The King of Summer: IT (1990)
I didn’t really know too much about the Stephen King novel It before the hype for the 2017 film version started to build. Pennywise the Dancing Clown was a figure with which I was familiar because the image of the scary clown is prevalent. So I decided to check out the 1990 miniseries, primarily so that I could desensitize myself enough so that the new film won’t traumatize me (what little I’ve seen of the film’s marketing has proven my efforts futile). I’ve never read the novel or seen the miniseries before, but I knew what to expect: cheap visual effects, on-the-nose acting, tacky music, and rushed storytelling. Mostly I was correct in my expectations.
Airing on ABC in November of 1990, It is directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (close collaborator of John Carpenter) from an adaptation of the King novel written by Wallace and Lawrence D. Cohen (who worked on Carrie). The miniseries aired in two parts and runs three hours without commercials. Tim Curry stars as Pennywise, with John Ritter, Annette O’Toole, Tim Reid, Richard Thomas, Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher, and Richard Masur as the adult Losers Club. The Emmy-winning score is by Richard Bellis. It was initially conceived as a four-part miniseries, but was condensed to two parts. I think ABC was a little apprehensive about a horror TV movie, since the channel was known for its family friendly content. But the miniseries paid off, becoming a high-rated TV event.
What I found most interesting about the miniseries is how it does feature some strong scare scenes, interspersed with its more TV movie trappings. Wallace created a feeling of dread that does not need a lot of money to achieve. For me, the most effective scene is when Beverly Marsh (O’Toole) encounters Mrs. Kersh (Florence Paterson). At first things seem somewhat normal, but gradually the dread starts to sink in. There’s almost a David Lynch vibe—the grotesque emerging from the idyllic small town. There are a number of individual moments, usually when the characters are on their own being victimized by It, which are quite remarkable.
It’s when the group comes together that the film betrays itself. None of the actors—adult or child—are bad per se, but their interactions feel very dated. This is true even in the 1950s setting. The film reads more like a late '80s version of the decade. The general reception to the miniseries is that the first part, which focuses more on the children, is better than the second half. I can definitely agree with that, because it is just more compelling to watch children battle this being.
There are also a number of themes that I wish had been explored more. One is the idea that It controls the town, which is why none of the adults seem to care or notice about anything. As shown in this movie, Derry just seems like a regular town with no law enforcement or parents. There’s another moment where Beverly recalls being harassed by bullies and an adult witnessed it but looked the other way. That felt like general American rape culture than the control of an evil force. The theme of adults looking the other way is powerful and all too real, but the miniseries comes up short.
The one thing that is unequivocally great about It is Tim Curry. The man is a fabulous actor, who manages to find different ways to be menacing that suit his varied attacks. His gravelly, booming voice, his posture, and even his eyes sear right into your brain. With a bigger budget and more prestigious production, Curry could have gone down as a great movie villain. But even he’s trapped by the confines of this TV movie.
That’s really the main issue here. The movie has some great moments, but feels really cheap and dated. Tommy Lee Wallace did what he could but even he agrees that the miniseries is severely lacking when compared to the novel. It’s definitely worth a watch for the curious. It may not hold up, and I am sure it will easily be eclipsed by the upcoming theatrical feature. However, the 1990 It is worth saving from floating in the drain.