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Late to the Party: Stephen King's It (1990)

Late to the Party – Stephen King’s It (1990)

Fan Trailer #2 – Nightmare: Return to Elm Street

With all of the talk that has been going around lately about the reboot of Stephen King’s It, I was recently forced to make a rather embarrassing admission to my colleagues in the iHorror writer’s room; I had never seen the original 1990 TV mini-series.  Always looking to keep the glass half-full, I seized the opportunity to show up Late to the Party with it.

Late to the Party: Stephen King's It (1990)
Pennywise the Dancing Clown is always watching…

Because It has become such a pop culture staple, it would be difficult for anyone, let alone a horror fan, to go into the movie completely blind, and I didn’t.  Of course, I knew about Pennywise the Clown.  There’s really no way for anyone to go through life, especially in the internet age, without seeing image after image of Tim Curry in that terrifying getup.  I don’t have the same irrational fear of clowns that many people have (scientifically, it’s called coulrophobia), but I will readily admit that Pennywise is creepy – even in the shots where he’s not smiling with a mouth full of needle-sharp fangs.

As a teenager, I devoured the early Stephen King books almost as fast as I could borrow them from my mother.  Actually, It is about where King lost me, as that is the point where his books started to hit the four-digit page length mark and that proved a bit too expansive for my Sesame Street attention span – to this day, I prefer Stephen King’s short stories to his novels.  So, I knew the book was long, and I knew that the movie was actually a mini-series that was stretched out over two nights.  That also explains why I had never seen it before; the three-hour running time was just too daunting.  I knew it was a marathon, but I was ready for it.

Late to the Party: Stephen King's It (1990)
…and waiting…

So I was prepared for Tim Curry and I was prepared for the epic running time.  I wasn’t, however, prepared for all of the other big names that paraded across the screen during the opening credits.  I had no idea that Richard Thomas (aka John-Boy Walton), Tim Reid (aka Venus Flytrap), John Ritter (aka Jack Tripper), and Harry Anderson (aka Judge Harry T. Stone) were in it.  The icing on the cake was seeing a baby-faced Seth Green in there, too.  Stephen King’s It has an all-star cast that, I suppose, is typical of a network television mini-series.  It was a lot of fun to see those actors working twenty five years ago, even though most of them were past their prime even then as far as television ratings go – let’s face it, even in 1990, John-Boy Walton and Venus Flytrap teaming up to fight a shape-shifting clown seems like the equivalent of what would be a SyFy Original movie today.

Now, on to the movie.  When faced with tackling It, I considered splitting it up into two nights, just like when it originally aired, but in the end, I just powered through it all in one sitting.  As it turns out, I probably should have split it up, because it really is a tale of two movies.

Late to the Party: Stephen King's It (1990)
Hey kids!

I thought the first half was great.  Most of it deals with the main characters as kids dealing with Pennywise as he tries to lure them into the sewer (“They all float down here”) to abduct or murder them.  It reminded me of all-for-one early teenage movies like The Goonies or Stand by Me, except a whole hell of a lot scarier.  And the end of the first half chilled me to the bone – I won’t spoil it for anyone who is later to this party than I am, but it’s a perfect transition to the second half of the movie.

Late to the Party: Stephen King's It (1990)
Quick! Hide behind John-Boy!

Now, the second half is where It falls apart.  It’s essentially the same plot as the first half, but the kids are adults and they have come back to their hometown to do battle with their old tormentor again.  Seeing the kids brace themselves for battle against Pennywise was suspenseful and tense, watching them do it again as adult was awkward and goofy, and not in the fun, eighties monster movie kind of way.  Frankly, the second half of Stephen King’s It left me wondering why it’s so revered amongst horror fans.

So, how did an average-at-best Stephen King adaptation appeal to so many viewers?  It all comes down to Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise.  In a word, he’s horrifying.  His performance, equal parts Bozo and Krusty with just enough Gacy to give it an edge, is the type of thing that gives kids nightmares.  It really is the most memorable aspect of an otherwise forgettable production.  It’s worth noting that, between Pennywise, Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Lord of Darkness from Legend, Tim Curry has landed some colorful roles, and has always made the most of them.  He, and he alone, sells Stephen King’s It.

Late to the Party: Stephen King's It (1990)

Which brings us to the impending remake.  There is definitely room for some improvement over the 1990 mini-series, especially outside of the confines of network television censors, but the quality of the movie will rest squarely on the shoulders of the actor (or actress) who is cast as Pennywise.  Whoever gets the role (and apparently Will Poulter is out at this point) will be instantly compared to Tim Curry, because let’s face it, Tim Curry IS Pennywise the Clown.  But, there’s really no reason for fans of Stephen King’s It to not be optimistic – just as long as the filmmakers get the clown right.