel or Saw, or some other ephemeral conduit for our desire to see teens and twenty-somethings slaughtered in inventive ways. These then brought on a return to hauntings and possessions as the standard for wide releases, using jump-scares to keep the shock value for audiences up without running a risk of being banned from anywhere. Franchises now are usually based on a gimmick, like Paranormal Activity or The Purge, or recurring protagonists like the exorcist Elise Rainier in Insidious, rather than a single personification of the evils therein.

Whatever your misgivings may be, these movies make money. They're the status quo for a reason - until IT disproved their core theses. The wrongdoer of the King-inspired picture was its most important character in advertising leading up to its opening, and Skarsgard's performance as the cannibal circus performer is one of the most note-worthy aspects. Pennywise is as fleshed-out and substantial as any of the actual protagonists, and audiences have rewarded the Dancing Clown significantly.

The obvious response here is to throw our arms up and cheer that horror icons are going to make a comeback, but that may not be the case. The indie scene isn't exactly filled with creators who seem eager to franchise, but rather have intentions for more complex, intricate stories. The Babadook and It Follows are movies that are more interested in exploring fears than giving them a face. They tackle mental illness and sexual anxiety - heavy, complicated subject matter - and do so without feeling a need to over-emphasize the being that encapsulates these feelings. They merge the technique-driven tone pieces of the '50s and '60s with the narrative simplicity of the icon-driven stuff, all the while evolving and discussing what the genre is capable of. They're neither composed to provide cheap thrills from jump scares nor create a set of sequels in which audiences flock to worship the fiends they've summoned.

And these smaller films are making an absolute killing at the box office. Earlier this year Get Out, the modestly produced chiller from Jordan Peele made so much noise for itself it was the first horror in recent memory for which an Academy Award didn't seem out of the question (though the Academy still snubbed it). It seems almost a waste of these upcoming talents if this generation had to trade getting a leg-up in the studio system with being tasked to create another Pennywise, or worse, to spearhead some Pennywise-related spin-off to keep that money tree's leaves flourishing.

Not only could this squander some of their potential, it'd be missing what made IT so entertaining. IT is awash with nostalgia for the eighties, and like any nostalgia trip it's important to be aware of our rose-tinted glasses. The halcyon days of Voorhees, Kruger, and Myers were great (and there's hopefully still more coming) but one of the signals of the era of IT is a poster for the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child. That was a hit in 1989 – how many people do you think can remember anything genuinely good about it? Exactly.

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