[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
When I went to see Annabelle: Creation recently, there was a scene that filled me with more dread than any horror movie has in years. The scene wasn’t from Annabelle, though, as effectively sphincter-tightening as that demon doll movie is. It actually played before the feature, in an extended clip teasing the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It.
As a fan of the novel published in 1986 and the 1990 miniseries—which taught an entire generation to fear Tim Curry—I was familiar with the scene. It’s the final moments of pint-sized, adorably rain-slickered Georgie Denbrough’s life. The beats remained the same: A little kid follows a paper boat’s rainy-day voyage down the gutter, where Pennywise the Dancing Clown lies in wait. Everything seemed to drag on a little longer, though, and Georgie’s little boy-innocence is cranked up to 11. The exchange in which Pennywise overcomes the boy’s distrust with buffoonery is excruciating, because you know what’s coming.
Or at least you think you do. The scene in the preview ended just before Pennywise attacks, and even just that portion of it rattled me more than anything in Annabelle. Now that It’s in wide release, though, it turns out the full scene is next level–a primordially horrifying horsekick to the heart that could traumatize anyone who even just knows a child, let alone has one.
There’s an old saying among comedy writers: If you want to make an audience laugh, push a guy dressed like an old lady down some stairs; if you want to make a comedy writer laugh, push an actual old lady down those stairs. Sub out comedy writers for jaded horror junkies and laughter for the thrill of fear, and you’ve got an explanation for why kids sometimes die onscreen. Ordinarily, children are sacrosanct in horror movies. (Think of all the scenes where a child almost encounters the murderous space-goblin or whatever, only to be spared at the last second.) In every disaster flick, you can extrapolate that many, many children die, but something changes when the death is not abstract.
When a movie like The Blob (1988) or The Devil’s Candy (2017) explicitly kills off a kid, it’s a memorable transgression. That’s why It has always been kind of a landmark in horror: It’s about a clown monster that feasts on children, including one right in the opening scene. What separates the new version from its predecessor, and even those other films I just mentioned, is its audacious level of graphic violence. This movie raises the bar on child-killing horror higher than some viewers may be ready to go.
In King’s book, Georgie Denbrough apparently dies from complications due to having his arm ripped off by a reptile-toothed clown. As he reaches into the sewer to retrieve his boat, Pennywise grabs Georgie’s arm and the boy starts flopping around and screaming. His demise is described thusly: “Suddenly, there was a ripping noise and a sheet of agony, and Georgie Denbrough knew no more.” King makes sure to point out that Georgie’s uni-armed body is found in the street 45 seconds after his first scream. Thank God! I mean, thank God the child appears to have died quickly, not that a shapeshifting vessel of nightmares killed him.
The miniseries version is rougher. Experts say that the most terrifying horror of all is what’s left to your imagination. That may be true, but before the 1990 It tosses the keys to your imagination to take over, it gives you the sound of Georgie screaming as Pennywise bares those teeth and advances toward him. Then it stops. The scene ends on those chainsaw choppers charging the camera. Then we’re on to the next thing. Perhaps the fact that this version was made for TV and featured Night Court’s Harry Anderson tipped the decision to end the scene this way. Maybe a theatrical version in 1990 would have trod carefully too.
The version now in theaters definitely does not.
(Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want the exact parameters of Georgie’s death in the new It spoiled.)
Even the pre-sewer material in It is supercharged. While older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), the film’s main protagonist, crafts the ill-fated paper boat, impossibly angelic Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) rests his head on his sibling’s shoulder, just luxuriating in their blessed bond. Everything the little boy does leading up to the scene’s climax is basically that row of girl scouts on an airplane singing “We like being alive” on Family Guy.
When Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) strikes, we see what those otherworldly teeth can do. They latch onto Georgie’s arm. He screams in pain and shock. Crunch. Georgie flings himself backwards and his arm has been bitten off. It’s gory. Now the boy is on the ground, crying and screaming and trying to get away. Pennywise then sort of Mr. Fantastic’s his arm into a tentacle and pulls the boy into the sewer. We don’t know what happens after that. We just see a pool of blood sloshing in the street.
How upsetting is it to watch Georgie’s death? Everybody has their own threshold. Horror, like comedy, is subjective. But for me, it was too much. I was shaken. I’m traumatized just remembering the scene now as I sit here recapping it. As a stoic horror fan who has absorbed the entire Eli Roth canon, I was surprised by my own reaction. Perhaps it’s because my nephew is Georgie’s age and has approximately the same level of adorability. When I saw Georgie suffer onscreen, though, I saw my nephew suffer–and to a lesser extent, my cat. And it was gutting.
I understand why director Andy Muschietti filmed the scene this way. Since gruesome portrayals of children’s deaths are verboten, it was perhaps the only way to turn this most expected death into a shock. It’s an early shot across fans’ bows, an unfurling banner that reads, ‘This ain’t ya daddy’s It.’ And it isn’t, either! The rest of the film takes some fantastic creative liberties with the source material, peppers generously with humor, and emerges with a deeply unnerving experience that succeeds on its own merit.
If it took seeing a child die horribly to shock this jaded horror fan, though, I shudder to think what it will take to make us shudder in the future.