Thursday, February 28, 2013

Television King: It (1990)

I haven't had a post series on here in a while so here we go with a new one. I've been recently looking back on all the Stephen King television miniseries. I remember bits and pieces of these from my childhood, in fact I seem to remember always catching the same half hour of The Langoliers and Storm of the Century which would drive me up the wall. But these were in the quaint days before the internet when all my memories are tinged with sepia. These mini-series seemed to always be on TV when I was younger and I have a real fondness for them. I tend to think that epic horror is hit or miss (with more misses than hits) so what better way to see what works and what doesn't by watching all of them? At 3+ hours each, if you have another suggestion, I'd love to hear it.

 For today I'm going to start with It (1990) which traumatizes many but I remember thinking it was a big fat "meh" when I was younger. I remember thinking it was long, talky and I didn't like that Pennywise the Clown turned into a shoddy stop-motion spider. It left a dull impression in my mind of something that should be scarier than it is. Nevertheless, friends of mine find this movie terrifying so I thought I'd give it another shot.

The small town of Derry, Maine is cursed. Every thirty or so years the "eater of worlds and children" (the best job title that should be on a business card) Pennywise (Tim Curry) comes up and scares children to make them appetizing enough to eat. Pennywise can turn up as your worst nightmare to scare you and adults don't see him because they don't believe in him. (try not to think too hard about that one, trust me) The miniseries follows a group of seven local kids who are taunted by Pennywise but are able to fend him off by not giving into their fear. They decide to destroy him once and for all by using a sling shot, because sure. The film intercuts this timeline with the present with the kids, now adults, thirty years on. The murders have started again and it's up to them to put an end to Pennywise once and for all, because hitting a demon clown on the side of the head with a silver earring may not have been the killing blow.

I think It plays into all the sentimental trappings of Stephen King that I'm not a fan of: children in peril, idyllic childhoods fracture by broken parents, seemingly unbeatable evil beaten simply, one of the characters being a horror fiction writer. I love King's set ups, but the execution not so much. In It there is a lot of talking about each character's problems, I do think this is the problem of the miniseries format where the audience may be coming in and out so objectives and motivations need to be reestablished constantly which requires a lot of talking, emoting and Acting. (yes, with a capital A) The characterizations are also sloppy. For characters you've got The One That Stutters, The Fat One, The One Always Doing Irritating Impressions, The Girl, The Asthmatic etc. When their fears are triggered their handicaps become more pronounced. It's boring and frankly irritating.

From left to right: Sicky, Stutter, "Funny", Ethnic, Worried, Fat and Girl.
Each child has a parent or parents that not only don't see Pennywise but are also shitty ass parents. I think on the whole It is trying to make a statement about the main characters forced to confront the failings and trappings placed on them by their parents. Whether the parent is overbearing or abusive, these traits manifest themselves in Pennywise's attacks on each of them. It's important to mention, as I stated above, that there are seven children in this group so we get to see seven attacks that are all pretty much the same. It goes on for so long, and the attacks aren't scary enough to necessitate repeat viewings.

Perhaps it's just me, but I found Pennywise pretty funny. He, sorry, It pops up in the most random places which is fucking hilarious. Like this:

Or this: 

Frankly, it's hard for me to imagine sillier images.

While Tim Curry is great as the demented clown, the script and direction just don't facilitate him being scary. He just kind of pops up and taunts you for a while. And not about the messed up things in your life, about the most mundane things possible. Like your glasses, or that you're a girl. I don't understand why he doesn't just kill these kids. I know he says they taste better scared but there are several scenes where he just shows up and eats a kid. I guess these ones are special... because ... I don't know. They're sad?

I haven't read the book but I'm a firm believer that you shouldn't have to read a book to enjoy an adaptation of it. I love the premise of It, but it all falls apart pretty quickly. For all the set-up and energy involved in the three hours of screen time, it all gets resolved a little too quickly. I like that they tried to keep Pennywise to the shadows of the series, but they should have kept him way more mysterious in my mind.

Between the repetition, silly scares and shoddy special effects It never really takes off to become anything more than a cheap scares and adults complaining about their emotional problems. Like an artistic interpretation of a Dr. Phil episode.


  1. Tim Curry will never scare me. Even in Legend (1985) I just thought he was cool looking.

    As far as SK miniseries go, the best one is the original 'Salem's Lot (1979). Very creepy and effective (although the main character is a writer, it doesn't really play into the story). The only other one I enjoyed was Rose Red (2002), because it's his homage to Jackson's and Matheson's excellent haunted house stories.

    The rest of them I could do without, for the main reason that everything had to be censored for television and King's work does not fair well under those constraints (not many horror writers do).

  2. I've only seen bits and pieces of Salem's Lot and Rose Red, so I'm excited to sit down and watch both of them.

    I think there is a belief that with a 3-4 hour long format you can include a lot of the character development that would get cut from a 90 minute movie. But tempering character development, with plot and atmosphere is incredibly tricky. Maintaining tone and tension for that long a time is equally tricky. I think It is a failed attempt at something darker which wound up being goofy.

    1. If you have trouble finding the original, uncut Salem's Lot, let me know. I would be happy to send you a copy for research purposes.

  3. Finally finished catching up to the present on your blog. I feel the need to point one thing out to you because, while I like the miniseries, the most fascinating thing to me about is something that isn't in it but that IS in the book.

    In the film, the kids "defeat" IT and immediately are whisked out of the sewers, the presumption being "meh, they weren't that lost, they just found their way out". In the BOOK...for some reason that will forever utterly mystify me, King has the kids get tremendously lost on the way out. As they freak out, Beverly gets the idea that they have to "come together" to get out (because of something her father said, supposedly)...and thus begins approximately six italicized pages of child orgy as Beverly has sex with each of the other children. When they're finished, suddenly they can hear the running water as they make their way out and escape.

    It is, to date, the weirdest, most bizarre thing I've ever seen written in any book that didn't make it over into a TV or film adaptation of that book.

    1. Wow. A friend of mine was telling me that I need to read It but didn't want to say much more. But now I need to read that book. I think the miniseries could have used an extra dose of crazy.