It’s a rather arduous process bringing an iconic literary story or character from the page to the screen, particularly when the source material is as dense, twisted, and LONG as Stephen King’s 1986 horror classic, IT. The likelihood for catastrophe is enormous, and with the imminent release of It Chapter Two this weekend (on the heels of the massively successful first part two years ago), it felt necessary to revisit the original adaption from 1990.
The ABC miniseries, which starred Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, seems to have drawn some unnecessary scorn over the past few years for failing where the new film adaption(s) have succeeded. But I’m not alone in saying the television movie from nearly three decades ago was the defining scary story– on screen, page, or otherwise– of my childhood, and even with the success of the newer films, both creatively and commercially, the original miniseries still matters in the canon of horror.
Nothing has ever been more terrifying or fear inducing than Pennywise, aka It, the shape-shifting entity that preys on children by reading their minds, embodying what frightens each person most, then brutally murdering and eating them. I saw the movie (or, more accurately, saw the first part, which is eminently scarier than the second half) at the tender age of 8, when a neighbor brought it to my cousin’s house to watch. If you were somehow unaware, IT– despite being about childhood and the painful necessities of growing up and moving on– is not a film or story meant for consumption by actual kids, and the fall out from my decision to act brave, by enduring the displays of monstrosity, ricocheted far beyond that one summer afternoon.
I had nightmares for at least seven months after I saw that (first half), and ended up sleeping in my parent’s bed every night during that time, something I’m sure never bothered either of them in the slightest. Nary an evening went by where I wasn’t haunted by the demon from the sewers, when I wasn’t frightened into a panic that Pennywise would come out of the drain and get me when I least expected it. A wave of dread washed over my body every time I entered a bathroom, so certain was I that if I pulled back the shower curtain, a fresh, dripping display of oozing blood signing “IT”– on the wall a la Stanley Uris’ suicidal farewell– would await me.
The fact that It only attacked children– because they’re capable of believing in the extraordinary tricks It displayed, whereas adults are unable to perceive the impossible– meant I was almost certainly going to be killed because I believed so much in It…and in Pennywise. I’ve never been afraid of clowns, but I was completely terror-stricken by Pennywise, the most common form It would take to lure children to their early grave (because It believes everybody loves a clown). Perfectly balancing the line between alluring and menacing, Pennywise would inevitably float into frame whenever any child was alone and vulnerable, lulling each youth into a false sense of security before displaying Its deadlights and revealing its mouth full of razor sharp teeth.
Recently revisiting a film that so drastically traumatized my younger self, it struck me how effective the first half remains, when the emphasis is on the Losers’ Club as kids and their initial interactions with It (in contrast with how silly much of the material with the adult versions comes off). The child actors portraying the gang of Stuttering Bill, Bev, Ben, Mike, Richie, Eddie and Stan are superb across the board, in particular a pre-teen idol Jonathan Brandis (RIP) as the group’s leader Bill. He shines throughout with a trembling fear rippling across his surface, barely concealing an untold depth of sorrowful rage for his younger brother, Georgie, driven near madness in the quest to avenge his sibling’s gruesome end.
The taunting frights from It as Pennywise, and any other form it recognized would induce incontinence in young children, still hold up in spite of the limited special effects available at the time, and despite the neutering of many of King’s utterly macabre, grisly details (this was network television, after all). In particular, the scene when Mike’s photo album of Derry’s history comes alive– where Pennywise, from within a photograph over one hundred years old, threatens to kill them all– is still chilling, as It proclaims itself “every nightmare you ever had” and “every bad dream come true.” And Georgie’s untimely demise, where he’s manipulated by Pennywise into reaching for his paper boat, before his arm’s ripped from the socket like a fly’s wing, plays as unsettling in the original as it does in the 2017 film.
Really, the original adaption holds up largely because of the electrifying performance of Tim Curry, who embodies the quirkily charming, murderous clown with all the gleeful aplomb one would expect from the former Dr. Frank N. Furter. He thrusts himself into the role completely, disappearing as the unofficial mascot of the fictional town of Derry, the living embodiment of the (near) eternal being who feasts on frightened children every twenty seven years. Without his masterful performance, the entirely film would collapse in on itself, falling victim to tone-shattering hamminess that pops up far too often during the second part of the series.
If there is a major flaw in the original’s design, it is the second half, where the adult Losers have returned to Derry to vanquish It once and for all. A combination of hokey special effects, questionable adaption choices, and frankly terrible acting nearly dooms the entire enterprise. Seriously, John Ritter (“Kiss me, fat boy!”) and Harry Anderson may have been big stars in the late 80’s, but, goodness gracious, are they are uniformly awful in this film. I mentioned above that I was driven into a panic after witnessing just the first half of the two-part miniseries, because if I had stuck it out for the entire film until the end? The ensuing fear may have never risen to the level of trauma it became.
I remember my mother trying desperately to convince me that they kill It at the end, because It was literally just a big, dumb spider when all was said and done. And that legitimately is how things end: the four remaining Losers kick and punch a goofy looking spider until they rip Its heart out. I recognize this is, sort of, how things end in the novel, but it plays out ludicrously on screen (and not just because, for reasons entirely unclear, Eddie divulges he’s a virgin to the group– as they are confronting It in Its lair– moments before his death). The Losers kill It, as they must, but it comes off so anticlimactic, particularly in retrospect of the mortifying events that play out before that final encounter.
The original adaption of IT still matters, though, because it still scares, and because it presents a unique, distinctly different take on the novel than the recent updates. They are telling largely the same story, of course, but each (set of) film(s) provides its own twist– and necessary winnowing down of King’s impossibly thick story– that makes them stand out as their own entities. As you may have guessed, I’m a big fan of all things IT-related, whether it’s the novel, original film, or the 2017 film, and while the original miniseries was far from perfect, that can be said about the recent adaptions, too, regardless of how the new film plays out.
I just know that I’ll be there this weekend, eagerly squirming in my seat in the theater, awaiting the thrills, inviting the petrifying shocks, ready to return my old man self back into the frightened young boy who recoiled at It’s antics so many years ago. Both adaptions deserve their share of credit for what they have accomplished, and the original film belongs beside the newer ones as a successful portrayal of what Stephen King put onto the page over thirty three years ago.
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