Stephen King is the most influential voice in horror of the late 20th century. His books have been best sellers since his debut and have gone on to spawn numerous adaptations in film, TV, video games, and other media. King Of All Media looks at those adaptations, starting with his TV miniseries in chronological order. Each week, Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob Dean will discuss a new miniseries project of King’s, with today’s installment being on 1990’s It, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace.
Rob Dean: Like an ancient cosmic entity of evil, Stephen King television adaptations went into hibernation for 11 years after SALEM’S LOT in 1979. Despite the fact that 14 King films were churned out between Hooper’s television event and 1990’s IT — including heavy hitters like THE SHINING, THE DEAD ZONE, STAND BY ME, and PET SEMATARY — King could only be seen on television in a couple of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE episodes and in an installment of the new TWILIGHT ZONE. But the Master of Horror returned to the small screen in full force with IT, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2) and featuring a bevy of TV’s hottest stars at the time. IT is a two-part miniseries that tracks a group of friends from childhood in 1960 up to present day (at the time) and their attempts to vanquish the ultimate personification of terror (which usually means a clown played by Tim Curry). Ale — what did you think of Wallace’s adaptation of King’s book? We noted that SALEM’S LOT felt uneven with all of the action crammed into the second half — is this miniseries more tonally coherent?
Alejandra Gonzalez: I feel that much like SALEM’S LOT, IT was pretty uneven when it comes to pacing. I think it suffers from either not being long enough or not being short enough, the same way we said SALEM’S LOT does. Most of Tommy Lee Wallace’s work feels a little uneven that way, even with HALLOWEEN III being one of my favorites. Unlike SALEM’S LOT, though, IT is certainly evenly terrifying. The sheer terror produced by the miniseries is the reason it remains one of the more memorable and beloved king miniseries, and I think a lot of that can be attributed to Tim Curry’s iconic performance as Pennywise. Talk about nightmare fuel! Upon revisiting the miniseries this week, I tried my hardest not to compare it too much to the 2017 feature, but even in doing so, I think it still holds up for the most part. Would you agree that IT is still effective today, even in comparison to the most recent film adaptation?
Rob Dean: You bet your fern it is! Well.. .most of it is. This was a bit of a nostalgia buster for me as I fondly recall watching this on ABC when it came out and being riveted. I then went out, got the book and started reading it—before my mom found it, read some excerpts and promptly threw it in the trash. But I fished it out and finished the giant tome, even if I didn’t understand everything that was going on. But with the miniseries, everything with the kids in IT is still great (which is mostly contained in part 1, but there are some additional moments in part 2) — well acted, well written, and definitely has a flair for the creepy. There are still some good moments in the present day scenes (particularly Pennywise taunting Richie in the library, Bev meeting that demonic old woman, and Stan’s decapitated head in the fridge), but a lot of the acting falls flat and the action isn’t nearly as propulsive as the kids’ stuff. But one thing is universally great throughout IT‘s entire running time: Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise remains fantastic. It’s a turn that is at one moment hilarious, and then the next dripping with real danger and menace. What do you think are the best scenes from this adaptation that still hold up to this day? And did you also think the adult scenes seemed less enthralling than the kids’?
Alejandra Gonzalez: I’m not sure they’re the best scenes, but any scenes where Pennywise seems to be breaking the 4th wall are certainly the most terrifying. The scene where he shows up in Eddie’s shower and the camera is centered on him so that we feel like we’re looking at him through Eddie’s perspective is HORRIFYING. Same applies to the scene where the kids are looking through the photo album only to find that Pennywise has also manifested there. It is really the stuff of nightmares, and it still creeps me out to this day as an adult. I find that the adult stuff was a little less fun than the rest of the movie but I still think it was effective in traumatizing me. The scene where they’re at dinner and there are all sorts of grotesque things in their fortune cookies—as someone who has a severe fear of severed eyeballs, that was not pleasant for me. Still I do agree that the most memorable and enjoyable parts of the mini series were those concerning their childhood. Do you think the sequel to last year’s movie will suffer from this as well?
Rob Dean: I think the book, miniseries, and ultimately Muschietti’s adaptation of IT all have the problem that the adult part of the story was never that interesting (at the very least compared to the children’s sections). The book and miniseries at least compensate for this by switching back and forth in the narrative (well, the miniseries only does this for a part of it); so I think that, in addition to somehow rewriting a lot of the characters based on the changes in the first part, Muschietti and team have their work cut out for them in Part 2. Good point that a major element of the creepy factor in IT is the way Wallace frames Pennywise to be taunting and haunting the audience, in addition to his victims (it also happens when Pennywise, as the gas station attendant, abducts Audra). A big problem with the second half, when the Losers’ Club returns to Derry, is that, in addition to a lack of stuff happening, the acting is all over the place. Annette O’Toole is great in the scene where she stands up to her abusive boyfriend, but then is deplorable when she’s hugging herself and asking why the ancient evil entity that kills children is “so mean.” Harry Anderson’s jokes are…just awful (and largely improvised), and also totally inconsistent with how Richie is set up in the ’50s (as Seth Green doing voices). Richard Thomas lacks any real charisma as adult Bill, and is saddled with the saddest cinematic ponytail this side of THE KARATE KID PART III. John Ritter, Dennis Christopher, and Tim Reid are consistently good in their roles, but not given that much to do. And in the end, how does IT fare overall (compared to SALEM’S LOT and on its own)? Any Stephen King tropes starting to emerge in these miniseries?
Alejandra Gonzalez: I think IT fares pretty well, especially in comparison to SALEM’S LOT. I think that it’s easy to revisit because of how fun a big chunk of it is, and to still be absolutely terrifying almost 30 years later is quite an accomplishment. Many older horror movies (miniseries in this case) suffer from F/X that don’t age well therefore influencing how effective they are, but that’s not the case here. I feel like I can revisit this a million times and it’ll still scare me as if it were the first time purely because of Curry’s performance. I find that the primary King trope being shared between SALEM’S LOT and IT is the whole “small town” factor and children being terrorized by a supernatural force in the town. Either way, I strongly believe that IT is one of the stronger King miniseries, and it has made me greatly anticipate watching some of the ones I haven’t seen yet!
— Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob Dean.
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