Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen (teleplay), Tommy Lee Wallace (teleplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Tommy Lee Wallace
Starring: Tim Curry, Richard Thomas, and Tim Reid
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Oh yes... they float, Georgie. They float. And when you're down here with me... YOU'LL FLOAT TOO!"
No man is more responsible for my childhood nightmares than Stephen King. I’ve often recounted how I was introduced to the genre at an early age, so much so that few films actually phased me. But it seems like nearly all of those that did carried King’s name in some capacity, with some of them remaining potent enough to still unnerve to this day, like Pet Sematary, a singularly disturbing piece of work that I really had no business seeing so young. Another such film was It: though it was made-for-television and thus “more suitable” for viewing, I’m sure my 7-year-old self would have begged to differ alongside a generation of children scarred for life by Pennywise the Dancing Clown. I grew up around Freddy, Jason, Michael, and Chucky, but those guys were more like acquaintances; Pennywise, on the other hand, was not to be fucked with, so It was one of the most unnerving movies from my childhood.
As an adult, that fear has very much dissipated, which is not to say Tommy Lee Wallace’s It is no longer worthwhile. On the contrary, having now read the novel since that childhood viewing, I can’t help but appreciate the monumental task that was before Wallace. One of the more difficult works to adapt in King’s oeuvre, It is less a novel and more a Bible, one that eventually spans eons and the entire cosmos. I’m not going to say it’s impossible to adapt, but I will say it seems exceptionally difficult to do so, especially as a two-part network television mini-series, a format that automatically demands watered-down content and extreme truncation. Even with three-hours at his disposal—which was cut down from the original four-part plan—Wallace and co-writer Lawrence D. Cohen could only hope to capture a fraction of King’s tome.
In doing so, they obviously had to capture the broad strokes, and, under these conditions (some might say restrictions), they crafted the best possible adaptation imaginable, one that captures the essence of King’s work and yielded a new horror icon. Not bad for a film with such a deck stacked against it, especially when it remains thoroughly watchable and even slightly disturbing. It might not give me nightmares anymore, but it does give me an appreciation for everything that surrounds all the unforgettable, nightmarish imagery.
Chief among them is Wallace’s commitment to capturing the novel’s signature structure. While King does sprawl throughout history when accounting the sordid history of Derry, Maine (and beyond), he largely focuses on The Losers Club’s childhood encounter with It, a malevolent, child-killing entity that returns 27 years later, forcing them to return home as adults to confront the monster once again. The mini-series only transposes things a bit, as the childhood sections occur in 1960, with the adult portions picking up 30 years later. Regardless, the thrust is the same, right down to the intermingling of childhood and adult events. It is a novel about memory and regret, so an adaptation needs to account for just how utterly haunted these characters are even as adults.
It follows, then, that the adaptation is largely told via flashback. We open with Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) investigating the latest in a series of new child murders in Derry, prompting him to suspect that It has returned. When he finds a picture of Bill Denbrough’s (Richard Thomas) slain brother Georgie (Tony Dakota), it all but confirms his suspicions and unleashes a torrent of traumatic memories. As the lone gatekeeper who remained in Derry, it’s up to him to contact his childhood friends, who once made a pact to return home if It ever resurfaced. Hearing Mike’s voice on the other end of the phone causes their memories to come flooding back, too, as they’re forced to relive those horrific experiences all over again after suppressing them for so long.
The first half of the miniseries is expressly concerned with recounting that childhood trauma. As each member of the club is contact, his or her personal encounters with It unfolds, with the disparate threads eventually being woven into the story of how these kids banded together to face and conquer their demons. The result is a breezy, entertaining translation of the original novel: with so much to account for, there’s little downtime, so nearly each scene is capturing some horrific event or another. Hell, Pennywise appears within the opening couple of minutes, introduced lurking in a girl’s backyard before murdering her off-screen. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the first half is a whirlwind of nightmarish sequences and images, with little Georgie’s indelible encounter with the sewer-dwelling clown serving as a highlight.
There’s something slightly unreal about it: this kid strolls down the street in a sundrenched rain storm, innocently trailing behind the paper boat his sick brother has given to him. When Pennywise reveals himself in the sewer, it’s naturally a startling image that soon turns violent, as the clown yanks the kid’s arm before murdering him. And even though that murder is also off-screen, it’s no less unsettling. Nothing announces your intentions to fuck viewers up quite like staging multiple child murders within the first 20 minutes or so (no wonder I would have been so scarred by this—kids are supposed to be “off-limits” in horror movies).
The rest of the 1960 portion is pretty solid too, as Wallace wheels out an assortment of macabre sights and sounds. Voices emanate from deep within faucets that impossibly spit out blood, while a werewolf impossibly lurks in the school basement. A book of photographs brings Georgie back to life, if only for a moment before Bill hurls the thing across the room, where it promptly spills over with blood. Ben Hanscom’s slain father appears before him, intoning him to join him down in Derry’s sewers, where they can be together forever, floating like the red balloons clasped in the specter’s hand. They all float down there, after all. It’s shape-shifting presence is a direct translation of the book: while Pennywise is its most familiar (and, ultimately, iconic) form, its ability to transform into the children’s various fears is what makes It a quintessential King creation.
