Check out these eight picks after you see the new Stephen King adaptation.
This week’s Movies to Watch could be made up of just the films featured in Andy Muschietti’s It. There are posters of Beetlejuice and Gremlins, a marquee anachronistically advertising Batman and Lethal Weapon 2 (the latter opened later than the dates it shows up on screen). There’s even an homage to the 1990 It miniseries, which I already recommended as homework at the start of this year. Some of what I recommend instead is just as obvious, from the child killer classic to the ’80s coming-of-age adventures. But I’m hoping they’ll all float your boat anyway.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
One of the most iconic evil clowns in pop culture is the Joker from DC comic books. He was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s appearance in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, a silent film about a circus performer with a permanent smile. Based on the 1869 Victor Hugo novel of the same name, in which the author refers to the character as a clown, the film depicts him as more of a sideshow freak on stage alongside actual clowns. Unlike the Joker and It‘s Pennywise the clown, he doesn’t become a sadistic killer, but as “The Laughing Man,” he does frighten circus-goers all the same.
The Man Who Laughs is classified as a horror film, but if that’s all you’re looking for after It then you’ll be disappointed. It’s only horror in the same sense as fellow Hugo story “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is horror. Veidt’s look might give you nightmares, but you might want to pair your viewing with the actor’s performance in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for a scarier experience. Other honorable mentions from the silent era include two Lon Chaney vehicles: he plays a clown called HE who is driven to the edge in 1924’s He Who Gets Slapped and a sad clown in love with his adopted daughter in 1928’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh.
Another film directed by a master of the German Expressionist movement, M is the first sound feature by Fritz Lang. It’s also even harder to Google by title alone than It. Peter Lorre stars in the film as not a clown but a serial killer who murders children. Some of the early scenes of him preying on his victims are similar to those of Pennywise, only without the supernatural elements. In the beginning, for instance, Lorre’s character woos a child with a balloon. Afterward, the whole town is on alert about missing children, but unlike in It the local authorities (and local crime organizations) make a real effort to find the one responsible. Later, the killer is moving in on another possible victim but he fails to get her before her mother shows up, similar to some of Pennywise’s unsuccessful attacks.
As for other comparisons, the clown has his catch phrase (“you’ll float, too”), while Lorre’s character has a signature whistle (to the tune of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”). But the movies go in different directions, with the kids needing to take on the killer in It. The conclusive point made at the end of M is that the townspeople need to do a better job watching over their children. That could be a theme in It, as well, though the issue with parents in the King adaptation go beyond mere inattentiveness. Most of them are villains in the individual stories of their respective children, and at least one of them is just about as bad as Pennywise in his own way.
The Third Man (1949)
Sewer tunnels can be a great setting for movies. They’re intricate and mysterious and typically disgusting. And they provide a home for freaks and monsters that need to reside just below the surface of the real world. Sometimes those characters are mutant heroes, a la the Ninja Turtles, but often they’re terrible villains, like Pennywise the clown. Harry Lime, the character played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s The Third Man is a more complex human being, and he doesn’t live in the sewers, but he does try to flee through them at the end. Shot in the actually unbelievably spacious sewers of Vienna, the climax is one of the most famous in cinema.
Lime is not as blatant a villain as an alien taking the form of a creepy clown, but he is also responsible for harming many children. The American opportunist has been stealing penicillin from children’s hospitals and diluting doses to where they’re ineffective on sick kids. That’s downright monstrous and totally plausible in the real world, whether in post-war Austria or the here and now. The sewers of Derry, Maine, in It aren’t quite as incredible as Vienna’s, but they are pretty vast and navigable for that location. Maybe Derry should have, like Vienna, had their own police division solely patrolling the tunnels.
