It - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
Throughout human history the phenomenon of coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) exists in two separate eras. Before the 'It' miniseries of 1990 and after. Some would argue that it is a highly irrational fear, after all a clown is just a person under a heavy amount of makeup wearing bizarre clothing. A number of studies into the fear have determined the issue is rooted in how a person's identity and feelings are hidden by their makeup as a frown can be hidden behind a painted on exaggerated smile. Their oversized lips and a distorted set of eyebrows creates a feeling of the uncanny. On top of this their behaviours only adds to the unease as the mischievous nature of clowns adds to their sense of unpredictability putting people on edge. Over time their status in society has carried a negative connotation due mostly to serial killer John Wayne Gacy's alter ego for children's birthday parties, Pogo the Clown. It solidified the idea that clowns were evil in the public consciousness. The release of the ‘It’ miniseries in 1990 took this to another level as Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the dancing clown traumatized an entire generation of children.
Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
Starring: Tim Curry, Jonathan Brandis, Seth Green, Adam Fairizl, Ben Heller, Brandon Crane, Emily Perkins, Marlon Taylor
Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen, Tommy Lee Wallace
Produced by: Jim Green, Allen S. Epstein, Mark Bacino
Cinematography by: Richard Lieterman
Original Score by: Richard Bellis
In 1960, seven pre-teen outcasts fight an evil demon who poses as a child-killing clown. Thirty years later, they reunite to stop the demon once and for all when it returns to their hometown.
The origins of the story stretch back to 1978 when Stephen King and his family lived in Boulder, Colorado. After a lunchtime visit to his local pizza emporium his car broke down. Rather than call for roadside assistance he decided to walk to a nearby repair shop. En route he crossed a wooden bridge and the tapping of his heels on the boards made him think of the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. He imagined what would happen if like the goats in the story he would encounter a troll under the bridge. The fear he experienced encouraged him to write a novel around this concept.
Over the course of the next two years this idea kept returning to him with details changing as it circled his mind. The idea of the bridge which he viewed as a corridor or passageway evolved into the idea that it was like the journey from childhood to becoming an adult as he states on his website stephenking.com "I decided that the corridor was also a bridge, one across which every goat of a child must risk trip-trapping to become an adult." From here the idea of writing this story would be one where it would interweave the experiences of childhood compared to being an adult and in 1981 he finally bit the bullet and began writing his troll story which would become known as It.
In 1986 the 1,138 page novel about the Losers Club's battle with the evil entity known as Pennywise was released to widespread acclaim and its success coupled with the financial success of Mary Lambert's adaptation of 'Pet Sematary' in 1989 sparked Hollywood's interest in King's work again. Television network ABC snapped up the rights to 'It' with the intention of making it an 8 to 10 hour TV event with George A. Romero lined up to helm the project. As it sat in development and its runtime was reduced from potentially 10 hours to 4, Romero reluctantly left the project to work on the remake of 'Night of the Living Dead' with Tom Savini. He was replaced by Tommy Lee Wallace.
Working alongside screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, the pair developed a script split into two parts which would focus primarily on the Losers Club as children in part one and in part two the main focus would be on them as adults. In part one the thread that tied each of the characters together was through Mike Hanlon who called each member of the Losers Club to tell them of Pennywise's return and to fulfil the promise they made as kids to return home to Derry to defeat the creature once and for all. Through each call we experience each member's personal encounter as a child whilst propelling the story working to great effect.
The structure in part two differed as it was a much more of a straightforward narrative focussing on the Losers Club reuniting in Derry with Tommy Lee Wallace rewriting a great deal of the second part to amend issues he had with that section but arguably it never maintained the momentum of the superior first half.
The series begins with the attack of a child, Laurie Anne. She is called into her house by her mother but on her way in something catches her eye between bed sheets drying on a washing line. In a flash we spot a clown with a mischievous smile that soon turns sinister as the flash back to him reveals a terrifying scowl. Laurie Anne screams and her mother goes to investigate only to find that she has been killed. This is the introduction to one of the most iconic on screen interpretations of a Stephen King character, Tim Curry's Pennywise.
Following up on this is his infamous encounter with Bill Denbrough's younger brother Georgie (played by Tony Dakota) on a rainy afternoon by a storm drain. The scene perfectly encapsulates not only the nature of the character but it showcases the brilliance behind Tim Curry's performance. With a deep guttural voice (like a henchman from a 1930's gangster film) behind a playful persona he lures Georgie in with promises of a carnival in the sewer before presenting his lost paper boat. As Georgie lets his guard down to take it, Pennywise's face drops and in an instant a predatory instinct kicks in like a shark that smells blood in the water. That sudden change in behaviour is what defines Curry's performance in the role. One moment he can have you laughing over his eccentricities and bad jokes but with a simple look the entire mood of a scene becomes something much more sinister. In the making of this scene Tony Dakota broke character saying that Tim was scaring him which is a testament to Curry's performance. On playing the role Tim Curry mentioned in the documentary, 'Pennywise: The Story of It', "I can't say I ever saw clowns as threatening although I loved being threatening. It was a lot of fun". That is all too clear to see throughout the miniseries.
In mourning of his younger brother's death we follow Bill (played by Jonathan Brandis as a child and by Richard Thomas as an adult) who is alone in his grief as he gets no comfort from his family and is an introvert of sorts due to his stutter. This indifference from the adults is a keystone of the story as it is a reflection of a lot of childhood experiences where adults have no care for the troubles of children. On top of this Pennywise haunts him over the death of his brother with his only comfort coming from the Losers Club. As the younger version of Bill, superb at conveying Bill's vulnerability but also has a fearless quality in his quest for revenge. Whilst Thomas' take on Bill as an adult isn't as strong (thanks partly to the weaker script for the second half) he still does a decent job in the role with his phone call with Mike bringing back his childhood memories being a particular highlight.
