Stranger Things and It share the same shallow nostalgia

These homages are built on surface elements but fail to capture the originals' emotional alchemy.

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IT is a hit. The second adaptation of Stephen King’s horror bestseller (but the first made for cinema) grossed more than £9m at the UK box-office last weekend. Reasons for this aren’t hard to find. In a genre rife with lacklustre sequels, prequels and knock-offs, even a halfway decent scare, which is what IT is, will be understandably appealing. The film goes back and forth between gently likeable Stand By Me-esque scenes of comic camaraderie between its young leads, and frights of varying intensity as the teenagers face the manifestations of their fears and neuroses. There isn’t sufficient build-up to each shock to render the picture creepy; the director Andy Muschietti is content to make the audience jump in their seats and then move on to the next “Boo!” moment. Nothing in the picture lingers. When it’s over, it’s over.

King’s name is also commercially attractive, especially now that the market isn’t saturated with films of his work, as it was in the 1980s, when you could scarcely move without getting bitten by Cujo, mown down by Christine, immolated by Firestarter. And don’t discount the terrible allure of clowns in the horror genre. Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the demonic clown first seen peering out of the sewer, is one of the strong points of IT: the slurping, snivelling way he delivers his lines, as though gulping down the bile produced by his own wretchedness, makes the skin crawl. A pity that his horror highpoint comes in the first five minutes.

But the most crucial factor in the success of IT has to be the popularity of the Netflix show Stranger Things, which returns for a second series next month. IT advertises its own 1980s setting from the first scene, with posters for Beetlejuice and Gremlins and a cinema marquee heralding the arrival later on of Tim Burton’s Batman and Lethal Weapon 2. I have to confess, though, that I bailed on Stranger Things after four episodes, once I realised that its creators, the Duffer brothers, had nothing original of their own to add to the atmosphere of extended homage, and once it transpired that Winona Ryder’s range was even more impoverished now than it had been in her heyday. The child performances in Stranger Things are nicely judged but if you saw the movies that the show is cribbing from when they were out in cinemas in the 1980s, it’s hard to feel any enthusiasm for a refresher course now. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Poltergeist and Something Wicked This Way Comes are right there on the shelf; I can watch them any time I like. The Goonies and Children of the Corn weren’t much cop the first time around.

Complaining about a revival, though, is as futile as raging against the changing seasons. The point is that Stranger Things has a hold on its audience, which translates into viewing figures and cultural impact, which in turn fuels the popularity of a film like IT (even though the project was underway before the series took off). “We welcome the comparison,” said David Katzenberg, one of the producers of IT. “It’s definitely funny because some people will think we copied Stranger Things, but this movie has been in the works for a very long time.”

The great artistic love letters from one generation to another (most obviously those sent by the French New Wave directors to classic Hollywood gangster movies) elevate both sender and recipient. The opposite feels true in cases like Stranger Things or other 1980s nostalgia fests such as JJ Abrams’s Super 8 or Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special, where those paying homage seem only to have noticed the surface elements which stimulated their love rather than the mysterious emotional alchemy underneath. The creators of those titles become like kids playing in the dressing up box: just because they’re wearing chaps and stetsons, it doesn’t make them cowboys.

 IT is on release. Season two of Stranger Things streams next month.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.