One of the earliest places to find a murderous clown is in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci, which was similar to a few earlier plays that are no longer as well known. I could have gone back and recommended any of the previous film adaptations going back to 1923. I’m not sure which are easily available (there are clips and full but bad-quality copies of various versions on YouTube). To keep it easy and accessible, though, let’s go with the stage production directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas. This is an Emmy Award-winning TV broadcast, but it wasn’t just a taping of the live version. Instead it’s a film including scenes from the La Scala opera house stage as well as others shot on a sound stage. As such, it screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
The plot, which Zeffirelli moved up to a 20th century setting, involves a theater clown, his wife, her lover, and another performer as jealousy leads to tragedy. The clown’s wife rejects the other performer, who then angrily informs the clown of her actual lover. The clown then has it out with his wife during a performance, with the audience not initially aware they’re watching real drama. The clown then murders his wife and her lover on stage in front of everyone and shouts a terrific line: “The comedy is finished!” Even if you’ve never seen nor heard of Pagliacci, you’ll surely recognize the aria “Vesti La Giubba,” as it’s been featured in many movies and TV series, including a Joker episode of the 1960s Batman show.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
In anticipation of the new It, Couch Tomato presented 24 reasons the old miniseries is basically a rehash of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The evidence includes both having a kid-murdering serial killer who preys on children’s fears — and manifests them, though Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger comes at his victims in their dreams while It‘s Pennywise can attack at any time of day or night and while the victims are awake. Both have oblivious adults, with parents of the kids threatened by the monster being pretty awful themselves most of the time.
Not all the evidence works with the It remake, but many viewers and critics have compared the new movie with the first Nightmare on Elm Street and declared Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise as potentially a new iconic horror villain akin to Freddy. I don’t know about the latter claim. Pennywise is pretty memorable in his appearance, complete with razor-sharp weapon (his teeth are as deadly as Freddy’s claws), but he doesn’t do much that gives him iconic status. Then again, Freddy didn’t totally come into his own as the character we all remember until the sequels.
One of those sequels, by the way — A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child — is playing at the downtown cinema in the movie, as noted on the marquee, when August comes along (the movie opened August 11, 1989). The manager who booked that movie for that town during that summer had some really poor judgement, if you ask me. As for another bit of history: It is being distributed by New Line, the nickname of which is “The House That Freddy Built” on account of the Elm Street franchise giving the company its first real breakout success after nearly 20 years of financial trouble.
The Goonies (1985) and Stand By Me (1986)
I kept going back and forth between these two movies. Which one was a better recommendation in general and which one was a better recommendation related to It. Obviously Stand By Me has the Stephen King connection, being based on one of the author’s novellas. But the spirit of The Goonies is also felt in the new It. Plus, unlike Stand By Me, the group of kid explorers in The Goonies venture through tunnels underground, and they’ve got a redheaded girl among them after a while. Stand By Me is evoked strongly early on, though, with the gang searching for a missing (probably dead) kid while also having to deal with some older ruffians.
Pairing them together is ultimately the right thing to do. Released just a year apart, both of them co-star Corey Feldman, who basically plays the Richie character of It in Stand By Me. There’s an overweight member of both gangs of kids, too, but that’s a staple of most of these sorts of movies, later including The Monster Squad, The Sandlot, and Hook. Both have bad guy gangs following them in the search for whatever they’re after — pirate treasure in The Goonies, the body in Stand By Me. And as you can see in the mashup trailer above, they are interchangeable in their most basic superficial sense. And that’s not the only fan video uniting these classic coming-of-age movies, which also clearly informed the series Stranger Things.
Only one film this week was released after the 1988-89 setting of It. For the token documentary of the list, I might as well go with something involving the recent scary clown hysteria. Well, the features I know of aren’t out yet. Behind the Sightings is supposed to be released this fall. And Pennywise: The Story of ‘It‘, which connects King’s book and the adaptations to the coulrophobia and last year’s scary clown sightings, isn’t due until next year. There’s a fairly new history of scary clowns doc called Down with Clowns, but it was made in 2013, before the recent elevated hysteria.
Clowns is a short doc. A very short doc. From the people who do short docs the best: Field of Vision. Released back in April, the seven-minute film is focused solely on the scary clown panic of last year in America and England and features a mix of acted scenes and compilation of news and movie clips. But it’s not a horror doc at all. It’s kind of cheeky about the whole thing, not taking its subject that seriously. The film is directed by The Manhattan Company, which consists of Michael Tucker, Dana O’Keefe, and Alex Kliment, all of them also collaborators on one of this year’s best doc features, Karl Marx City.
Watch it here: