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An hour east of Toronto is a pretty little town called Port Hope. An hour and a half west is another cute town called Elora. Everywhere in between has been touched by Pennywise, otherwise known as that really scary clown from Stephen King's "It". Originally a horror novel, it was made into a miniseries in 1990 starring Tim Curry, and then again in 2017 from director Andy Muschietti as a feature film who took a different angle with the premise and gave a chance to some small Ontario towns in the process.
Set in the 1980s in Maine, It (2017) follows the story of a rag-tag gang of preteen misfits who are stalked and haunted by this eponymous clown in the form of their own anxieties and demons. Instead of going for a straight horror and revelling in the creep-factor so prevalent in the genre, Muschietti and the 3 main screenplay writers attacked the idea from a coming-of-age Stand By Me sort of angle, in which the kids learn about the clown, and themselves in the process. Sounds pretty atypical for a horror film and it really is. If you're expecting to sit in a dark room and scream for 2 hours, you'll be disappointed. However, if you're more interested in the story and even more so in the ways children cope with trauma, this may be more up your alley.
...And there are quite a few alleys!
While most of the film is not in the more recognizable Toronto areas and you won't catch a glimpse of a single GTA landmark, bits and pieces are noticeable for the keen-eyed Toronto traveller.
The film's teaser scene begins in the Weston neighbourhood on a regular, everyday Toronto street as the young Georgie runs out into a rainstorm to play with his toy boat. It's also where the little boy meets a rather grotesque end at the hands of a comically creepy Pennywise played by Bill Skarsgard. There's a very good lesson here for young ones not to speak to strangers, and especially weird clowns lurking in sewer grates during thunderstorms. It's probably best to never talk to anybody in a storm drain, period, no matter what the age.
Taking a break from the horrors outside, we go to the horrors inside where new kid Ben is learning Derry's haunting history. The town's library is actually Wycliffe College at University of Toronto because a movie filmed in Toronto isn't truly complete without something from one of U of T's campuses. The dark oak beams and book stacks give off a Hogwarts vibe but Pennywise's iconic red balloon floats menacingly through what in reality is Leonard Hall, a library dedicated to religious studies!
From these two locales, It takes us from the beautiful covered bridges of West Montrose to the popular Elora Quarry and jumping rocks to suburban Oshawa, and most importantly, picturesque Port Hope which doubles as rural America, especially a little town called Derry.
The establishing shot of this town is at the top of the hill heading into Port Hope, right down one of the town's busiest and most popular streets. It's a wonderful angle and gives a great idea about the ambience of the town — even in 2017, you can easily feel the 1980s vibe as very little has changed. We follow Mike on his bike all the way to the bottom of Walton Street where he ducks into an alley to avoid the school bullies and general all-around town jerks — later in the film, the boys are seen often seeking shelter from bullies in this same alleyway.
The butcher shop is actually Gould's Footwear but even in 2018, the set dressing is still intact and anybody can hang out near the door where we are first shown the sort of horror and psychological insights that It will deliver. Mike's nightmare is one of the better creepy moments of the film with the hands of his family reaching out from a burning building, begging for help while he remains frozen in fear, calling back to what we find out later is an actual trauma he experienced.
Another notable landmark in Port Hope that is featured frequently is the Derry Public Library, better known as the Municipality of Port Hope Town Hall. We first catch a glimpse as the boys are riding down Augusta Street, and then again as new kid Ben encounters the local teenage sociopath at the Port Hope Cenotaph.
After a narrow escape along the banks of the Ganaraska River, we meet the token girl character, known as Beverly, once again on Walton Street, around the corner from the butcher's alley. Kids really love hanging out on that corner!
Jumping 30 minutes west, Oshawa has its chance to shine, if you can call it that. As Eddie makes his way through town, he wanders past an abandoned mansion that would give any amusement park haunted house a run for its money. Built specifically for the film on an empty lot in north Oshawa, Pennywise's abode is reminiscent of any number of childhood cartoons, just in real life. The interiors were actually done in a house at Pape and Riverdale in Toronto, but exteriors feature Oshawa. Currently, the spot is home to "Largo", the codename for the It sequel in production right now. That entrance is unmistakable!
