‘It’, ‘Stand By Me’, and the Cult of Nostalgia
I brought my ten year old to ‘It’. I was that guy. I did it because he was eager to see it. He had watched the miniseries on Netflix (unbeknownst to his mother and I) and was full of trivia that could only be gleaned from watching countless hours of YouTube analysis about the book and miniseries. In short his passion alone was reason enough to take him. But that was not the only compelling reason I wanted to take him to see the killer clown. You see, the book was one of the first adult novels I read as a kid. The miniseries came out in the 80’s when I was a kid. My adolescence was spent in the fictional world of Derry. News came out that the films new adaptation would would be set in the 80’s. My son had already been steeped in all things 80’s as a result of Stranger Things. Not only could we bond over a horror movie we both loved but it presented a unique experience where he and I could spend two hours wandering through the era of my childhood. I bought the tickets, ignoring the Facebook posts calling me a bad parent for allowing him to see it(there were lots of those), and prepared for the movie. I really liked the movie. My son really liked the movie (he only held my hand once a luxury soon forgotten,as he heads to middle school next year). What immediately struck me were the similarities between It and another Stephen King film I adore, ‘Stand By Me’. Both movies star a group of adolescents taking a journey of sorts. In both movies that journey revolves around a body (In ‘It’ the body is Georgie’s which unlike the book is never recovered. The end result is the same. The kids all go looking for a body). Moreover, the loss of a brother plays heavy in the central characters development. Bullies are a central component of both stories and play important roles in the climax. I would posit Kiefer Sutherland even looks a bit likeSLXLM
Bill Skarsgard. Both of those films also use an era nostalgia that seeks to place the audience in that exact moment in time. It’s the use of nostalgia that the films start to differ. Its in those differences that we can learn some vital lessons from the Rob Reiner film. You see the 80’s nostalgia we have seen grow in popularity reeks of Making America Great Again. Returning to a time to reminisce about what it is to be a child is something all of us enjoy. Pretending an era is simple or better than the current one is problematic. The nostalgia of ‘Stand By Me’ has an almost melancholy feel about it because it handles the era the film was set in with open eyes. We can simultaneously embrace an era and explore why it still sucked. Lets look at how ‘Stand By Me’ got it right and how ‘It’ could have been better.
‘Stand By Me’ and the Art of Nostalgia
There is nothing like the freedom of walking in the woods, or around your neighborhood, or wherever a kid may find themselves with other kids and no adult supervision. It’s this freedom that prompts the gang in Stand By Me to try and find the body they so desperately want to see and avoid at the same time (not by coincidence The Body is the name of the novella Stephen King wrote that is the basis for the movie). Throughout the journey we get a sepia stained vision of the world as it exists for the boys. In 1959 the world is hardly perfect and Stand By Me never professes it to be. Gordie (not to be confused with Georgie) is the 2nd child of a set of parents who are still mourning the death of their eldest. Their first was the anti-Gordie, good looking, athletic, and full of hope and charm. The others in the group are also outcasts in their own way.
Teddy is the product of a father who clearly has PTSD before it was actually diagnosed. Vern is the oafish, overweight, awkward kid. Chris…Chris is the one that is particularly important because he is really a reflection of the time. These preteens are all coming of age during the sixties and with Chris’s family background he was guaranteed a one way ticket to Vietnam. Chris’s story is particularly gut wrenching when juxtaposed with the life of River Phoenix, the actor who played him. You see the movie does not shy away from telling the harder stories of the time. A story steeped in classism and marred by war. We loved the kids of the film so much because their futures were so fraught with dangers they could not fully understand. While the bully was the villain of the movie, the real villain was an unknown future for the kids who more often than not lacked the privilege of a good name or money. In short we did not have nostalgia for the time period but rather nostalgia for the feeling of being that age before things got difficult and confusing. That type of nostalgia is earned by building human stories that exist in a specific time that make us remember something about ourselves.
‘It’ and the Cult of Nostalgia
Remember that part of where I said that Stand By Me earned its nostalgia. Well, I loved ‘It’, It was my favorite horror movie of 2017 but the type of nostalgia ‘It’ evokes is reminiscent of a time that didn’t exist. I am a product of the 80’s. The 80’s were good to me, (except for the summer of 1987, also known as the summer of the rat tail, my mother burned all of those pictures). However the losers club does zero work in establishing the darker side of the era. There is no passing mention of the AIDs epidemic. There is no fallout from the rise of moral absolutism that was the beginnings of the religious right. No commentary about the Reagan Recession. The one area ‘Stand By Me’ is rightly criticized about is its lack of people of color. ‘It’ chooses actively to shy away from the casual racism the 80’s are known for. There is some commentary about poverty but it is really just used as a literary device to exacerbate Beverly’s already precarious situation. What we are offered instead are a series of Easter egg like pop culture tidbits in the form of Star Wars t-shirts that make us smile and mention to the ten year old seated right next to us that we owned that same shirt. He pretended to care….I appreciated that. That is not nostalgia as art though. It is a cynical use of that tool to prompt a specific reaction. That is candy nostalgia. It tastes good but it doesn’t nourish you. It’s fun but it doesn’t make you think. We do not need to turn every period horror film into a piece of social commentary but the best films are the ones that use nostalgia lightly as a highlight instead of a crutch. Movie’s like American Psycho wink and nod to the era they are based in but work hard to explore the decade for what it was. Warts and all. Both movies are very much products of the times they are set in. I am concerned that this new acceptance of 80’s nostalgia may be taking on the hedonism we often ascribe to that decade.
I will be the first to admit perhaps the kids in It had bigger fish to fry than examining the sociopolitical ramifications of deregulation. I totally get it. Killer clowns beat double dip recessions. But ‘It’ missed an opportunity to do more. However, its important to note that this movie was marketed on the back of rubrics cubes and magic eight balls. Its okay to let the kids in the movie revel in that. Its not okay to assume that there are not ramifications to distorting our vision of the past. Perhaps we will see much more of that in the 2nd movie. My concern is that we will inevitably jump ahead in time and lose the opportunity to explore that time period and what it could potentially mean to kids growing up in that 80’s. Making America Great Again seems to be ignoring the complexities of our past and pretending that everything would be better if we could return to a past time. We seem to be co-opting this idea into our movies. That’s not compelling story telling. Frankly, that’s a horror movie, and not one I am eager to watch.
Let us know if you disagree. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar or a Star Wars T-shirt is just a T-shirt. Is ‘It’ one of those examples? Leave us a comment on our Facebook or Twitter pages. Don’t forget to subscribe down below so you can join the thousands of others who get their news and commentary from Signal Horizon immediately. Until then Broaden Your Horizons.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.