Stranger things have happened than what happened on Stranger Things — thanks in large part to one of horror’s most prolific names. In honor of the Netflix nostalgia-fest’s second season, When We Were Young takes a look at the 1980s oeuvre of the show’s biggest influence, Stephen King.
Following two true blue horror masterpieces, Carrie and The Shining, King unleashed a wave of spine-tingling adaptations with varying degrees of schlock, from pyro pixie Drew Barrymore in Firestarter to the killer car in Christine. We discuss these titles and their influence on Stranger Things, then dwell on the 1986 coming-of-age classic Stand By Me, which blends some macabre moments with a more melancholy tale of boyhood, mortality, and purple vomit. Finally, we all float over to 1990, where Tim Curry’s fearsome fanged clown Pennywise awaits us in the sewer-dwelling TV movie It, recently remade as the most successful horror film of all time.
How does Stranger Things — which tries so very hard to emulate the 1980s — stack up against the stuff that actually scared us back then? Can looking and feeling like when we were young really capture the essence of when the When We Were Young hosts were young? If your brain is exploding from all the nostalgia-within-nostalgia nesting doll action happening here, great. Happy Halloween!
Budget: $8 million
Opening Weekend: $3.8 million
Domestic Total Gross: $52.3 million
Metacritic Score: 75
Despite being a modest fan of Stephen King, I escaped my childhood without ever seeing two of his best-known works, 1986’s Stand By Me and the 1990 TV movie adaptation of It. King’s prolific body of work spans many subjects and explores many themes, though it’s hard to imagine any double-feature that digs into King’s core quite like this one. Stand By Me is best classified as a coming of age drama, while It is a schlocky supernatural horror movie. Yet in many ways, they tell the same story.
Both feature adults protagonists flashing back to their childhood in the 1950s. Both of these men are now horror writers whose work has been shaped, in large part, by dark childhood experiences. Both of their brothers were tragically killed when they were young. Both are bullied. Both find solace in banding together with a rag-tag group of friends. All of these children have abusive or negligent parents. Both stories take place in fictional towns in Maine.
Directed by Rob Reiner, Stand By Me is one of King’s more straightforward adaptations, dealing with the real-life horror King witnessed as a child when a friend was struck by a train. It’s alternately funny and touching, with memorable dialogue and imagery, anchored by fantastic performances from River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman. It all holds up pretty perfectly.
Ratings: Aprox. 30 million households
Domestic Total Gross: $52.3 million
Metacritic Score: 72
It doesn’t emerge from its era quite so unscathed, though I had a good time with it. Its strengths lie in the bones of Stephen King’s sprawling novel, one that takes the novella The Body (which Stand By Me is based on) and heaps on a bunch of twisted supernatural horror, most of it involving the evil clown Pennywise. Tim Curry’s performance is a thing to behold — campy, of course, but still unsettling. The young cast includes Jonathan Brandis and Seth Green, while John Ritter and Annette O’Toole stand out amongst the actors playing the “Losers’ Club” kids as adults.
It‘s effectiveness as a horror movie will vary from viewer to viewer, based on their tolerance for melodrama and TV movie production value circa 1990. The film’s best special effect is Tim Curry — non-Pennywise visuals haven’t aged so well.
It is over three hours long, and in a way, still left me wanting more — the story is such a rich tapestry of characters, themes, and ideas, I wanted it all to be explored further. I wanted to see more of the Derry adults’ complicity in what befalls these children — their extreme denial, the ease with which they turn a blind eye on some truly gruesome happenings. I also would have liked to see each child character’s horror be more specifically tailored to the real-world problems they’re burdened with, as the movie takes ample time to develop at least some of these stories. It’d work a lot better if one or two of the characters were excised, leaving that time to focus on the rest. (I haven’t read King’s book, but I imagine that, too, might have benefited from a leaner cast.)
Still, I found the story compelling enough to carry me through the movie. Despite its flaws, it may be the best cinematic distillation of Stephen King, warts and all. In It and Stand By Me, this prepubescent moment is looked back upon with reverence. Teens and adults are pretty horrible all around — these would be formidable antagonists even without It‘s murderous clown on the loose. In King’s stories, life is filled with horror, and only some of that horror is of the shape-shifting clown demon variety. Children can be senselessly killed, with or without supernatural intervention. (If the clown doesn’t get you, the bullies might!)
It‘s Losers’ Club grows up to be overachievers. Significantly, none of them are parents. The story suggests that people must wrestle with their childhood demons — literal or figurative — before they have children of their own, or else be doomed to pass the horror down a generation. Adults are, at best, ambivalent toward the youth they’re supposed to care for; many of them are actively hostile. A young boy wanders off and is struck by a train, but we don’t hear much about it from the adults. It’s the four boys at the heart of the story who turn this boy’s wasted life into their own epic quest, one that will haunt them throughout the rest of their lives. Everybody’s got issues — Pennywise is just one more problem to add to the list.
In Stand By Me, Gordie mourns the friendships he had when he was twelve, acknowledging that these bonds can’t be carried forth into adulthood. As much as they try to hold onto each other, Gordie and Chris drift apart, and Chris is eventually killed in yet another meaningless accident. The more fantastic It indulges in the fantasy of childhood friends being reunited as adults, reforming the bonds they need to survive, both then and now. Even its B-movie scares can’t completely drown out the heart of King’s very personal story.
Stand By Me features River Phoenix, while It stars Jonathan Brandis. Tragically but fittingly, both also died far too young — at least in some part because they were still wrestling with the demons of their formative years. Like so many of his characters, King survived to tell his tale (and many, many others). For him, it seems to be a bittersweet triumph.
Categories: When We Were Young