The story then shifts focus to Ben Hanscom (played by Brandon Crane as a child and by John Ritter as an adult) an avid reader with a poet's heart who is bullied over his weight. Pennywise taps into his fear through his absent father by appearing as him and steadily changing back to his clown form in a surreal sequence by the Barrens. Crane plays the younger version of Ben with great deal of charm as he pines for Bev in spite of all that is happening to him. Ritter carries this through to the adult iteration of the character which was a departure for the actor as he was mainly for his comedic roles.
Bev (played by Emily Perkins as a child and by Annette O'Toole as an adult) is a character who perfectly sums up the theme of being unable to escape your trauma unless you confront it. We first see it through her controlling and abusive relationship with her partner Tom who is written in an over the top fashion but understandably so given how condensed the book had to become to fit into four hours of television. The same can be said when we are introduced to her father in the flashback who accuses her of being a whore when he discovers her love poem from Ben. Be it Derry or Chicago she can't seem to escape it but a return to Derry to face Pennywise who terrorised her with a bloody bathroom would be cathartic in helping her overcome these issues. Whilst Perkins plays the younger version of Bev quite well the same can't be said for O'Toole whose performance feels like it belongs in a soap opera at times.
Eddie Kaspbrak (played by Adam Faraizl as a child and by Dennis Christopher as an adult) feels very much like the youngest sibling of the Losers Club whose overprotective mother leaves him a hypochondriac, over reliant on an inhaler he doesn't even need. Not a great deal of time is spent on Eddie's role in the story as it seems to be more of a showcase of how scary Pennywise is which is all too prevalent when they encounter each other in the school's showers. The performances from both the child and adult versions of Eddie don't particularly stand out but they are still solid. Again this is purely down to the lack of material given to them.
The clown of the Loser Club Richie Tozier (played by Seth Green as a child and by Harry Anderson as an adult) is given the spotlight next. Hiding his fears and insecurities behind a cocky persona accentuated by impressions and jokes, Green fits the role well making it easy to see why producers were desperate to cast him. Unfortunately the same can't be said for his adult counterpart whose childish sense of humour hasn't evolved since leaving Derry making him irritating more than anything else.
Mike Hanlon (played by Marlon Taylor as a child and by Tim Reid as an adult) is the member of the Losers Club that stays behind in Derry as some form of silent onlooker dreading (and hoping that he is wrong about) the return of Pennywise but a spate of child murders points in the direction that the interdimensional creature has returned to terrorise the town once again. In the show he is nothing more than a plot device. He is the reason why the group reunites in the story but it is a detriment to the character who has such a rich backstory in the novel. Whilst it works in the grand scheme of the series it is a shame that it is to the detriment of this particular character especially when the performances of both the adult and child versions of Mike are quite good.
Rounding off the Losers Club is boy scout Stanley (played by Ben Heller as a child and by Richard Masur as an adult) who is probably the weakest character in the series in terms of their development. The only thing that stands out about his character is how the news of Pennywise's return frightens him so much that he commits suicide but given how he is the only member of the Losers Club to see the "Dead Lights" his actions are understandable and demonstrate the terrifying capability of Pennywise's power when he uses it to dispatch Henry Bowers and his gang. Like Mike they seem to be a plot device more than anything with both iterations of the character not being given much to do.
A Stephen King story isn't a Stephen King story without the inclusion of a school bully and in 'It' we get one of the most memorable in Henry Bowers (the younger version played by Jarred Blancard and by Michael Cole as the adult version). Despite looking a bit silly dressed as a stereotypical greaser, there is a real carefree menace to Blancard's performance that stands out. The complete opposite to Blancard himself who would apologise to co-star Marlon Taylor after every take his character would have to make a racial slur. His kindness didn't extend to his adult counterpart who was quite cold to Blancard behind the scenes compared to other members of the Losers Club cast. Again like Mike a lot of his back story from the novel is cut out which paints a broader picture of his troubled homelife and confusing sexuality which adds a great deal of depth to his character
Behind the scenes the adult and child iterations of the Loser Club would hang out together and work out character ticks in what was known as the Lucky 7 camp. You can see it throughout the show with the way they would rub their ear or bite their finger making the transition between characters more fluid. It also helped to reinforce the central theme of generational fear and how to confront it.
In the miniseries, the final confrontation is a major let down but when the source material's depiction is practically unfilmable it is easy to see that their options were limited. The true form of Pennywise reveals itself to the remaining members of the Losers Club as a giant spider (which was a mixture of real life animatronics and stop motion animation). The book 'Stephen King at the Movies' sums it up best as they state that, "the final confrontation is a glaring instance of showing means spoiling" with the creature inspiring no sense of fear. You can't entirely blame the makers of the series though as the one of the effects crew in the Pennywise documentary said, "we had champagne ideas on a beer budget". The Losers defeat the creature once and for all tearing its heart out before the surviving members all get their happy ending free from the hold Pennywise had long held over their lives.
In the book 'Stephen King at the Movies', the novel is described as being, "the 'final summing up', of the two great themes of his first twelve years of his career: monsters and children" and these are themes explored throughout his career to varying degrees of success but none have ever been as potent as with 'It'. Warts and all it is easy to see why many describe it as being his definitive novel. It is a coming of age story about long term trauma and the cathartic quest to overcome it. Whilst the miniseries doesn't reach the brilliant heights of the novel it is still an admirable piece of work that makes the most of its budgetary and runtime restrictions. Perhaps the lasting legacy of the miniseries is the all time great performance from Tim Curry as the clown with (in his words) "a smile gone bad".
- Joseph McElroy