It (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1990)
A group of small town misfit kids from the New England town of Derry (yes, ‘Derry’… no matter how many characters in the miniseries seem to be unaccountably pronouncing it ‘Dairy’) bond together as the ‘Losers Club’ (that is, when not referring to themselves as the ‘Lucky Seven’, another example of author Stephen King bloating his story with every variation he can think of in an attempt at finally producing the ‘great American novel’ and instead creating a flabby slog of a read at a crazy 1,300 plus pages – with this particular indulgent affair being the first indication at the time that I wouldn’t much longer continue to be a faithful consumer of his wildly prodigious assembly line output) to fight off and destroy the town’s terrible secret – namely, a child-killing cosmic monstrosity that keeps returning every 30 years, mostly taking on the form of an evil clown named Pennywise (Tim Curry)… only now, with the allotted three decades having passed, the unfortunate seven, all grown up, learn that ‘It’ wasn’t destroyed at all, and has returned yet again. With their supernaturally suppressed memories of the monstrous childhood events suddenly returning, the team realize they have to come back together again, return to their past and face it yet again… and, this time, defeat it for good.
There’s the nostalgia of childhood memories (including those menacing 50’s-style juvenile delinquents) that feels straight out of Stand by Me (or The Body, as King’s original novella was called). Then we have the founder of the Lucky Seven (or the Losers’ Club), the grown up Bill Denbrough (played by Richard Thomas, who doesn’t come remotely close to getting a convincing handle on the stutter he’s supposed to display at just those appropriate King-chosen moments to reveal, straight out of the Pop Psych 101 handbook, emotional reactions, of the kind that make Brad Dourif’s overdone ‘Bbb-bb-bb-ii-lly Ba-bab-ababit’ turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look like positively transcendent high art) being not only a popular horror author, but one so disappointed with the film adaptations of his works that he’s in the middle of writing the screenplay for the next (how many times has King given us that guy?), but one who is traumatized by the death of his younger brother that tore his family apart (in another nod to “The Body”). There’s other overt nods (I’d call them plagiarisms, if it wasn’t King himself doing it) to his previous books like The Shining, with the endless repetition of a phrase (along the lines of ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’) and the discovery by Ben Hanscom (John Ritter) in the hotel mirror that the mysterious woman seducing him that he has his hands around isn’t the female member of the club, Bev (Annette O’Toole), that he always secretly loved, but a demonically haggard old woman – uh, no – I mean an evil clown; and the priority placed on a bicycle (“Hi ho, Silver away!”) referencing his previous werewolf tale Silver Bullet hits some all-time embarrassingly corny moments (and that’s saying something for King).
There’s the constant indication of things ‘having meaning’, and our main characters constantly telling each other that these events are happening because they’re ‘supposed to be’ (which had eventually even had my daughter sighing with annoyance)… The kids huddling together each taking a puff of the one asthmatic kid’s pump as a show of solidarity, or coming together to beat off the juvenile delinquents with rocks, standing firm and naming their group (or at least giving it one of the two names… the other naming also gets a sappy ‘all hands’ on deck solidarity moment)… I mean just one of these singular slightly hokey moments might work (and I stress might), but it’s the sheer repetition of do-gooderisms and pandering attempts at humanism that grows overwhelming (not to mention feels entirely inorganic to the way real life works)… and director Tommy Lee Wallace (seemingly a nice guy, if a relatively un-exceptional journeyman who, very similar to another journeyman Rick Rosenthal, had one real filmmaking moment, and that was to helm one of the early excellent Halloween sequels under the – I can only surmise – extremely close tutelage of John Carpenter… with the result being, perhaps revealingly, a film that appeared, looked and acted a lot like a Carpenter film) doesn’t do much to help ‘mature’ the material with his simple over-earnest style, on top of it with the whole thing saddled with an underwhelming and unambitious score that does nothing but reinforce the maudlin moments (as well as that showy King-ian sense of just ‘how important this all is’).
King, alas, as is his too often wont, loads up this (did I mention INCREDIBLY LONG) tale with some repeating motifs that have little of the innate profound sense the author is trying to convince you (and perhaps himself) is there – a perfect example is Pennywise constantly referencing things ‘floating down there’ with him, which holds none of the terror the cackling clown seems to think it does…. because it doesn’t really mean anything (on its own or in the narrative, it never plays out as anything).