After being subjected to her own nightmare, we jump back to the banks of the Ganaraska where Beverly chases down the gang to help her clean up her blood-soaked bathroom. In the background, the Waddell Hotel, one of Port Hope's most famous spots is clearly visible.
On their way from pushing back against those same town bullies once again, the kids trudge through vacant land between the VIA Rail and CN Rail lines on their way to a 4th of July parade in town. We're transported back to downtown Port Hope, complete with marching bands and American flags everywhere up and down Queen Street.
Trying to figure out how to best handle the scary clown situation that is plaguing children, the gang relax on a bench between the Memorial Park Bandshell and a giant Paul Bunyan statue that was erected just for the film. As mentioned previously, the sequel is currently in production so it was a surprise to see that same looming folk-hero back in place at the park, with the Port Hope Library in the background.
Most recognizably perhaps was the huge "Welcome to Derry" mural painted in gigantic letters on the side of Smith's Creek Antiques, another Port Hope staple. It's visible multiple times throughout the film, as the boys ride up Walton Street on their bikes, again!
As you can guess, It has a lot of scenes of boys riding bikes in rural America, a lot of boys walking through towns, a lot of high school bullies, and a lot of cliches. While I've never read the original novel by Stephen King, I can't help but assume this was not the book. It's billed as a horror, and certainly has scary or creepy elements to it, but the majority of the film is more interested in exploring the way young teens relate to the unknown around them and deal with loss, abuse, and trauma. Each kid in the gang has a particular issue to deal with whether it's a stutter and dead brother, the family burned alive, abusive parents, religious pressure, or being a newcomer.
Some could argue it's a strong film when tackling it from that angle of a coming of age movie about kids in rural America. But that isn't It. For that concept to really shine, there needed to be even more focus on the psychological issues facing the gang and far less of the silly clown antagonist and terrible special effects. Again, there could be another argument here that the cheesy nature of the scares is a reflection of the way children see the world but it makes the movie, as a horror for adults, fall flat on its face.
Psychological horrors only work when both the horror and the psychology are deeply intertwined so you can't quite tell the difference between what is real and what is in the characters' heads. The personalized nightmares each child experiences are quite chilling in some ways, but their treatment was too formulaic and too easily forgotten. Perhaps it's because there are simply too many characters (7!) to be able to fully focus on the story or maybe the director thought throwing in a very unconvincing evil clown would be enough to terrify the audience.
That sad thing about It is that it could have been really good had they just gone for it all the way. Leave out the drawn-out sequences of Pennywise taunting the children in that grating voice. Sometimes with suspense and horror movies, the old adage "less is more" really comes through. Pennywise was creepiest when you didn't see him outright, when he was just a flash or a shadow, or a feeling lurking around behind somebody. They managed to ruin some fairly creepy scenes, such as the slideshow in the garage, with suddenly having the clown pop out in reality rather than just as an unwelcome intruder in old family photographs. It certainly didn't help that the special effects were better suited for one of those 80's B-movies. As we watched, everybody in the room laughed at the effects — and we shouldn't be, because you can tell this was not meant to be one of those types of movies.
Furthermore, coming in at over 2 hours, it's simply far too long to have the same things happen over and over without even one solid jumpscare. It takes until the hour and 15-minute mark for the gang to even venture to Pennywise's cartoonish house of horrors, and even then, the scene ends without conclusion only to have them revisit it again 15 minutes later for the final cliched showdown, having them all face their traumas.
Sadly, it's also around the time of the first visit to the haunted mansion that we all began to lose interest and the film managed to drag itself out for another hour. By the end, everybody was on their phones, barely paying attention to the movie at all.
Here's a perfect example of how real life is stranger and much more frightening than fiction. I worried for the characters the most not when they faced the inter-dimensional, time-travelling clown, but rather when ordinary, decent kids were being viciously attacked by bullies, molested or manipulated by their parents, or grieving dead siblings. Those struggles were far more affecting than a clown with a lot of teeth that only pops out of an old well every 27 years. The cast was made up of exceptionally good child actors across the board who could have easily handled a more emotionally demanding story.
I can see where It wanted to go, but never quite made it, which is a shame because, with a bit more subtlety and a little more focus, this truly could have been a moving study in childhood horror and healing.