NO CLOWNING AROUND: Revisiting IT (1990)!

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Figure 1 – IT banner featuring two Pennywises

The SYFY channel recently reran the 1990 TV limited series of Stephen King’s IT, and the show was in extremely good definition. We have a copy on DVD—and previously rented it from our local video store before it went out of business, plus we watched it when it first aired—but we’ve never seen it in this quality. Of course, it’s in 4:3 TV aspect ratio which was standard back then, instead of the current 16:9, so it looks a bit quaint. But my goodness, it looks great!

I’ve been a Stephen King fan for *mumble* years, going back to when The Shining came out from the Book Club, then when Carrie was made into a movie, I had to read that one too, which cemented my love for King’s writing. I’ve attempted to buy a hardcover of every mass market book that he’s come out with in the last 30+ years. (Yes, I know it’s silly… just wait a few months and then buy a copy from Value Village; they’ll have quite a few.) And I think I’ve seen every TV or film adaptation, even the crappiest one, which was Maximum Overdrive. But the 1990 IT is special; it’s a genuinely good film, with good acting—if a bit over the top from some actors and a terrific cast, including Tim Curry, who’s been one of my favourites since I first heard Rocky Horror Picture Show (I heard the whole soundtrack before I ever saw the movie).

Figure 2 – Main Street, Derry, Maine 1960

And, for an added frisson, we found out some years ago that the entire movie was filmed locally. For example, Figure 2 shows New Westminster’s Paramount Theatre on Columbia Street (no, it’s not really Derry, Maine), which closed as a movie theatre in the 1980s. These days, it’s a “Gentlemen’s Club,” with—I presume, having not gone in there, although I’ve driven by it hundreds of times—exotic dancers. Figure 3, from Google Street View, shows what it looks like today. In fact, that street (Columbia) looks a lot more wide open in the movie than it actually is. (New Westminster is an outlying community southeast of Vancouver, British Columbia. We live at the eastern border of Vancouver, in the southeast part of the city.)

Figure 3 – Paramount Theatre New Westminster

**SPOILER ALERT** If you haven’t seen either the old or the new IT, there will be parts that are common to both films. I figure the original is now two decades old, so if you are planning to watch the new one, and you haven’t seen the old one, just skip the rest of the column. Because here I’m gonna describe the whole 1990 TV movie (the compilation rather than specifically the miniseries).***SPOILER ALERT***

The movie opens on small-town America, specifically Derry, Maine. It’s a black-and-white photo of the late ‘50s or early ‘60s; the town theatre is showing Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The photo colourizes and we’re now in 1990 Derry (Figure 2). A young, freckle-faced girl is riding a tricycle on the sidewalk in front of her house; her mother yells at her to come in because it looks like rain; the girl is riding past some laundry in the back yard, when she hears a giggle, and sees a clown (Figure 1, left). Next thing we know, the tricycle is tipped over, its wheel spins, and we hear a mother’s screams. A grown Mike Hanlon, Derry Town Librarian, is outside the yellow police tape questioning one of the cops on the scene, but the chief comes over and tells Mike to get lost. In the background we hear one cop telling another “Not much left, just like the last time.” We surmise he’s talking about the little girl we saw. Mike sees a piece of paper crumpled against a nearby tree and picks it up; it’s a beat-up photo from 30 years ago featuring Georgie Denbrough.

Figure 4 – Georgie’s boat goes into drain

That’s how it starts; you don’t really know what’s going on yet. Through flashbacks we learn that on a rainy day in 1960, Bill Denbrough, who stutters, has a cold and doesn’t feel like playing in the rain with his little brother Georgie. He makes Georgie a paper boat and waterproofs it with wax. Georgie chases the boat down the street as it races down the gutter; he’s making boat noises and yelling about the S.S. Georgie… but the boat goes down a storm drain (Figure 4). He tries to reach it, but he can’t. Just as he’s about to give up and go away, he hears a voice from the drain: it’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Tim Curry, Figure 1, left), who tells him he can have his boat back if he comes down into the sewer. There’s rides, and candy, and games, and balloons! “Do they float?” Georgie asks. “Oh, yes, they float; they all float. And you can float too when you come down here,” Pennywise says.

Figure 5 – 3rd & Liverpool today

We’re slowly introduced to the “Losers Club” of Derry (Figure 6), seven kids who, for various reasons, don’t fit in anywhere. Bill Denbrough (Jonathan Brandis) stutters and has lost his brother; Ben Hanscom (Brandon Crane) is a newcomer to Derry and overweight to boot (plus he has an unrequited crush on Beverly). Eddie Kaspbrak (Adam Faraizl) is mothered to death, puny, undersized, and continually sucking on an inhaler; Richie Tozier (Seth Green) is a red-headed wisecracker, always making bad jokes and doing bad voice impersonations; Mike Hanlon (Marlon Taylor) is black in a mostly white area. Stanley Uris (Ben Heller) is a Jew, pedantic, and a Boy Scout; and Beverly Marsh (Emily Perkins) is on the cusp of womanhood, and emotionally crippled by her overprotective, creepy, and possibly pedophilic father, who is a janitor—low social status—and a widower.

