The world is getting ready to return to Derry, Maine and once again experience the unbridled terror of Pennywise in IT. However, those excited for Warner Bros. prestige Fall horror outing would be wise to avoid revisiting the 1990 TV movie based on the same Stephen King novel in preparation; if you do go chasing that paper boat, you’re in for a disappointment.
IT is widely regarded as one of the scariest stories King has ever written, and that assessment’s hard to disagree with. His story of a group of outcast friends taking on an evil spirit living beneath their childhood town is not just tapping into many people’s innate fear of clowns, highlighting the unknowing menace that can lie behind a make-upped smile, but probing all fundamental childhood fears and showing how they can still manifest in later life. It’s telling that Pennywise the Clown has become one of his most striking horror creations.
The TV movie is often folded into this praise. Told in two parts that aired in November in 1990, the miniseries brings the basic idea to the screen in what is now commonly collected as a three-hour feature. Today, it’s treated as some landmark in horror. In fact, it’s so pervasive in pop culture that many are regarding Andy Muschietti’s film a remake.
But not only is the new release really a readaptation, to use the word “remake” somehow implies the “original” is in any way untouchable or a definitive as a take on the source. In reality, the IT TV movie is a rather poor piece of melodrama totally unremarkable besides its impressive inspiration. We’ve felt this way for a long time, but now the original is just over the horizon it seems like the perfect time to descend into the sewers and explore why.
Why IT (1990) Doesn’t Work
OK, we have to be fair. There is one part of the film that not only works, it floats: Tim Curry as Pennywise (obviously). Here was a named actor with several major movies (albeit mainly cult classics at this point in his career) under his belt slumming it in TV a good two decades before it became a proper rival medium, and that talent shows. Particularly in the first half his maniacal smile and out-of-sync actions unnerve; the whole idea of “floating” wouldn’t be iconic without him. Sure, a good chunk of the menace lies in the makeup, but it’s a fun turn all the same. And because he’s a clown, any moments of silly camp – of which there are many – are somewhat excusable (they also mean Bill Skarsgård has leeway for a clean, creepy run at it in the new version).
But Pennywise is just one part of IT – both in terms of the movie and the eponymous spirit’s physical manifestations. When Curry’s not explicitly on screen, the movie doesn’t have any tangible threat.
The first half is very much a discount Stand By Me. Obviously some of that is inherent in the source, following a group of pre-teen kids on a life-changing adventure that will later form the backbone of their adult lives, but Tommy Lee Wallace seems to have based his approach from Rob Reiner’s film – which was just four years old and thus a major King adaptation touchstone when this aired. While derivative (and nowhere near as masterful), though, it does at least elevate the rest of the rather basic story and gives a recollective sense before we even get to the adult portion.
Which is to its credit because that second adult half is outright bad. The adult actors are as obvious as their younger selves and can’t sell the scares at all. When we get the equivalent of Richard Dreyfuss writing his memoirs (in this case Richard Thomas and Olivia Hussey riding a bike) it feels stretched to say that we’re really seeing a complete story come together.
The big misstep, however, is the ending. Namely, they treat the book too seriously, directing lifting IT‘s true form of giant evil spider and realizing it with blunt visual effects (something even Curry didn’t like). A guy in clown make-up can be scary and achieved on a TV budget. An inter-dimensional monster just can’t.
And that’s the central problem with IT – it’s really rather cheap. Naturally, everything being so static comes from the fact it’s a 1990 miniseries, but consolations only go so far; when we’re discussing whether something is worth a big budget revisit 27 years later, there’s a lot left wanting.
So Why Is The IT Miniseries So Praised?
With that laid out, it’s bizarre the film has gained such a reputation. Of course, there are several contextual aspects in its favor. The notoriety of King’s book, the power of the core story and the position of the miniseries in the evolution of challenging TV (it aired just six months after Twin Peaks began the early stages of the Golden Age and was unlike much of previous genre fare) really give it weight. Although neither of those points has anything on nostalgia.
Obviously IT played to an adult audience, but the first part’s kid cast made it more accessible to younger viewers than traditional horror fare both upon first airing and in the years since; and you can bet all the filmmaking and structural mistakes are forgotten in the face of remembering those pure scare moments viewed through fresh eyes. It’s an early horror experience for an entire generation, a generation that is now at the very forefront of cultural reporting. That formative effect of Pennywise ensnaring Georgie and appearing in the shower drain supersedes everything else.
That’s supposition, of course, but not without some notable evidence. Last month, Andy Muschietti, the director of the new film, revealed he didn’t care for the original and cited a lack of childhood memories and introduction to the story via the novel. The guy who’s “remaking” the film is fully aware of its inflated presence in culture: that should tell us everything.
IT (1990) has survived for a long time on limited comparison and nostalgic memories. Now there’s a new version to offer something (hopefully) altogether more polished and scary, perhaps we can finally move on from what is one good performance trapped in a three-hour slog.
Before Muschietti came on the project, IT went through several different drafts, one of which was supposedly as heavy in reverence for the 1990 movie as it was King’s novel. Thankfully that was scrapped and, in the finished film, hat tipping has been stripped back to a Tim Curry easter egg in one scene. And perhaps that dusty, dingy room is where we should leave the miniseries.
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