The Film: 4/5
Evil can take many forms. In Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, evil took the form of a subterranean monster who lured unsuspecting children to the dark depths of its lair of unimaginable horrors by appearing to them as a charming clown named Pennywise. That novel, and the two-part 1990 ABC miniseries that adapted a King novel for television for the first time since 1979’s Salem’s Lot, did more to transform clowns into icons of mirthful mayhem since John Wayne Gacy.
In the small town of Derry, Maine in 1960, many children are disappearing and being found murdered. Seven of the town’s children – each one an outcast – are prone to visions of the one responsible for the killings, manifesting itself as the malevolent Pennywise. Bill Denbrough (Jonathan Brandis) is the first to experience the clown’s evil when his little brother George (Tony Dakota) becomes one of Pennywise’s first victims. After the murder Bill and the other kids – Ben Hanscom (Brandon Crane), Eddie Kaspbrak (Adam Fairizl), Beverly Marsh (Emily Perkins), Richie Tozier (Seth Green), Stan Uris (Ben Heller), and Mike Hanlon (Marlon Taylor) – come together as friends and realize they are the only ones who can see Pennywise and therefore are the only ones who can destroy him. Dubbing themselves “The Losers’ Club”, the young friends vow to each other that if Pennywise ever returns to finish what he has started, so will they.
Thirty years later, Pennywise returns to resume his killing spree of Derry’s children. Mike (Tim Reid), the only member of the “Losers’ Club” who stayed behind in Derry after the others grew up and moved away to find success and happiness, quickly understands what is happening and summons his friends back to Derry to honor their vow and destroy Pennywise once and for all. Bill (Richard Thomas), Ben (John Ritter), Eddie (Dennis Christopher), Beverly (Annette O’Toole), and Richie (Harry Anderson) all soon return to Derry to face their greatest fear for the first time, with understandable reservations. Only Stan (Richard Masur) seems reluctant to join in on this nightmarish homecoming celebration.
Chosen to direct the miniseries was Tommy Lee Wallace, the USC grad who went on to become a jack-of-all-trades on the early films of friend and fellow USC alum John Carpenter. He was the associate art director on Dark Star, did the sound effects for Assault on Precinct 13, edited Halloween and The Fog, and directed second unit on Big Trouble in Little China. In 1982 he took the years of experience he accrued at USC and on the job with Carpenter and parlayed them into his first feature directing gig, the cult classic horror film Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Next to that unfairly-maligned attempt to move the Halloween franchise away from the slasher genre into something bolder and more unpredictable, Stephen King’s It is probably Wallace’s best-loved feature.
Marshalling an ensemble cast of newcomers and veterans through a 187-minute epic spanning three decades and encompassing more speaking parts than he ever handled in a single film, Wallace outperformed expectations and established It as one of the high water marks for adapting the stories of Stephen King for film and television. The director, working from a teleplay by Lawrence D. Cohen (who also wrote both the 1976 and 2013 adaptations of the King novel Carrie and the 1993 TV miniseries based on King’s The Tommyknockers), works around the content restraints of network television in establishing the principal characters and the threat they face. Using locations around Vancouver, British Columbia to play the town Derry, Wallace constructs a credible playground for his actors to inhabit and bring the characters to flesh-and-blood life, and his excellent cast delivers in both parts of the miniseries.
The bulk of the first half of It takes place in flashback as each member of the “Lucky Seven” reminisces about the events leading up to their childhood confrontation with Pennywise from their perspective. Wallace and Cohen pared King’s epic tome down considerably to fit the narrative into a four-hour (with commercials) running time and treat each of the separate vignettes about these characters, where they started, and how far they have come in three decades as a piece of a larger puzzle that is completely assembled by the end of Part One. Despite having to leave most of the rougher material from the book out of the adaptation, the town of Derry in 1960 is hardly a pretty picture. None of the children necessarily lead idyllic lives, but Beverly has to put with an abusive and controlling father, Eddie’s mother is just a few shades more reasonable than Norma Bates, and Mike is bombarded by racist attacks from the town bully, greaser punk psycho Henry Bowers (Jarred Blancard). Bowers is one of the most disgusting human monsters in King’s fiction, with only Buddy Repperton and Lloyd Henreid giving him a run for his money.