Figure 6 – 1960 Losers Club from left Eddie, Bill, Richie, Mike, Stanley, Ben, Beverly

These seven kids find each other, and bond against the area’s “bad boys”: Henry Bower (Jarred Blancard) , typical JD with a greaser haircut and a switchblade, and his two sidekicks: “Belch” Huggins (Chris Eastman) and Patrick Hocksetter (Gabe Khouth). We also learn about the grown Losers: Bill (Richard Thomas) has lost his stutter, married Audra, a movie star (Olivia Hussey), and has become a successful thriller writer. Ben (John Ritter) is an award-winning (single) architect; Eddie (Dennis Christopher) still lives with his mother, is still a hypchondriac, but runs a very successful limo company. Mike (Tim Reid) is, as I said before, the town librarian; he’s the only one of the Losers who stayed in Derry. Richie (Harry Anderson) is a famous comic who also fills in for Carson and tours his standup. Stanley (Richard Masur) is a happily married accountant; Beverly (Annette O’Toole) is a famous clothing designer who lives with her abusive and controlling partner/boyfriend. All who left Derry have forgotten the events of the summer of 1960.

Figure 7 – Adult Losers (L-R, bottom up) Mike, Bill, Richie, Pennywise, Bev, Eddie, Ben, Stanley

Over the summer of 1960, numerous kids are murdered or go missing; no real search is made for the missing children. It’s a Derry thing; Derry (the town invented by King) is a whole ‘nother place. Each of the losers (and, finally, the bullies) has an encounter with Pennywise in some way: Bill sees his dead brother Georgie, who chastises him “You killed me!”; Bev hears dead kids’ voices out of a sink drain and is drenched in blood her father can’t see; Richie meets the Teenage Werewolf, who turns into Pennywise; Ben sees his dead father, who likewise morphs, and Eddie meets Pennywise in the school shower. Henry and the other bullies meet the “deadlights,” strange lights that chug through steam vents and tunnels making loud, odd noises; Hocksetter is killed, and Bowers is driven mad; he ends up in the local asylum after falsely confessing that he killed all those kids. But before that happens, the Losers have a group face-off against the bullies, and discover that in unity there is strength.

Figure 8 – Losers throw stones at bullies–strength through unity!

Although the Losers are intimidated by Pennywise at first, thanks to Bill’s determination to avenge Georgie, they pursue him into the sewer (Figure 9) and, discovering that a large part of his power comes from turning imaginary creations real, manage to destroy him with silver (because they all believe silver is deadly to vampires, werewolves, and other bad magical creatures). There is a “bonding” moment in the book that is entirely missing in the movie (both movies) and, I believe, rightly so. I think in contemporary terms (you can go look it up) it’s at best distracting from the main thrust of the book, and not really necessary for cementing their bond.

Figure 9 – Pennywise’s Lair in the Sewer

The summer ends with them realizing Pennywise may not actually be dead, and vowing to return and kill IT should it ever surface again. That is a powerful bonding moment in itself. When Mike realizes that IT is back after 30 years, he knows that he must call the Losers back together to fulfill their vow and kill IT for real. (Disappointingly, the sewer was a set at Vancouver’s Beaver Lake; I really wanted to go there.)

Figure 10 – Beaver Lake, Vancouver, without Pennywise Sewer Set

Mike calls everyone who has left Derry, causing much consternation; after all, he’s the only one who hasn’t forgotten everything about that summer (because he never left Derry). IT/Pennywise has a mental effect on people who leave Derry so they won’t come back and cause trouble. Bill and Audra are on set in England; he tells her to stay (but she doesn’t); Ben has just received an architecture award; Richie has a commitment to host the Carson show, but tells his agent he can’t do it; Bev finally breaks free of her abusive partner; Eddie packs a bag full of pills and breaks free of his clinging mother; and Stanley… well, not to put too fine a point on it, Stan has always been the realist, the one who insists that these things—clowns, Teenage Werewolves, and the like, were not “empirically possible.” Stanley cuts his wrists in the bathtub, leaving “IT” scrawled in his own blood on the tiles (Figure 11).

Figure 11 – Stan leaves a message on the bathroom wall

Figuring out that Mike has not been idle, Pennywise sends messages to the surviving losers when they arrive in Derry for a not-so-pleasant reunion; having finally remembered their oaths upon Mike’s phone calls, none of them wants to be in Derry facing off with some possibly immortal “thing.” Especially when Mike gets the news about Stan’s death and tells the group. They all have a get-together at a Chinese restaurant and, during the fortune cookie handout, Pennywise gives the group a final warning (Figure 12).

