Stephen King’s It. 1990. Part I – Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, Screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen. Part II – Directed & Written by Tommy Lee Wallace.
Starring Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher, Richard Masur, Annette O’Toole, Tim Reid, Jonathan Brandis, Brandon Crane, John Ritter, Richard Thomas, Adam Faraizl, Tim Curry, Emily Perkins, Marlon Taylor, Seth Green, Ben Heller, Jarred Blancard, Tony Dakota, & Olivia Hussey.
Green-Epstein Productions/Konisberg-Sanitsky Company/Lorimar Television.
Rated PG. 192 minutes.
No secret, Stephen King is one of my very favourite authors. Of all time. He is fantastic and tells a story like no other. His decidedly creepy aura is present in all his stories, no matter if it’s a straight up horror, or whether an intense personal drama. He always brings something with him that keeps things real, no matter how far out they get, and because of that his stories wind up all the more horrific.
It is a wonderfully terrifying bit of fiction. A long novel, though worth every page. Tommy Lee Wallace (directed Halloween III: Season of the Witch, wrote Amityville II: The Possession, played Michael Myers at one point in John Carpenter’s Halloween) adapts most of it fairly well into a two-part television movie. Of course it’s not as nasty as the book. Then again, not many writers are capable of getting to the dark heart of human beings quite as thoroughly as Mr. King. Plus, it was on TV. That being said, for its time It pushed the boundaries slightly in regards to what you can get away with re: television movies and mini-series violence (et cetera).
The largest part of what Wallace does well is portray the portion of King’s work which deals with the kids. Part II is nowhere near as good as Part I, but for how scary the first half plays Wallace can rest easy knowing he terrified a generation of kids shitless. Ultimately, a flawed film and adaptation, yet one that still manages to bear its teeth in moments of outrageous horror, drawing on the childhood fears King does so expertly in his masterpiece of a novel.
Certainly you can’t forget how well a clown can creep people out. Not to mention with Tim Curry behind the makeup giving it his absolute best. Our societal fear of clowns is likely based in how people feel uncomfortable with someone acting friendly, warm, yet being sinister underneath, hiding their true intentions. It’s why when people found out John Wayne Gacy was killing young men and hiding them in his crawlspace under the house, the fact he used to dress up as Pogo the Clown and do kids parties became the stuff of pure nightmare. Well, It doesn’t just come as a clown. However, to all the kids at once and to each of them in general when he shows up, he’s Pennywise. Because even as adults that lingering childhood fear still clings on hard. What Wallace uses is the brilliance and depth of Curry as an actor to make the Pennywise form of It feel the most chilling.
Pennywise is a terror right from the opening scene. No time to feel as if he’s friendly. Curry starts out with a searing stare of evil eyes at the child in his path, which never fails to get me. When Georgie meets Pennywise at the sewer drain, there’s still a spooky feeling. Although Curry gives a more friendly introduction – problem is, we know what he’s up to, and that makes it brutally tense. The scene is much scarier this way, even after we know Pennywise is evil. He uses that clownish demeanour to lure poor Georgie. Just like the concept of the clown itself, this scene works by acting sweet on the outside, only to hold at its centre a rotten core.
One thing I love that weaves through both the child and adult moments is how It’s tricks, from bloody sinks to balloons, are only visible to the characters from the Losers’ Club. Such as the earliest instance when Bill (Jonathan Brandis) sees his mother holding the photo album and blood seeps out of Georgie’s pictures all over her hands; a truly eerie moment. Later, we see Bev (Emily Perkins) and her father Al (Frank C. Turner) in the bathroom, as he looks for what she alerted him to in the drain: blood is everywhere, though he sees none of it. The sinking feeling of these scenes is perfectly ominous, like pages torn right from King’s book.
One of It‘s flaws is that the novel was so big and packed in an immensely heavy load of characters and story, so in three hours it’s tough to pack the material of nearly 1,200 pages into maybe about 180, if that. There are certain King elements either toned down or entirely removed, such as the brutal attack of a young gay man who later meets his end at the hands of Pennywise, and different incarnations of It like a rotting leper pursuing young Eddie, among other creatures and forms. The violence is overall tame, as compared to the sometimes vicious writing in King’s book. For instance, Henry Bowers – in the book – witnesses a much more devastating, traumatic event which drives him crazy – a brutal decapitation at the hands of It, appearing to him as Frankenstein’s monster mauling his friends.
All the same, there are great things in both parts. Mostly it’s Part I that I dig. The shower scene with Eddie (Adam Faraizl) is particularly unnerving, to me. Eddie’s situation preys on the vulnerability of having to be naked in the shower as a young man, which is bad enough. In addition, Pennywise shows up to torture him. He uses that fear and insecurity of many boys growing up experiencing such dread as the locker room and shower during junior high school. Wallace does a lot of fun things with the kids being haunted by It. Some of that crosses over into Part II. I’m always disturbed by when grownup Beverly (Annette O’Toole) goes to her dad’s place in Derry, only to find an old woman who It inhabits – she goes from a wretched crone to a dead version of Bev’s father with no eyes. Super scary. Love that. Aside from specific bits, there’s more often than not a palpable air of suspense, wondering what eeriness lies behind the next rock we turn over along with the Losers’ Club. The film has an exciting atmosphere in that dread-filled kind of sense, which makes up for the uneven bits in the screenplay.
I feel like It, for 1990, is worth a 4-star rating. Wallace didn’t do all he could, but gave it his best and most creepy effort. You can’t deny there’s some good filmmaking in between the mistakes. When the kids have the picture and then Pennywise appears, this sequence is spectacular! Crossing from black-and-white into colour, Curry is deliciously bloodcurdling, as well as the fact the shot makes it feel as if Pennywise talks right to the viewer, putting us in the seat of the kids. A bunch of great moments like that make those flawed portions seem less worrisome.
I’m excited to see the new version, I honestly think there’s going to be some enjoyable stuff. Forever I’ll find this one particularly spooky. Curry is unhinged throughout the performance, to a point even I can’t stand to look at his clown face; they don’t bother me as a rule. Yet that’s how good he is, he makes me feel gross about clowns. Not often does a villain stick out so well, especially in a film that has its fair share of misses. Above anything, Pennywise is fantastic horror. The writing in Part I sets up the best terror you can imagine, and though it’s squandered a bit in the second part Wallace does keep you hooked with a thick atmosphere along with good actors doing their best. Don’t expect perfection and you won’t be too disappointed. This is still a scary flick, doesn’t matter. Even if Part I were all we had there’s frightful horror to enjoy every step of the way.