The cabal of actors playing the leads, both young and old, are serviceable (mostly), if decidedly second tier television-style performers, with early teen Jonathan Brandis (a child star who would eventually take his own life) as young Ben perhaps faring best amongst the youthful group and Dennis “Fade to Black” Christopher as the grown up asthmatic kid Eddie Kaspbrak (who I only now realized watching it again is clearly not only being signified as a homosexual character, but one with an unconsummated desire, one that might even have been shared, with “Night Court” comedian Harry Anderson’ Richie Tozier character, something my daughter told me is made explicit in the recent two-part theatrical “It” adaptation). Speaking of my daughter, I must mention (proudly, I dare say) she immediately scoffed at John Boy’s Richard Thomas with his long hair in a pony-tail in the miniseries, saying that I’m the only adult she knows who can get away with long hair as an adult!
It is interesting to see, though, for at least one reason – it illustrates that the sentimental heart that is King’s — that emotional center that has captured the heart of so many — is also often (far too often, alas) what leads him into his worst direction… and it can be really hard to wrest those two aspects apart (at least as far as the novels go – the short stories, certainly many of the ones in that first “Night Shift” collection, as well as many in the follow up “Skeleton Crew” – after that, I didn’t keep up — are filled with much more grizzly and grim delights, ones that oft feel much more daring and bold in their grim un-pretentious perspectives).
So much of the flabbiness that defines the book is continued right on into the film. Yet, the repetition of events in the past and present, with King working overdrive to present the necessity to come to grips with childhood – to merge with it, in essence — as a way to find peace in adulthood, become somehow a bit more palatable in the two-night television production (likely having to do with only having to commit to 3 plus hours to it, rather than nearly 1,300 pages of reading time). The adult characters, after re-gathering in Derry, are constantly going over events from their past that we’ve already been shown, or present another scene that gives us information we already know. At the same time, due to the restrictions of early television, some of the more interesting, daring elements had to go – such as Bev sleeping with all six of the boys as an act of loving union for all of them (now, that would have been some scene!) – as well as some grizzlier elements tuned way down (even my daughter complained there would be a LOT more blood in that bathroom when one of our main characters is found having bowed out, unable to confront his childhood monster again, by slitting his wrists – which I agreed, though my main contention was what possible reason, other than the author making another ridiculous assertion that this was a powerful idea, he would have had for writing “It” in his own blood across the wall tiles?).
Saying all of this, however (and it’s been a lot)… there were some opportunities here, starting with Pennywise himself; done properly, with the creepy terror of this creation brought to the fore, it could have saved the show from the mostly mediocre, generally watchable affair that it is… and with sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania Dr Frank-N-Furter himself, Tim Curry, at the helm – yes, the same brilliant wildly colorful English chap who gifted us the absolutely unforgettable darkly intoning, massively-horned Underworld’s Lord of Darkness from Legend! – it couldn’t go wrong, right? Alas…
Deciding upon a gruff, deep voice that illicits more carny con-man than creepy seducer of children (shoulda gone with a much higher-pitched voice… and demeanor!), as well as a clown look that makes his face too bulbous and his forehead huge, there is little scary about this Pennywise. Even my daughter, who complained about the overuse of digital effects to create the latest Pennywise incarnation in the aforementioned new It (which she didn’t like), expected more… she was, like I was, sure that this Pennywise was gonna work in the getting-under-your-skin department. But other than a few random moments? It (and Curry) are a major disappointment.
The ultimate let-down of both original book and film is the absurdly silly ending (or ‘endings’… remember, we get everything twice, first as kids, then repeated as adults). Having this overinflated slog of a tale tell us again and again how big and cosmic this terrible evil force is… only to have it ultimately revealed as an easily-killable large spider creature (that the club destroy – twice, again — through their ‘belief’ in their every day rituals, such as their asthma pumps and Bev’s beloved earrings… geez, even writing it down sounds absurd)… I mean… I remember distinctly getting through all those pages and thinking ‘I read all these pages for… this??’
While there is something old-school charming in how goofy the creature is rendered in the television version (with even some stop-motion effects thrown in!), at the same time, you can sense there isn’t much inspiration behind the scenes – there’s no brilliant special effects madman like Rob Bottin back there putting this creature together. No. What you feel is likely a competent television union crew, with a director making his days on a tight, television budget, guiding actors with no real connection to the horror genre concerned with hitting their marks.
If there is an effective element in the It tale, it’s the idea of an entire town’s worth of children being terrorized – and killed — by an evil force that only they can see… and that the adults clearly don’t want to see. It’s what makes the ‘teenage’ portion of the tale the more effective half. If only it didn’t all get so… maudlin.
Ultimately, It is a passable adaptation (just the fact alone that it condensed down that interminable book into a relatively painless time-waster) with its viewing success leading to a slew of 90’s multi-night ‘television event’ Stephen King adaptations that range (if memory serves, I guess I’ll see as I get to each of them) between pretty awful to passable. Even if some are better than I remembered, though? I’m quite sure none come close to measuring up to Tobe Hooper’s two-night 1979 television take on Salem’s Lot. Now, that one was inspired.