Many people attribute the startling rise in coulroaphobia during the last few decades primarily to one source.
Timothy James Curry.
Or I should say Tim Curry’s portrayal of a certain dancing clown in the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s juggernaut of a novel, IT. Seen by many as King’s signature book, It combines his trademark talent for scares and characterization with the complexity of his mega novel The Stand into a weighty, rich tale that is so thick you could use it to successfully bang in a nail or stop a bullet – although I personally would suggest you just settle with reading it.
It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to fit the story – which takes place over 30 YEARS – onto some kind of a screen and in 1990 the ABC network succeeded with a two part miniseries that was released in other countries on video as an edited together feature.
So far so good… after all, Salem’s Lot benefited from the format and had the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the helm which added up to a legitimately frightening classic; surely It did the same while being directed by the man who brought us… Halloween 3?
By now we all know the tale but in case there’s a newbie at the back, let’s take it from the top: The town of Derry is being plagued by disappearances that is affecting the town children and one rainy day, in 1960, little Georgie Denbrough finds out the hard way what is going on. A malevolent shape shifting being, who prefers to assume the form primarily of a cackling clown by the name of Pennywise, has been feeding on Derry for eons, rising every 30 years to gorge itself before sleeping again like every 40+ Male at a Christmas lunch. United by their experiences with this polymorphic, child swallower a group of children (including Bill, the vengeful older brother of the murdered Georgie) band together one summer to square up to Pennywise and the other assorted fears that lurk in their town including abusive parents and a psychotic bully. Successfully fighting the red nosed menace to a standstill until it retreats to hibernate again, the group return 30 years later after the killings starts up again to finish the job but things won’t be so “easy” the second time as what aided them before was the very fact that they were children. Can this group of forty somethings possibly hope to vanquish this multi-formed motherfucker once and for all when the greatest defence they had all but disappeared the moment they left Derry?
IT is very much a product of it’s time. Nowadays, in the time of The Walking Dead, Penny Dreadful and American Horror Story we readily take for granted that all manner of extreme sex and violence is free to not only feature in shows on most major networks but are also wildly popular too. In 1990 however (and on a TV budget no less) things were a little different as the networks were far too timid to pull the trigger on any serious scenes of violence, bloodletting or anything too gruesome – somewhat problematic when your antagonist is a child-eating clown (and yet psycho-bully Henry Bowers can say the N-word repeatedly… go figure). So that means a big fat no to arm ripping, no to the noseless leper and certainly no to anything that isn’t a dry corpse or a soggy skeleton. Hamstrung by such constrains, IT proves to be shockingly as scary as a basket full of bunnies, with not a single image or attempted jump scare raising a single goosebump anywhere on the human body. I’ve been afraid of a fair few things in my life but I can’t honestly say that the creature from I Was A Teenage Werewolf was one of them which brings us to a common complaint to Stephen King adaptations: just because Big Steve made it scary on the page, it isn’t necessarily a given that it’s going to be scary on screen. The biggest proof of this is the climatic giant alien spider who is basically defeated by the remaining heroes running up to it, pushing it over and giving it a bit of a kicking – hardly the stuff nightmares are made of…
Impressively – and rather foolishly – the production tries to tell the whole story from the point of view of the adult versions of the characters with their child personas being solely introduced via copious amounts of flashbacks (a three hour runtime buys you a hell of a lot of flashbacks, let me tell you) but trying to tell everything at once only succeeds in slowing everything down to a crawl which isn’t helped by flat direction and frequent lurches into awkward melodrama by the cast featuring the mum from Smallville, the dad from Problem Child and Jon-Boy from The Waltons wearing a god awful ponytail.
The bland characterization continues into the script where some major plot point simply fizzle out (Beverly Marsh’s continuing string of abusive relationships with men is flat out forgotten about) and leads to endless moments where one of the group has a bit of a wobble and so the other crowd around rubbing their shoulders and mouth half-hearted words of comfort. I understand that once or twice is required by the story to show their support for each other but it happens again and again and again until you desperately yearn for Pennywise to take a big bite out of the wet saps.
Speaking of Pennywise… despite being as restricted as everybody else related to the production, Tim Curry still scores big as the titular pom-pom wearer, delivering awful jokes and doom laden threats with gleeful aplomb (the notorious opening “Hiya Georgie” scene is so almost perfect the remake wisely copied it). Again, he’s nowhere near as scary as you probably thought he was when you most likely saw this as a child but when you haven’t got the budget or the resources to realise a creature that can literally be anything, a little Tim Curry goes a long way.
An overly ambitious attempt at telling an epic story on a medium that simply wasn’t ready yet, IT should be applauded on sheer balls alone but the finished product sags when it should scare.
IT can’t be helped, I guess.