Stephen King’s It: No Longer What It’s Cracked Up To Be

Very soon Stephen King’s horror epic It will slither into cinemas and the nightmares of several generations of viewers. The horror legend’s epic tale of confronting childhood trauma and fears deserves the adoring two-part adaptation coming our way and if the trailers aren’t misleading (and when are trailers ever misleading, am I right?) then Mama director Andy Muschietti has found a way to turn that thousand page doorstop into a rip-roaring cinematic horror show. Of course, for anyone who came of age in the 90s and squealed through a sleepover with a double VHS tape rental, there’s sense that this It will never be their It. The TV mini-series classic that ABC greenlit alongside Twin Peaks has grown to legendary status over the years, with Tim Curry’s Pennywise standing proudly alongside Freddy Krueger and Pinhead as one of the premiere movie monsters of a golden age for the genre. In anticipation of the new adaptation, I decided to dip back into the TV movie that scared me witless as a child. Sadly, I must admit that it was tough to go back to those sleepless nights in my jammies again.

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It (1990 – Stephen King)

While It stands as a genre classic alongside the cinematic horror greats of the 80s in the memories of many, watching the mini-series now makes its TV movie origins all too clear. It’s not just that the movie isn’t as scary as you remember; it’s tough to believe that this endless TV movie made that impact at all. The Vancouver-shot production now feels more like an extended episode of those other Can-con kiddie horrors of 90s: Goosebumps and Are You Afraid Of The Dark. Those scrappy low budget productions inspired children’s imaginations to fill in gaps and expand the scares of what was ultimately cheesy and cheap TV schlock. It is certainly more adult, ambitious, and effective than the average Goosebumps or Are You Afraid Of The Dark episode, but not by much. It only felt more deranged and disturbing to kids reared on the light stuff.

Admittedly, the first half of the two-part mini-series plays far better than the second half. Carrie screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen came up with an ingenious conceit to take advantage of the ad break TV storytelling format. One-by-one each member of the Losers’ Club are introduced as adults and forced to remember their scarring encounter with the demonic clown Pennywise as a child before an ad break. It allowed the first chapter to play like a series of short clown horror shocks that faded to black and let the kids at home squirm in their seats during the commercials. That’s actually a pretty clever way to take advantage of the TV movie format and condense the first half of the epic Stephen King novel. Of course, it also plays far more awkwardly now when viewing the movie without commercials, building up creepy clown sequences and then cutting out just as things get good.

Granted, things do get pretty damn good in that first act thanks almost entirely to a perfectly cast Tim Curry as Pennywise. The lovably hammy British actor clearly relished the evil clown role, bringing the make up to life with an unsettling growl of a voice, joyous dances of monster movements, and just enough screen time to make a big impact without feeling overplayed. He’s amazing in the role and the performance deserves its iconic status. Director Tommy Lee Wallace also had just the right naughty and surreal sensibility to deliver the Pennywise set pieces with style and intensity. The director of the deeply underrated trash classic Halloween III: Season Of The Witch clearly has no issue putting children in danger and knew how to use stop motion, make up, and rubber monster effects to weave living nightmares. His handling of the Pennywise sequences is pure nightmare stuff and somehow the blindingly bright analogue TV cinematography and almost exclusively daytime scare settings added to the off kilter feel.

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It (1990 – Stephen King)

Unfortunately, It isn’t an all-Pennywise all-the-time affair. If only it were. Likely you remember It as a Pennywise festival if you haven’t seen it since you were a child, but that’s only because few of the scenes without that evil clown make much impact. The rest of the movie feels far rushed and cheap. The sprawling cast rarely get more than a few scenes of characterization as the exposition-heavy screenplay stumbles along. The cast is predominantly made up of 80’s TV actors who play everything just a little too big and broad. When the second half of the two-part mini-series takes over and the child actors disappear, the whole thing feels stilted and dull as it stumbles towards a deeply underwhelming climax with a horrible (rather than horrifying) monster. Taken together as a three-hour epic, It peaks early and slowly gets worse and worse until the credits roll.

The TV-movie status also prevents this version of It from getting into the harsh themes of childhood trauma and abuse at the center of Stephen King’s horror epic. All that deeply relatable and disturbing material is reduced down to cornball after-school special bullying and implications of deeper material that never arrives. This is very much a neutered and rushed version of a classic novel that feels distinctly cheap and dated to contemporary eyes. It served as nightmare material at the time because the first half was damn frightening for children staying up late who only knew cheap TV horror and not the real or hard stuff just yet (as well as those who only caught the first episode when it was broadcast and mercifully missed the disappointing concluding chapter). Since Wallace and Curry nailed the Pennywise scare sequences so beautifully, they had a huge impact on unformed kiddie minds that burrowed in deep for generations. It’s hard to imagine any contemporary kid who has spent Sunday nights watching entrails explode on The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones raise an eyebrow to this stuff anymore. It just hasn’t aged well.

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It (1990 – Stephen King)

Yet despite all that, the TV mini-series still deserves to be remembered as a minor TV classic. It works well as a throwback to 90’s TV horror and Tim Curry’s Pennywise is a monster for the ages. Like Poltergiest, Goosebumps, or Are You Afraid Of The Dark, the production is an ideal introduction to the horror genre for youngsters slowly discovering their limits. More than that, the fact that this epic horror tale about childhood trauma holds such a dark place in the minds of a generation of adults who consider this Pennywise a scarring childhood milestone is oddly appropriate. There’s something rather poetic about that, especially since revisiting this version of It through adult eyes proves just how hard it is to go home again. That’s a rather nice, if ironic, legacy for the project. The book deserves better though. With a little luck Stephen King’s It will finally get the genuinely horrifying adaptation it deserves. One that will terrify adults like the mini-series did for them as kids and will inspire a whole new generation of fans. If not, cling to the memories of your childhood glimpses of Tim Curry’s Pennywise dangling a balloon in the sewer. You’ll never recapture that formative fear again. That would be like trying to read R.L. Stine again and expecting to get a sleepless night. It’s just not going to happen.