Wallace packs the first half of It with plenty of scares and excitement, permitting him to relax the pace for the second and allow the adult actors playing the matured Losers’ Club to build their own effective ensemble on par with the child performers from Part One. They all deliver terrific performances, but it’s the sitcom vets Harry Anderson (Night Court), Tim Reid (WKRP in Cincinnati), and the late John Ritter (Three’s Company) who surprise the most with solid dramatic turns. Their fellow television stalwart Richard Thomas (The Waltons) is on fine form as the group’s leader and their only member who has lost a loved one at the hands of Pennywise. Equally notable is Annette O’Toole (Smallville) convincingly summoning strength she was convinced by the abusive men in her life to defeat them and take a stand against the greatest evil. Dennis Christopher (Django Unchained) and Richard Masur (The Thing) are both great, with Masur making the most of a very limited role. Putting his iconic voice and theatrical charisma to terrifying use as Pennywise, the performance by the great Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is the stuff of nightmares and one of the remaining keys to the success and longevity of It. You can always count on Curry to play a magnificent monster.
The film features noteworthy supporting performances from Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas) as Denbrough’s concerned wife, Michael Cole (The Mod Squad) as a vengeful adult Bowers, and Frank C. Turner (The Fly II) as Beverly’s controlling brute of a father. Jonathan Brandis (Ride with the Devil), Emily Perkins (Ginger Snaps), and Seth Green (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) take the top honors among It’s cast of young actors. Richard Bellis’ haunting and lush original score is his finest achievement as a composer and highly worthy of the sole Emmy the miniseries took home. Also nominated for an Emmy was the sharp and perceptive editing from Robert F. Shugrue (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) and David Blangsted (Americathon). Wallace’s stellar adaptation of the Stephen King novel would have been such an intelligent and emotional entertainment without the technical achievements of the director’s outstanding production team.
IT was filmed for television in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio by Canadian cinematographer Richard Leiterman (Ticket to Heaven), and even though the shots were composed for standard-definition television screens the visuals were cinematically rich in detail and vibrant colors. Warner Bros.’ 1080 high-definition transfer gets the picture looking its best since the miniseries first aired over a quarter of a century ago, maybe even better. The colors are very bright and natural once more (love those reds and greens), a great benefit for the atmospheric cinematography. Grain is present but kept modest and consistent, with the overall image appearing clean and fine detail looking its sharpest. The remastered picture is complemented beautifully by the new English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track with its clear and uncluttered mixing of the dialogue, music, and ambient effects to ensure none of these components overwhelm each other. Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks in the French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Czech languages have also been provided along with English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, and Thai subtitle options.
There’s only one extra, ported over from Warner’s earlier Region 1 DVD, but it’s a good one: director Wallace and stars Thomas, Ritter, Reid, and Christopher contribute an audio commentary that never succumbs to dead air and is informative, affectionate, and often amusing. The director was recorded separately from the actors but the editing is so seamless that it’s difficult to notice. The longer running time allows for them to talk extensively about the production, working with the younger actors who portray their characters as children, filming in Vancouver, and much more. I was hoping that the Blu-ray release of It would feature newer extras, maybe a new retrospective documentary, given how it highly the miniseries is regarded among fans of horror and Stephen King adaptations, but those are the breaks, friends.
It ranks with Salem’s Lot and The Stand as the best made-for-TV films adapted from the novels of Stephen King. It is directed with tension and spirit by Tommy Lee Wallace and remarkably performed by a committed ensemble cast. Most importantly, it is very frightening. Perfectly timed with Halloween, Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray release of It comes highly recommended for the miniseries alone, but the gorgeous high-definition transfer and entertaining director/cast commentary track makes it all the more worth the purchase.