As both an insatiable horror fan and an indulgent eater, what scares me is of a special recipe. Yes, I’m a “foodie.” At the end of a long, arduous week, my immediate comforts are starchy, liberally sauced, and sometimes glazed. Food is nourishment. Food is safe. Food is the constant I can turn to in times of need, depression, and anxiety. Which is why Stephen King’s “Jade Of The Orient” incident in IT will forever remain a favorite cornucopia of frightful kitchen nightmares.
These fears stem from a place of nostalgia. Think back to family dinners, prepared by whoever handled lead chef duties (mama in my household). Maybe you had an eventful or dreadful day at school, and afterward, you came home to the smell of Beef Stroganoff that’d stick to your bones. Or waking up to a pot of simmering “Sunday Gravy” with wafts of garlic and oregano. Food, at least in my mind, connects to memories of shared conversations, delicious meals, and happiness derived from a full belly. Nothing bad ever happens when homemade mac and cheese is on the table. That’s why Stephen King’s ability to taint these sacred memories shakes a cuisine lover like me to their core.
It’s not just King’s handy work, of course. “Culinary Horror” is one of the few subgenres I believe is actually scarier – er, more stomach-turning – when depicted on screen. Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 adapted miniseries first brought King’s digestible demons to life, and now, Andy Muschietti’s IT Chapter Two is spicing things up with modern techniques. While reading, my mind wanders to unspeakable places when dreaming up ghoulish figures– anyone can design their own imaginary Pennywise from King’s written description – but in contrast, my brain censors any gullet-gory thoughts. That’s where Wallace and Muschietti’s effects team achieves their dirtiest deeds.
It starts with the physical and visual. Make it easy. Pennywise sneaks hellish surprises inside the Jade of the Orient’s crunchy fortune cookie shells. Things that should not be; crispy little Trojan horses, so close to entering the Losers’ mouths. And the taste buds trigger such a different physical reaction compared to external contact.
Consider the “Bat Wing” fortune cookie. Which are you more disgusted by? A veiny cartilage appendage touching the roof of our mouth or skin of your arm? By tapping into the intimacy of eating, King channels our paranoias, subconsciously infiltrating whatever’s on your current or future menus. Try eating a samosa or ravioli without balking at what horrors could be stuffed within. That’s the power of food-based horror.
Now, place yourselves in the Losers’ shoes. A group of adults reunites to chow down on Chow Mein, reuniting for the first time in 27 years. And Pennywise’s first attack is to turn the prepared delicacies bringing them together into disgusting beasts. Bill’s crew can’t even enjoy one night of recollection, razzes, and bonding before Pennywise ceremoniously reminds them that nowhere is sacred.
It’s a clever trick pulled by King. Not only do we get the imagery of fortune cookies cracking open to reveal monstrous ingredients, but he catches the adult Losers at their most vulnerable. Before they can fully comprehend why they’ve been summoned to a place long forgotten or why they’ve been afraid since they knew they had to return. It’s King’s way of dragging characters back into their own Derry hell, purposely over dinner to double-down on Pennywise’s ever-looming threat. You’re never safe. No matter where you are – public dining rooms included.
Tommy Lee Wallace’s miniseries sticks to cookie creations actors can hold. As Bev cracks hers open, blood bursts outward. Ben’s scoots around with claw pincers. Richie’s reveals an eye that darts back and forth. Special effects coordinator Bart Mixon favored mechanical models – Ben’s pincher zipping around like a remote-controlled RC car, for example – which still stands out even by today’s standards. The Losers, faces pale, watch their food come to life with devilish designs. Mixon hatches the chicken fetus, pops a fuzzy arachnid puppet leg, and it all looks so morbidly amusing on screen. Practical effects, I’ll argue, should always be employed when possible. Here’s why.
IT Chapter Two, in an effort to conjure as many possible Pennywise variations within Derry, opts almost exclusively for digitized effects. This includes Mike Hanlon’s Jade Of The Orient reunion. Where the likes of John Ritter and Annette O’Toole never leave their seats in the miniseries, Muschietti’s adaptation utilizes an entire private room. You still get the individual fortune cookies breaking, but also a deep red liquid that rises from a bowl filled with the prophetic baked goods. Severed children’s heads float in wall-unit fish tanks, taunting James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. The 2019 sequel evokes King’s writing, checks Wallace’s televised vision, and one-ups them both – but it’s all digital. Nothing “real,” nothing tangible.
