Pennywise: The Story of IT - New Release Review
Director: John Campopiano, Christopher Griffiths
Starring: Tommy Lee Wallace, Tim Curry, Lawrence D. Cohen, Richard Thomas, Seth Green, Brandon Crane, Emily Perkins, Bart Mixon
Written by: John Campopiano, Gary Smart
Produced by: Eastwood Allen, John Campopiano, Gary Smart, Christopher Griffiths, Michael Perez, Hank Starrs
Cinematography by: Christopher Griffiths
Original Score by: Sean Schaffer Hennessy
A documentary surrounding IT (1990), based upon the Stephen King novel of the same name, which featured a notorious villain known mostly as Pennywise.
For along as I can remember I have been afraid of clowns. I'm sure many of you reading this may feel the same. Something so visually friendly and endearing should never evoke the kind of fear that clowns seem to evoke but for as much joy that they seem to bring to children they also have this deep aura of unhappiness surrounding them. But as the King of Horror himself admits, "A moment of fear is worth having if you can get something good out of it" and he sure as hell got his money worth out of an ancient old deity known to us as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. In this fascinating in-depth documentary, the cast and crew from the infamous 1990 mini-series break down the good and bad, the ups and the downs, and most importantly the enduring legacy surrounding Pennywise. It's a flawed film for sure, nobody would deny that, but I'd go out on a limb here and proclaim that it's also the film that put Stephen King on the map to the casual audience, even more so than 'Carrie' or 'The Shining', because it happened in our own homes.
Like most comprehensive documentaries 'Pennywise: The Story of IT' is broken down into various chapters which begin at the origins of the screenplay right through to the screening of the mini-series on television and the cult following that materialised in the aftermath of it's airing.
After being treated to some very cool archive video footage of a Stephen King speech in which he reveals the initial genesis of the idea for 'IT' we then meet screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, who after finding some success with 'Carrie' and 'Ghost Story' was presented with the opportunity to pen the teleplay for ABC. Cohen is very upfront about his fears and the responsibility he was given in attempting to adapt a novel of this size into a mini-series. He reveals that his initial idea was to have at least 8 hours of television to fully explore all that the novel had to offer but the studios were quickly becoming hesitant about the content and so they reduced the airtime to approximately 4 hours. Cohen went to work crafting the script for 'Night 1', being careful to implement the themes that he thought were important as well as making sure Pennywise was absolutely terrifying.
Director Tommy Lee Wallace is brutally honest in his opinions about Cohen's script, saying that he was super impressed by 'Night 1' and that by the time he had to take over writing duties for 'Night 2' (after Cohen had to part ways with the project) things began to go downhill a little. I love Wallace's modesty here. Much of the bulk of the documentary then focuses on the casting of the film, which Tommy Lee Wallace and others admits was probably one of the film's biggest success stories. I adore that the documentary didn't just rely on the big name stars to help tell the story of the "making of" and that we get to see the smaller bit players, who are equally as important, like Victoria Burrows who was in charge of casting. There's a lot of time spent taking about casting the kids and how and why they settled on the final ensemble and there's a touching tribute to Jonathan Brandis (young Bill Denbrough) who sadly passed away in 2003.
It's so refreshing to hear the kids (who are all in their 40s now) talk so lovingly about Tim Curry. I mean who doesn't love Tim Curry and his performance as Pennywise might be the best of his career. It's certainly the role that people connect him with the most. Strange to know that he wasn't the first, second or even third choice to play the dancing clown initially. Harvey Fierstein (Mrs. Doubtfire, Bullets Over Broadway) was the first actor given the green light for the role. That would've been interesting to say the least. Then Malcolm McDowell and even Alice Cooper's names were thrown into the hat. But then in an early casting meeting someone mentioned 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' and suddenly everyone gravitated towards Tim Curry citing his intensity and freedom of performance as a mounting factor that could translate well to the horror genre.
"Looking at his body of work I feel that there is nothing that he can't do" - Ben Heller on Tim Curry
And now we get into the good stuff. The transformation of the seductive English gentlemen Tim Curry into Pennywise the Clown. As a massive make-up and prosthetics fan this was one of my favourite segments, seeing pictures of the various stages of transformation and actually hearing from some of the people that were involved in that particularly department. Lead designer Bart Mixon and Norman Cabrera, who also worked on some of the other creatures in the film like the Mummy and Werewolf, reveal some of their ideas behind the iconic look of Pennywise and also some that never made it in front of the camera.
The special effects department also break down some of the other iconic moments in the film including the sequence when Beverly visits the little old lady who lives in her childhood home and the infamous head in the fridge sequence which actor Richard Masur admits was a nightmare to film. And of course the finale featuring the unforgettable giant spider animatronic. The spider, which has rightly or wrongly always come under scrutiny, gets a lot of time here as Bart Mixon and the team help to explain their choices behind their concept and design and we also get a bunch of on set footage too. It's truly fantastic stuff.
'Pennywise: The Story of IT' is an astonishingly remarkable deep dive into one of the most beloved cult horror films of the last few decades and an amazing celebration of one of the horror genre's most iconic villains. It's been a horrendously long wait to finally see this documentary but it's full of never before seen behind the scenes footage and on-set photographs. Pair all of that with the confessionals from all the people involved and I think that has made the wait worth every second.
- Gavin Logan
'Pennywise: The Story of IT' is available on Digital from October 3rd and Bluray & DVD on October 24th