While the adaptation doesn’t delve into It’s cosmic origins beyond a few references to the Deadlights, it still manages to capture the entity’s ethereal, eternal menace. Some passing mentions of It’s previous exploits in Derry’s past help to deepen that mythology, creating the perception of an unstoppable force that continues to resurface, effectively haunting the town in perpetuity. Even when it slumbers, its presence casts a pall over Derry, a town that has always just felt wrong to The Losers Club. Adults seem to be in constant denial, while almost Satanic bullies like Henry Bowers (Jarred Blancard) and his gang terrorize other schoolchildren. Despite its innocuous, small-town trappings, Derry is troubled by a thick, evil menace that manifests every 30 years, perhaps because this town is such a fine feeding ground of damned souls whose trauma is ripe to be exploited through It’s various appearances.
Of course, there’s a reason that its Pennywise form has become the most indelible. Clowns are inherently strange, their painted on faces—particularly their smiles—creating an incongruously sinister impression in their artificiality. Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise feels like the nightmare clown from hell, though: upon first glance, he’s not immediately terrifying, which, of course, is absolutely terrifying. Curry’s turn is perfectly pitched into a delicate, nebulous zone that renders Pennywise into a walking nightmare without feeling too unreal. Affecting a gravely inflection, Curry sounds like an authentic carnie—and not just any carnie. His Pennywise is like that scummy, carnie who spends way too much time out back , away from the carnival, smoking and leering at all the girls. There’s something legitimately perverse about him that’s disturbing: It is a primal force, but his Pennywise incarnation is the ultimate boogeyman, capable of haunting you in broad daylight if need be.
Curry’s Pennywise is undoubtedly irrevocably tied to this film’s legacy—it’s almost certainly the first image that comes to mind, and it’s hard to believe It would be remembered so fondly (or so infamously, depending on your level of childhood trauma) without him. He casts a long shadow, so much so that it’s easy to overlook the terrific performances surrounding him. Both the child and adult actors embody The Losers Club quite well, which is no small feat considering just how much characterization King accomplishes via internal monologues that are obviously lost in translation to the screen. Child actors are often dicey propositions, especially in horror movies, but the bunch here is believably plucky without betraying just how terrified they are. Like most kids, they put up a good front but are unable to truly conquer their fear, even when confiding their bizarre encounters with It to each other. That haunted quality carries over to the adult cast, all of whom perfectly sell the deep, resonating terror of that dreaded phone call from Mike Hanlon. Before we’re ever privy to the details of their trauma, we can see it hanging on their faces like a half-remembered bad dream.
Wallace’s commitment to nailing down these characters and give them space to room is crucial: more than anything, It is a novel about The Losers Club shared trauma, and that throughline remains in this adaptation. It obviously does so at the expense of so much that had to be excised in order for this thing to be squeezed into three hours, a necessity that also results in a bit of a rushed feeling to the various climaxes in the story. Though this feels like a flaw inherent to the format, it’s hard to overlook just how quickly the Losers Club forms before embarking on their mission to vanquish it from Derry’s sewers. Even one beat between these two plot points would help to build the appropriate dread to what winds up being the film’s high point. While the second half of the film definitely works, the first half carries all of the momentum and is a tough act to follow, especially since the second half has to cram in the reunion, It’s recruitment of an institutionalized Henry Bowers to exact revenge, and the group’s final confrontation with the creature in its “true” form.
With so much to capture and without the ideal resources to do so, Wallace’s It feels like a tiny miracle. That a made-for-television adaptation of such a gruesome, disturbing novel remains so indelible is a testament to a director who never quite got his due over the years. His ability to conjure up unsettling images is on full display throughout, and what’s remarkable is just how casually surreal the whole film feels. So many of the film’s signature moments don’t unfold in typical horror situations; rather, some of the scariest stuff involves Pennywise appearing in impossible locations, like the town library or a school shower. His face’s appearance in the moon at one point is one of those brilliant, unreal images that’s still haunting to this day. Above all, Wallace captures the utterly inescapable omnipotence of It. Even when Curry isn’t on screen, his presence lurks, creeping at the edges of even the most idyllic scenes. Over half of It unfolds in that oft-revered, supposedly golden age of America, and Wallace appropriately renders it somewhat dreamlike with a bright, almost over-lit aesthetic that contrasts so sharply with the darkness lurking beneath.
That, of course, is the essence of so many King works: not only do monsters exist, but they’re always there, lurking even in supposedly cozy confines, always threatening to undermine even childhood dreams with nightmares. How appropriate, then, that this adaptation of It has become something of a shared trauma for an entire generation, which is now set to confront this story again in a new film—and exactly 27 years later, no less.
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