Retro Review: Stephen King’s IT (1990)
Ah, October. Greatest month of the year. With Halloween fast approaching, it’s time to choose a new theme for the Retro Reviews. So many great/awful scary movies to choose from. This month, I’ve decided to go straight to television and review four of the most memorable made for TV movies about Halloween. This week we have the (television) star studded mini-series IT, based upon the book by the same name by Stephen King. We also have a nice pivot from last week’s Retro Review: Legend, as both films star the gleefully creepy and costumed Tim Curry.
The story of IT takes place in two acts, for those who have not read King’s creepiest novel (containing not only a child devouring clown, but a chapter in which 7 kids barely into puberty run a train on the only girl in the group. Not making this up. They all have sex. In the sewers. Think on that next time you auto-buy the latest Stephen King novel for your dear old dad.) The first act takes place in 1960, in the small town of Derry, Maine. Seven youths are terrorized by Pennywise the Clown, a manifestation of an ancient evil which feeds on the terror (and arms, apparently) of young children. The children are all misfits in one way or another, and Pennywise singles them out as easy prey, using their personal fears to stalk them. The children learn of each other, band together, head into the sewers where IT lives, and nearly kill the creature, instead driving It into a dormant state. Oh, and they all have sex. Had I mentioned that part? OK, OK, the sex is only in the book. ABC would have probably balked at adding it to a Tuesday Night Movie.
The second act takes place in the 1990’s, as all of the children have grown up and moved from town, save one. When IT resurfaces from it’s injuries and begins killing again, the call goes out to get the band back together and hopefully kill the beast this time. The children, now all successful adults, return to their quaint home town in order to do battle. Except for Richard Masur, who decides he has definitely had enough of this battling evil clown stuff and commits suicide. And then has his decapitated head haunt the rest of the group. So much for taking the easy way out, putz.
The adults are confronted by Pennywise, who quickly learns that he is much less effective at terrifying adults than children. Pennywise resorts to a fall back plan, and breaks out the bully who terrorized the children from the local insane asylum, and convinces Crazy McCrazypants to return to his old ways, and beat the high holy heck out of the heroes. Which almost works, except 7 on 1 is a long shot, even if you did give wet willies to most of the 7 in their youth. So crazy gets himself killed. Now the adults are super convinced that IT needs an ass-whipping, and head back down into the sewers to finish what was started 30 years ago. And I don’t mean the gang-banging part.
Split into a two-parter, this movie has uneven quality. The 1960’s arc is terrific, with Tim Curry practically oozing menace as Pennywise, excellent performances from the children (including a young Jonathan Brandis from SeaQuest, and a then unknown Seth Green), and a terse (if not conventional) horror storyline. The second half bogs down, despite excellent character work from John Ritter (Three’s Company), Harry Anderson (Night Court), and Richard Thomas (The Walton’s). The scares that work when children are involved are diluted considerably by having adults as the victims, even if the level of gore and shock scares is pretty high for a television movie. The second half just seems recycled, and the themes of returning to buried childhood trauma and dread don’t translate from the novel to the screen. Plus, the reveal of the final monster is decidedly hokey, throwing away all the fantastic work Curry had accomplished.
If you loved the book, this movie hews closely enough to give you nostalgia. There are plenty of scares to be had, since Tim Curry’s Pennywise needs little gore to be effective, often creating the most menace when just talking (“we all float down here…”) There is also a real joy in seeing stars of the small screen like Anderson, Masur, and Ritter get a chance to sink their teeth into some headier, and darker, material. It may be lost on younger audiences, but seeing family friendly comedians encounter pure evil, and fight that evil, has some definite appeal.