Creature Features in Review : It (1990)
Chad’s take on It.
In 1990, the world of Stephen King expanded even more as ABC aired a miniseries adaptation of his legendary book, IT. The movie would span across two parts and feature a large ensemble cast, the same group of characters, both as children and as adults. The success or failure of the film aside, Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise has gone down as one of the more brilliant portrayals of a Stephen King character, alongside Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence and Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes.
We find ourselves now in the year 2017, on the brink of a new film adaptation, this time set for a theatrical release as opposed to television. And while the original miniseries continues to have legs in terms of the fans, as the years go on, it seems to take more of a turn towards being mocked and criticized as a joke and a failure, a betrayal of source material which I concede is likely King’s greatest book.
For me, this movie continues to be great, one of my favorites from that time of my life. It was watching this that led me to read the book, after all. And it isn’t that I wouldn’t have found my way there anyway, but it still remains that this movie is permanently etched with association for me. My love for the book began with my love for this movie.
Before I start in on my defense, I do want to acknowledge a few fair points I think can be made about the film. First, it hasn’t aged well. This is true to the point where, I would probably not recommend it to anyone of a younger generation who has grown up with the cinematic technology we currently have. And maybe the argument could be made that the lack of timelessness to the film is a knock against it, I think that’s fair enough but it still won’t change how I perceive the film or how I look back on my experiences with it.
I will also admit to the fact that this movie likely could have been infinitely better. In the beginning, this was planned as an eight to ten hour TV event, with none other than the great George Romero directing. I’ll admit it, I get giddy just typing that sentence at thinking about how amazing it would have been. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, Romero had to withdraw and the film was shrunk down to a three part series which would again be slimmed down to two parts. So in some ways, the IT miniseries is a testament to what might have been and unfortunately, we will never truly know what we missed out on.
This is not a perfect movie. I’m not going to try and make that claim. But I also think that a lot of the criticism leveled at it is based on standards that are pretty unfair to use while judging a movie that is nearly thirty years old. I will be returning to this point throughout but I think it’s important to remember that the landscape of television was completely different in 1990 than it is now. If I had to say anything about TV in the eighties, it would be that it was the era of the sitcom. We were just getting to the end of shows like Cheers and the Cosby Show. It was the time for Night Court and Roseanne. Seinfeld and The Simpsons were just getting started. There wasn’t really any such thing as original cable programming. Channels like HBO and Cinemax ran movies, some sports and not much else. This was all about the networks.
Standards were much more strict in terms of what you were allowed to show on TV. Post 9/11, television took much more of a turn for the gritty, intense shows and the quality of the writing became much stronger. But what I think it key here is that when you look at IT in relation to the other shows out there, nobody was doing television like this. The X-Files hadn’t even started yet. The producers here were taking on an incredibly ambitious book and were doing it an environment where Unsolved Mysteries was about as close as you got to horror genre.
So with this in mind, I would like to address some of the main criticisms I have seen and provide some counter-arguments. And please remember that in the end, if this movie just isn’t for you, that’s fine. This is just my perspective.
Too much of the book is left out
It’s true that the producers had to leave quite a lot of the book behind, especially after they made the post-Romero transition and a ten hour potential was shaved down to four. It reminds me quite a bit of Peter Jackson discussing writing the screenplay for Fellowship Of The Ring. Essentially, based on the amount of time they had, the basic criteria for the book was that if it didn’t involve either Frodo or the ring, they couldn’t do it.
I think the same holds true here. Let’s be fair after all, the book is like seven thousand pages long. If you really wanted to “do justice” to the book, you’d have to do six or seven full length, feature films. It is impossible to fit all of that content into even a handful of movies. So yes, they had to reduce the book down to the essential core of the plot. Movies are an inherently different animal. With books, you can do whatever you want as long as the story is engaging. With movies, you have to pay more attention to the clock and how much space you have. And while I love much of the texture and context and history given in the book, much of it isn’t really essential to the overall plot. I honestly don’t feel like that is lost is crucial. I think that for the most part, the important aspects made their way into the film.
I’m talking about the likes of the house on Neibolt Street, Patrick Hockstetter, the murder of Adrian Mellon, the fire at the Black Spot. They are all incredible and textured aspects of the book that deepens the narrative. But being completely honest, they’re all just further representations of how scary and powerful Pennywise is. You don’t need to have them in there. It’s nice, but that’s what the books are for. They inherently provide more material and more context than the film ever will.
Bad special effects / bad acting
This one has always bugged me a little, mostly because I doubt that many effects-driven films are going to still be effective after thirty years. At the time, the effects were great and I thought. We had yet to see the revolution of digitally generated effects that would kick off with movies like T2 and Jurassic Park. Considering the budget they likely had to work with on this and the technology that was available at the time, I have never thought this was a fair criticism. These are not easy scenes to shoot and would likely be difficult, even with today’s capabilities. They had to make do in the land of made-for-television and I thought they did really well.