Animation allows for more freedom. Muschietti’s eyeball slides menacingly towards Bill Hader on dangling tentacles, compared to Wallace’s stationary peeper, which glares down Harry Anderson. A baby-headed insectoid flies around without restraint in this newest vision, which 1990’s technology wouldn’t have accomplished without wires. It’s a double-edged sword because Muschietti’s choices allow for massive ideas – even the Orient’s interior design is more pleasing versus the very 90s-restaurant blandness of Wallace’s previous – but even so, practical effects win out. During my second viewing of Chapter Two, the reduced shock of “Wailing Crawler Baby” doesn’t shield from an otherwise pretty-meh-overall graphic representation. You’ve gone bigger, but at what cost? Rewatch Wallace’s dangerous dessert sequence. Chances are you’ll agree.
That’s not to say IT Chapter Two fails Jade Of The Orient, of course. I’ll hop off my “Why animate what you can physically create” soapbox now. Muschietti’s reservation for six allows the Losers to approach the breakdown Pennywise desires. Under Wallace’s direction, characters “dumb up” when a concerned waitress scuffles over to prevent causing too much of a scene. Now, cut to Isaiah Mustafa’s Mike Hanlon slamming his gaudy diner’s chair into a restaurant table screaming, “It’s not real!.” The Losers Version 2.0 embrace madness, enter panic mode, and Mike’s suspect sanity is called into immediate question just as Pennywise intends. IT Chapter Two expands upon the horrors of juicy cored treats by emphasizing each Derry native’s uncertainty. Thrust back into Pennywise’s stranglehold, a flood of adolescent screams returning at the sight of weaponized om-noms.
These are the touches you want in a remake or re-adaptation. Wallace’s fortune cookie scene ignores the scribbled wisdom on each scroll. Muschietti does not, utilizing wordplay to instigate a devastating puzzle for the Losers to decipher. It’s a simple act that’s representative of positive studio remake culture. Tweak what we know, create your own adaptive signature. We’re given more to chew on, where Wallace’s treatment is more a momentary freakout. Practical effects may score brownie points, but Muschietti impresses by building out the multiple ways Pennywise leverages a simple delight – fast food staple, if we’re being honest – against foggy minds. Gary Dauberman’s screenplay earns praise by distracting us with something new before updating the cookie creature attack moments later.
I see the Orient scenes as representative of both IT films; a means to compare. Wallace’s 1990 two-parter a workman-like adaptation that keeps things simpler in terms of shorter practical bursts of Pennywise’s tomfoolery. Muschietti, primarily in 2019’s IT Chapter Two, is able to broaden grandeur and themes through the infinite flexibility of digital effects at a loss to the presentation. One a serviceable bite of creepy-crawly televised horror, the other an ambitious expansion that doubles serving sizes but unintentionally dilutes quality. All that, taken from a single roundtable haunt over fried rice and freakshow finishers. Such an iconic scene, literary or cinematic.
Some say the way to a man or woman’s heart is through his or her stomach. I’ll say it can also be a direct path to our darkest fears. Jade Of The Orient stages such a tantalizing and terrifying episode because, yes, it’s the adult Losers’ first reunion – but what makes it more than just another negative omen? Evil cookies.
You don’t mess with another’s meal, that’s tableside code. Pennywise not only ruins a perfectly scrumptious meal, but turns the food itself against the witless Losers Club. In the current pantheon of “Culinary Horror,” Stephen King holds two prime examples in IT and ‘Thinner’. The former, no shock, my favorite King moment brought to screen. Derry’s creator understands what upsets most, how homestyle terror lingers, and strikes when we least expect. “Culinary Horror” is a subgenre so vastly underappreciated, yet both Tommy Lee Wallace and Andy Muschietti do King proud in their own sinisterly scrumptious ways.
Um, waiter? There’s a cockroach in my fortune cookie – and I love it.