IT was the first Stephen King book I ever read. I churned it up over the course of a long weekend, ignoring studying for my exams on Saturday and a blissfully page-turning while others enjoyed a wild time at a waterslide park on Sunday. I couldn’t put it down, and I still don’t mind that my school marks dropped that term or that I didn’t get to enjoy a wave pool while watching some girls in swimsuits. IT, the book, was that damn good.
It’s also the only Stephen King book that ever scared me, and since then I pretty much read all of them. Actually, it was just one scene that got me, the one where Georgie’s picture in the photo album starts to bleed. It was a creepy image when I read it and one that I still find disturbing. I loved the way the book was written and, for me, it’s one of the best from the so-called “Master Of Horror” (who really isn’t, since most of King’s books aren’t horror at all).
The TV miniseries of IT, which got stuck on a DVD and is probably now on budget racks everywhere, is a fair adaptation and still manages to capture more of the personality of the book than the new film does. Also, Tim Curry as Pennywise is far better than Bill Skarsgard, because he’s initially less scary so it’s more believable that kids would be lured in by him.
The small Maine town of Derry has been plagued by a cycle of murders that happen every 27 years. A group of friends in their forties all receive a phone call from their old buddy Mike that “IT” has come back, and they need to return home and deal with… well, with it. See, back in the late ’50s, they banded together first as friends and then as allies to fight a force of evil they couldn’t quite understand.
The flashbacks to their childhoods show that they were all outcasts in some way. One had a speech impediment, one had asthma, one was the fat kid who got picked on, and so on. They formed The Losers Club and found that together they were stronger than any school bully. Bill, the kid with the stutter, has a secret: His little brother George was murdered, and since then he’s been seeing some pretty disturbing things, including the bleeding photo album.
One by one it’s revealed that they’ve all seen signs of a monster in their daily lives, taking the form of a werewolf, blood pouring out of plugholes, a mummy… but most commonly a clown, wearing all those other guises like masks because it’s what they’re most afraid of. Despite this, none of the adults in town seem to see anything, or acknowledge that anything’s wrong at all. The kids research “IT” and learn that this monster-clown’s name is Pennywise, and they figure out a way to beat it. They set to work and even think they’ve vanquished their foe. Over time they grow up and leave town, save for Mike.
Now in the present, the old friends regroup in Derry, heeding the call to action even if they don’t want to face IT. Well, all except one who commits suicide rather than face the monster again. It turns out that while they’ve all grown up, they’re still those same kids deep down. They have to face their pasts and deal with Pennywise as adults if they’re ever to move on properly.
As a TV miniseries, this covers all the bases of the basic story (minus some weird plot points from the book) and the alternating timelines of our heroes both as kids and as adults merge seamlessly. Tim Curry does an amazing job as Pennywise, becoming the clown of nightmares that he should be. It’s well directed too given the TV restraints, and while the adult actors are an unlikely bunch to pull off a horror production (a couple of actors best known for their comedic roles, the guy from Little House on the Prairie and Clark Kent’s mom from Smallville?! Really?!) their performances are believable enough for the most part because they aren’t movie stars.
Yet no matter how solid they are it’s their childhood counterparts who steal the show, creating some scenes with real heart and charm to them.
The downside of this being made for TV in 1990 is, unfortunately, obvious. While the extended length over a feature film means they can squeeze in more of the massive story from the book it’s based on, it also means that the budget is significantly lower and it doesn’t look as polished as the film. Also, as Stephen King himself once rightly pointed out, on television the monster “has no teeth”. Pennywise may look evil, but he’s not quite evil enough. The exploding blood-balloons may make a mess, but they’re nowhere near as ghastly or disturbing as some of the images from the book. As for the final act, it’s downright disappointing as the TV budget constraints for special effects are on display for all the world to laugh at.
Horror on TV is always awkward, and nowhere is this more evident than here. It’s horror but it’s safe, family-friendly horror.
IT the miniseries is a good, if not great, adaptation of the book and is entertaining enough to hold your attention. It isn’t quite the scare-fest it could be, but there’s always something happening on screen and it’s one of the better TV horror productions of the time.