And as for the acting…well, okay I’ll admit that it isn’t stellar. Much of the cast does a reasonably good job but there are definitely some low points, mostly from Richard Thomas who I think was just a little bit too wholesome for the role. He also had one of the most cringe-tastic moments I’ve ever seen in a film when he is trying to dance and flashes some kind of pseudo urban gang hand symbol. Just stop.
But for the most part, I think the acting is passable enough, with some actually good performances coming from Tim Curry, Dennis Christopher as the adult Eddie, Tim Reid as the adult Mike and Jarred Blanchard who played Henry Bowers. And speaking as someone who is normally not a huge fan of kids acting, the kids in this actually did pretty good.
When it comes to the effects and the acting, I would again point out the distinction that used to exist between film and television. Nowadays, the quality of the mediums are on par with each other. Television might even be exceeding movies now. But in 1990, television was almost the equivalent of being sent down to the minors. TV movies and miniseries at the time were made up of the likes of Lonesome Dove and Anne Of Green Gables. These weren’t big budget productions and I’m sure there wasn’t much time allotted for shooting. There weren’t a lot of takes. I’d imagine that so long as no one flubbed their lines, the scene went in the can. And there wasn’t much time for nuanced performances and extensive writing sessions and effects development. And I can easily picture scenes where the cast was required to stand around a garbage can, pretending that it was the scariest thing they had ever seen.
Really? A spider?
I get it. It is somewhat anti-climatic and I thought the movie did a much better job with the kids’ portion of the story than the adults. But consider the way the book ends. The Loser’s Club has to battle the creature on a psychic level first in order to defeat it physically. Bill literally is taken into some kind of higher level of existence where he confronts the entity, with the assistance of the turtle.
A fucking turtle.
I can’t even imagine how ridiculous this scene could have been on film. I’m picturing Richard Thomas’ face, superimposed in front of a blue screen of outer space, some trippy new-age music playing while we hear his voice-over. Because you know, he’s speaking telepathically. And the entire time, he’s eye-locked with an animatronic turtle, who also is voiced over with terrible dialogue. The book slowly builds up to a crazy ending that I don’t even claim to completely understand. I’m actually skeptical even for the new films being able to capture that moment in the book and do it well. So yeah, they grounded the monster at the end in a more concrete form that our heroes could battle against. And yes, the effects for the monster at the end were a bit on the cheesy side but let’s try and give them a little credit. For the time and for what they had to work with, they did a pretty good job.
I object, your honor. Sure, if you’re going to stand the thing up next to the likes of American Horror Story or The Walking Dead, yeah. I can see where you’re coming from. But I’m old enough that I was able to watch this when it aired and it scared the holy hell out of me. At the time, we were vacationing up in Michigan at a family cottage, one with the giant, gaping air return ducts and old pipes and I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a good night of sleep the entire time there. There were some fantastically creepy moments throughout. I loved the scene with Georgie’s picture as well as the picture from Mike’s album that comes to life. The scene in the locker room was great when Pennywise comes up out of the drain to go after Eddie. I accept that by today’s standards, this movie seems almost quaint but at the time, it really was mind-blowing for me. Truth be told, I’m kind of surprised I was allowed to watch it.
So what does all this amount to? I don’t think that IT was the greatest movie ever made. But I do believe that it is one of the more successful transitions of a Stephen King novel to film. There is a lot more to the story than what you see but I think what they captured was the essential spirit of the book. And frankly, I’d rather see a kind of stripped down version of a story than to see the director try to go off in some reimagined concept, like all of a sudden Pennywise is just a guy who works at the fair as a clown. And as I said at the start, this is what led me to go on and read the book and if there is any standard for “success” I hold a movie to, that would be it. As the years go by and we become more separated from this movie, there seems to be more voices out there criticizing the film and taking it down another notch. All I can say is that I’m sorry for those who didn’t get to see the film in the proper context of the popular culture that spawned it. I’m sorry you don’t get to experience that.
I’m excited for these new movies. I’m excited to see what a director is able to do with the added flexibility that an R rating can provide. I wish they were doing more, but I also understand that Hollywood is less inclined to invest in content like this. I think that a proper treatment of IT would be as a limited series, not unlike what they just finished with season three of Twin Peaks. Do one season of twenty episodes for one of the cable networks and I think you could manage to fit most of what is represented in the book. Still, the previews for the new film look great and I’m looking forward to checking it out.
But I will always love the miniseries.
