A lot of people have been going back to rewatch (or maybe watch for the first time) the 1990 TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” in anticipation of the forthcoming feature film remake. And why not? Dated as it is, there’s a lot to like but it’s almost solely renowned for one central performance: Tim Curry’s Pennywise.
Something is terribly wrong in the town of Derry. When a little girl named Laurie Anne goes missing while her mother is taking in washing from a brewing storm, Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) realises that a childhood horror that plagued him and his friends 27 years earlier has returned.
Originally broadcast as a TV mini series across two evenings, 1990’s “It” delivered the story through an intricate series of flashbacks, beginning in the ‘present’ day of 1987 and flashing back to the 1960s with the first part focussing mainly on the past and the second part primarily set in the present. Originally slated to be directed by George A Romero, he had to leave the project due to scheduling conflicts and it was eventually directed by one of its screenwriters (and former John Carpenter protégé) Tommy Lee Wallace.
Adapting such a huge novel into a three hour telemovie (bolstered to a four hour run time by ad breaks) necessitated leaving a lot of material from the novel out of the TV adaptation but while it left out much of details and, especially, back stories for the adult Losers’ club members, the adaptation held on to Pennywise as the central thread of the whole show.
Arguably more successful in bringing the 1960s setting to vivid life thanks to a well-rounded and talented young cast, the present day cast is more of a mixed bag, with Richard ‘John Boy Walton’ Thomas a notable weak link as the grown up Bill Denborough, especially as he’s picking up the baton from the late, lamented Jonathan Brandis who’s performance as young Bill is note-perfect. The present day scenes are also lumbered with a lazily glamorous soap opera air, especially during the one-by-one phone call scenes recalling the Losers to Derry and they all somehow seem cheaper than the 60s-set sequences. Restrained by its TV roots (and, especially in the later stages, budget), the relatively gore-free adaptation nevertheless manages to provide a plethora of iconic horror moments, largely thanks to the work of Tim Curry.
From his first appearance in the storm drain, his performance is terrifyingly magnetic, lending credence to the idea that this is a creature which can hold an entire town in its spell. There’s something about the way Curry can move his lips while he speaks, making them seem eerily out of sync with the words coming out of his mouth that is chilling and the speed with which his Pennywise turns from playful to malevolent gives the monster a terrifying unpredictability. Often he’s scarier when it’s just the actor under makeup than when he’s enhanced by prosthetic teeth or contact lenses, such as when he leans in for a bite. It’s the malevolent energy of Curry’s performance that underpins everything else the series provides and mitigates many of the shortcomings of the practical creature effects of the time. The TV miniseries may be a little coyer around some of the darker edges of the children’s stories, but it still packs a punch, like when the balloon rises from the plug hole of Beverly’s bathroom sink and bursts, spraying the room with bright red blood, invisible to the willfully blind adults of Derry.
Marking King’s return to TV for the first time since 1979’s “’Salem’s Lot”, “It” is rightly regarded as a worthy adaptation of the author’s work, especially as he wasn’t directly involved in the production. It boasts many good performances and a couple of great ones combined with smart direction and a script which makes the most of the production’s resources to bring the novel to life. It will be interesting to see if the new production of “It” manages to portray the childhood struggle against Pennywise as well as the TV miniseries did and how it will handle the altogether more difficult adult return to Derry.