Figure 12 – Fortune cookies contain Pennywise surprises

Meanwhile, Pennywise (masquerading as Belch Huggins) helps Henry Bowers escape from the asylum, arming him with his favourite weapon—a switchblade—and sends him to the motel where the Losers have registered, to carry out his threat to kill them all. While the Losers are eating, Audra (Bill’s wife) arrives from England, and is promptly diverted and captured by IT. The Losers, prompted by Richie, are about to break up and flee Derry, feeling they can get out of IT’s reach, but Henry attacks Mike, stabbing him. When the others break into Mike’s room, Henry accidentally stabs himself with his own switchblade and dies. They take Mike to the hospital (“it was a wild party, dancing on tables and stuff, and it got out of hand.”) and all decide that they’re vulnerable and must leave Derry in the morning. But in the morning, as they’re gathering outside the motel, Bill sees a vision of himself with his mother, prompting him to tell the group that he’s going back in (to kill IT), saying that if he doesn’t resolve it now, he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to find out what is real and what is one of his nightmares. He says he’ll eventually go mad. They all reconsider and head off in Richie’s hot little red convertible to the sewer where they first found IT.

Figure 13 – Losers confront IT’s true form

Disappointingly for me and, I think, a lot of people, the “true form” of it turns out to be some kind of giant alien spider (IT landed on Earth hundreds of years before and has to go comatose every 30 years); the “deadlights” are on its abdomen, for some odd reason. They manage to kill IT; believing they can, they tear it to pieces with their bare hands. Bill rescues Audra, but she may be mentally damaged. Eddie is killed. They all leave Derry, but Bev and Ben Hanscome are finally together.

So what makes this still the better IT (compared to the 2017 IT Part 1 with Bill Skarsgård (Figure 1, right) as Pennywise and the newly-released IT Part II)? For me, at least, it begins with Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise. Although Curry is very British, his Pennywise has a rough, sorty of Noo Joisy accent, but that’s not the important part. The important part of Curry’s portrayal is that his Pennywise is, at first, attractive to children. Then when the kid gloves come off and he becomes frightening—sharp teeth and the like—you realize it was just a façade; in spite of his clown garb and wig, he’s really a monster. By the time children realize this, it’s too late. He’s got them. Skarsgård’s portrayal is never really attractive in the same way. His face, even at rest, is somewhat threatening; his costume is some kind of lacy Victorian thing. He never really looks trustworthy, and his “monster face” is just more of the same. And enough with the frickin’ red balloons!

**More spoilers**Secondly, most of the effects in the first one are practical or in-camera effects; that means they’re used sparingly. Back in 1990, especially for TV, the budgets were smaller and there was no CGI as we know it. The new one uses CGI like it’s going out of style. (Example, in the Chinese fortune cookie scene, Richie gets a fortune cookie with an eyeball in it. It was a real prop eyeball that moved. In IT Part II, The eyeball comes out of the fortune cookie and it has tentacles. The bird thing in Figure 12 is replaced by a CGI batwing that attacks some of the characters. And so on. The stop-motion spider in 1990 becomes a giant CGI Pennywise on pointy spider legs. Too much CGI used too often instead of good scripting. Plus, sort of embarrassingly, IT Part II has shout-outs to other movies and actors—John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Shining, Bruce Willis movies, and probably some I missed. Those are, in my belief, out of place and take you out of what should be “suck you in” moments. Thirdly, IT Part II is way too long (at 2:49) and should be cut severely. There’s dross there. The whole TV series, cut together as a movie, was only 3 hours long.

So there you have it; my thoughts on the 1990 movie, and some information you might not have seen before. (If you’re really interested, there’s a website that gives much more information about filming locations for that movie; it’s called Then and Now Movie Locations. The clickable link is specific to this movie.

Comments on my column are welcome. You can register and comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the Facebook groups I link to. All your comments, good or bad, positive or negative, are welcome! (Just keep it polite, okay?) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks, Bill. I try to vary my columns; I review books, movies, TV, in any genre I find interesting. You can find more of my columns on the site. (I also do “fannish” columns where I talk about fandom generally, conventions, and just stuff I find interesting and think others might also like.)

  2. Steve, I apologize for not watching your column until today. I think that I was only vaguely aware that you had something to do with the legendary Amazing Stories, but it didn’t quite register how or where, until you pointed it out in a FB post today. I’ve just skimmed through this column, which I’ll read more carefully in a few minutes, but I’m already impressed with your analysis of this film IT, which I’d not heard of before, because I’m more a sci-fi fan than a horror fan, by far. Nevertheless, I find this quite interesting. Thank you, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your columns.

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