Thomas’s take on It…
How on earth did I make it though another viewing of the 1990’s made-for-TV movie/mini series of Stephen King’s It? Taking the counterpoint in this review, I’ll be discussing the whys of disgust and dread regarding positive (if there is such a thing) and negative (an abundance) qualities of this not-so fantastic voyage into the sewers of Derry, Maine. First off, let me expand on the above comment of “another viewing.” In preparation for this review, I had the not-so pleasure of siting through 3-hours of banal 90’s TV horror (you’re welcome). A second time, mind you. The first, I didn’t even make it past the “kids” half of the movie. Let me explain…
The year was 2016 and I had just finished, like literally that day, Stephen King’s epic novel of good verses evil, It (and yes, I know I’m about 25 years late to the party). That same night as I finally put the book to bed, I jumped on Vudu and loaded up the 1990’s made-for-TV movie. I’d been curious for some time as I had never seen the series before. One can hardly walk into a discussion about King without someone at least mentioning Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Clown and how the TV-movie had doomed an entire generation with coulrophobia. Obvious my curiosity was peeked for sure. What followed was a yo-yo convulsion of emotion.
As the movie started, I felt somewhat reluctant. This wasn’t how the book opened.
So much was out of place…
And then Pennywise (à la Tim Curry) made an appearance. And hope returned.
And then the movie progressed and the now adult version of the kids showed.
And my smirk turned into a sneer.
I think I gave the movie a fair shot, a total hour worth of me shaking my head and gritting my teeth as I watched the who’s who of 90’s sitcom ruin the novel I had just fallen in love with. Don’t get me wrong, there were some good moments, all of which involved Tim Curry. But does that really add any value to the movie? You can toss Tim Frank n Furter Curry into just about any dump of a film and he’d still perform without disappointment. Yet, so it goes, the success of It cannot rely exclusively on the obviously Oscar winning performance of its villain. Evil in Derry is like vanilla ice-cream on a warm chocolate brownie, without Tim the movie would have floundered for sure. But for every yin there has to be an equally successful yang.
That’s not to say the TV-movie got everything wrong. As I stated at the beginning, this was my first reaction during my initial screening. On my second viewing, nearly a full year later, my impression has changed, slightly. Yes, the opening still bugs me, but there are little nuances that I felt were very true to the novel. The feeling of dread was well captured, including, though only a few scenes added to this, the blanket of…not evil per say, but maybe indifference to the not always big but also small horrors that occur in this yet another Maine town of King’s creation. I’m talking of course about that scene with Bev Marsh when she was a kid and being bullied by Bowers and crew and they highlight the neighbor who sees them but then turned away, refusing to help the poor girl from what could have become a sexual assault if not for her father (in a rare moment) saving the day.
Getting past what the movie missed, there were some things the movie got right as far as book adaptations. Again, with adult Bev as she returns home and has tea with the old lady who now resides at the house she grew up in only to discover another trick of Pennywise. The “moving” pictures from the photo-album were great. And let’s at least bow before the scene between Clown and soon-to-be monster lunch Georgie. Though I found that kid bloody annoying, the dialogue, most entirely on Tim’s behalf, was absolutely chilling.
And Pennywise? Dear me, what a performance from the GREAT Tim Curry. He really did steal every scene he was in. I found myself smiling and laughing at how chilling and evil he was. He also really brought out the desperation in the monster towards the latter half of the film. Something not easy to do when he’s only got about 30 mins of screen time in a 3 hour picture.
However, even in my second screening and actually being able to sit through the entire thing, there were a lot of moments they could have brought over and didn’t. For starters, for a mini series, it sure felt rushed at times, probably the times when they ought to have slowed down. The pacing of the movie in general was odd to me, taking it painfully slow during the dramatic scenes, thus making them melodramatic and extremely cheesy. These moments should have added to the sense of dread, but all they did was remind me I was watching a 90s made-for-TV movie. While changing some scenes to fit the screen is understandable, the ones you keep ought to serve the movie in the hopes of telling the story, not just checking the box of your must have’s list.
The one thing that really ruined this second screening for me was the ending, not the magic bike ride, but just before then. Ignoring the very much expected 90s horror spider, my beef is with how the film did nothing to explain or show how the influence Pennywise had on Derry had been uprooted, causing some other serious damage topside. Bev says, “its all coming down,” a jest to a line in the book, yet in the movie she’s talking about the poor sods caught in the spider web. Like, no shit lady, we can all see “its all coming down.” That line in the book showcased how rooted Pennywise was in Derry, as It had existed in Derry before there was a place to call Derry. For me, failing to bring a conclusion to a point that had been successfully made with that scene with Bev as a kid and the neighbor turning away and refusing to help and how they as adults discussed that moment, the very reason why they did not go to the police when aged Bowers showed and accidentally killed himself, really says a lot about the type of movie this was…
…not a very good one.
Who doesn’t love a good story? From those great works, such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Salem’s Lot, Thomas S Flowers inspires to create his own. His work ranges from Shakespearean gore feasts, feuding families, paranormal thrillers and haunted soldiers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, Thomas’s debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including DWELLING, EMERGING, CONCEIVING, and CONVERGING, filled with werewolves, Frankenstein-like monsters, cults, alter-dimensional insects, witches, and the undead are published with Limitless Publishing.
In 2008, Thomas was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews horror and sci fi movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest contributors who obsess over a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas by joining his MONTHLY newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
Be sure to keep an eye out for his upcoming release…PLANET OF THE DEAD!!!!