VHS Revival becomes reacquainted with an unlikely, TV-made icon.
In many ways, time has not been kind to Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, IT.
Judged in cinematic terms, it is a largely hackneyed portrayal with paper-thin characterisation, second rate acting and contrived storytelling, while the movie tends to gravitate towards melodrama on more than one occasion. Of course, there was no theatrical release for what was a two part TV mini-series, and when you take into account the period in which it was made, the budget it was allotted and the tools at its disposal, you can forgive many of those flaws. In fact, when you take all of those obstacles into consideration, you can say that it does a rather admirable job.
What IT does have is the storytelling talent of one of mainstream modern fiction’s greatest horror writers. The story has all of the hallmarks of classic King: heady nostalgia, conflicted characters and relatable catharsis, and although those elements are not as deftly conceived as adaptations such as Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, the story shares many of its coming of age qualities: the uncertainty and isolation of youth, the strength and togetherness to overcome those fears, and the sudden transition into the less idealistic realms of adulthood. It is no coincidence that this often second-rate production has a special place in the hearts and minds of a particular generation, and having viewed it through a decidedly more cynical lens, I still feel privileged to belong to that generation.
The movie also benefits from a quite remarkable performance from Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, one of IT’s many physical manifestations. Back in 1990, CGI was still very much in its infancy, and productions of this calibre would have to depend entirely on practical effects, which in itself was a risk when restricted to such a limited budget. That much is evident here, with a series of hokey special effects sequences threatening the movie’s credibility, but when the movie respects its limitations there are some genuinely creepy scenes on show, the majority of them credited to Curry’s onscreen time.
For those who saw IT as a youngster, Curry is Pennywise, and the idea of another actor stepping into his oversized clown boots is an almost sacrilegious prospect. Curry oozes malevolence as the manifestation of all our worst fears. He is fiendishly parasitic in purpose, the perversity of his hunger dripping from every heavily painted pore, while his hackneyed, overly enthused, but ultimately banal portrayal of the classic clown is distinctly inhuman. Pennywise boasts of the ‘Dead Light’, an enchanting vision of malevolence which draws in his victims, and Curry is able to personify that notion with startling accuracy.
IT is the story of a malevolent force which assumes different forms in its pursuit of children, feeding on their worst fears before moving in for the kill. Every thirty years, Pennywise returns to Derry for feeding, and every year a series of disappearances are swept under the proverbial rug by a town shrouded in guilt and self-denial. One summer, the self-entitled ‘Loser’s Club’ are able to share their fears, their friendship and togetherness allowing them to overcome a monster who thrives on isolation. For the briefest of periods, Pennywise is a wounded entity.
Thirty years pass and IT returns for yet another killing spree, a fact that Mike (Tim Reid) takes rather personally for reasons that are understandable. The rest of the Loser’s Club have since moved on with their lives, each of them successes in their own right, but Mike is the self-appointed ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ who chose to stick around and keep watch in an otherwise sightless town. After defeating Pennywise for the first time, the newly matured gang made a pact, promising that they would return if ever IT did, and inevitably IT does.
As much as it pains me to admit it, the movie is occasionally laughable with its outmoded effects and melodramatic tendencies, a quite farcical climax transforming an ethereal menace into something ineffectively tangible and creatively underwhelming, while the first half of the movie works much better than the latter. This is due to our protagonists appearing mainly as children in the first act, an age when they are much more vulnerable to the creature’s evil machinations, as well as the various societal elements which isolate them further, aiding the antagonist’s specific skill for atomising its prey.
But for every fortune cookie effects debacle, there are moments which stay long in the memory, a scene in which Beverly Marsh (Annette O’Toole) visits her childhood home proving particularly unsettling, while bursting blood balloons, invisible to the adult eye, prove eerily effective in isolating our cast of potential victims.
By today’s standards, IT struggles to hold up in many respects, a fact that isn’t helped when you consider the movie’s financial aspirations – even back then – while the movie’s more accomplished actors have otherwise been confined to roles in mainstream, American shows such as The Waltons (Richard Thomas) and 8 Simple Rules (John Ritter). Watching some scenes may be something akin to watching such tired TV outings, but the fact that the Pennywise character has become such a low-key cultural icon is testament to the movie’s many qualities. That there can be no denying.
The long-awaited remake of IT hits the theatres tomorrow, and frankly, I am surprised it has taken so long. For movie producers, Pennywise is a marketing dream, a character whose very name is guaranteed to smash the box office the world over. Invariably, modern studio reboots have proven themselves little more than cynical ventures designed to slash expenditure by saving on promotion and advertising, and I struggle to think of a single instance in which a long-cherished franchise has not been damaged by the money-spinning, modus operandi of the early 21st century.
I would usually feel depleted by the very notion of another of these atrocities, but with IT I feel rather differently. This is not Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street; with IT there is room for improvement, and done with just a little creative respect for the source material, we could be looking at a worthy addition to the horror lexicon. I just hope our modern-day fetish with CGI doesn’t ruin the story’s understated potential.