Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Stephen King's It (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1990) - 25th Anniversary Retrospective - Part 1

Originally aired by US network ABC 25 years ago tonight, the first part of this now classic (in my opinion) TV movie adaptation of Stephen King's epic 1986 novel introduced the world to an iconic and terrifying screen boogeyman who would scar a generation and thereby ruin clowns for everyone everywhere ever thereafter: Pennywise the clown, brilliantly and terrifyingly brought to life by the great Tim Curry. But of course there's so much more to this mini-series than Mr. Walking Nightmare Fuel. In fact, there's enough here that I felt it might be best to break this retrospective into two parts. We'll be looking at the second part on Friday (i.e. on its actual air-date) and exploring the first today. As opposed to running through the plot and the like though (I'm presuming anyone reading this has seen It), I'll be sharing both my own recollections of and history with this film, plus some of the behind the scenes info I learned by listening to the cast/director commentary on the DVD. And be warned, there will be spoilers... and clowns.

I can't remember now when this first aired over here exactly and hence when I would have been first exposed to it (early '90s sometime I imagine, when I would have been between 7 and 9) but what I can say with certainty is this... while I only caught parts (past my bedtime so was trying to watch it stealthily), what I did see most definitely left an impression. I mean to begin with, even the opening credits were creepy I thought. Kicked off with the above title hitting the screen, accompanied by a startling musical stinger that must have caused viewers everywhere to tighten their sphincters, this seemed to announce its intent from the very start, letting both parents and kids (who would later realise they should have known better) know that they were in for it. 

As I said, I only caught parts of this when it first aired here in the UK, and in retrospect, I think that might have actually increased the fearsome power it had over my young imagination. Being left to fill in the blanks (and especially at that formative age), my mind conjured scenarios and suggestions perhaps even more horrific than anything alluded to in the movie itself. It won't surprise you to hear then that I had many a sleepless night that summer... even at one point not wanting to sleep at all because of a certain nightmare it inspired. I'll get into the specifics of that in the second part though, as it relates to a scene from that half... and one that it seems funny now that I would have been so scared of...

And I know I wasn't alone here. In the days before freeview and all that, there were 4 terrestrial TV channels, meaning that a hell of a lot of people would have seen this, including many my age... and boy did it give us a lot to talk about back then. 

In the next few years, via VHS rentals and re-showings on TV, I finally caught up with the rest of it... and like other Stephen King adaptations (The Shining and Stand by Me especially), it made a deep impression upon me and has become a firm favourite. In fact the more I watch it, the more I find to love and appreciate... and within the last few viewings, I've started to regard this as something of a modern horror classic. So enough with the autobiography already... why is it exactly that I still think this is so bloody good? 

First and foremost, from the opening onwards, this pulls no punches. Sure it's not graphic or anything, but conceptually, the whole idea of children being killed off was pretty strong stuff back then... heck, I guess it still is. And no matter how many times I see it, said opening scene, with Pennywise appearing to a young girl in the middle of her mother's drying sheets, first friendly and then (before we and she have chance to blink) turning into an unholy monster lunging in for the kill, still chills my blood to this day. Along the same lines, the murder of Georgie (Tony Dakota) early on and later, the dead children speaking to young Beverly (Emily Perkins, also known to horror fans from Ginger Snaps and its sequel) via her sink, are truly chilling in my opinion. Indeed, there are also other scenes from this first half that never fail to raise a few goosebumps for me.

Scares aside, one reason I think this resonates so deeply with children and adolescents (and this is something director Tommy Lee Wallace highlights in the commentary, both r.e. this story and Stephen King's work in general) is how well it works as a coming of age story, exploring the anxieties associated with growing up, showing how friendships are formed... and perhaps most importantly, showing how the strength gathered from the latter can help to armour one against the former. And speaking of children, while their adult counterparts provide the intros to their respective back stories (and do a fine job at doing so), it's really all about the kids in this half.

Like any ensemble, their talents vary, but generally speaking, all the young actors in this are excellent... especially Jonathan Brandis (who tragically committed suicide in 2003) as Bill, the aforementioned Emily Perkins, Seth Green (who I'm sure almost everyone knows now) as Richie and Brandon Crane as Ben. As an aside, it sounds like Tommy Lee Wallace had his hands well and truly full with this bunch during filming, but was still very much impressed with what they all brought to the production.

Speaking of the younger cast, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jarred Blancard, who plays the film's bully, Henry Bowers, and provides quite a menacing presence. What especially impressed me, was hearing on the commentary that he's actually a sweet guy in real life... being apparently horrified at having to call Marlon Taylor (who played the young Mike Hanlon) the N word, even apologising to him after the scenes in question.

But as far as the actors go, all of them, both adult and child, are collectively upstaged whenever one man appears... yup, you guessed it, Pennywise himself, Mr. Tim Curry. God help anyone who attempts to remake this, especially anyone trying to fill those sizeable clown shoes and baggy trousers. I mean I don't wanna start throwing superlatives about here but man, he's just phenomenal. Apparently, earlier make-up designs were more elaborate but Curry, being weary of being buried behind heavy prosthetics and the like in previous films, really wanted his appearance to be more minimalistic... a wish he was granted when some screen tests were done, the consensus being that his characterisation was so strong and scary that he really didn't need mountains of make-up. The only addition they made (that shock of red hair, nose and white greasepaint aside of course) was making his head more bulbous... taking things ever so slightly towards the surreal, as the director states.

I'm sure there's a lot more to mention r.e. this half, and if time wasn't getting on (I plan to watch this first part again tonight you see... and by the way, anything new I pick up from that I'll mention in the second post on Friday) and I hadn't taken up enough of yours already, we'd get into it some more. All I'll say for now is that structurally, I really dig this... meaning how as all the adults and kids are introduced and how as we go through the process of meeting the seven of them, we also progress through their collective story, until we reach the first confrontation with It back in the past and then return to the present for this first night's shocking conclusion. The shot below, from the final scene, is something that really scared me for some reason back in the day and still makes my hairs stand on end even now...


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