Like a psychotherapist with a demented sense of humor, Stephen King seems to derive a ghastly pleasure from digging up forgotten fears and buried nightmares. In several of his most successful books, including The Shining (1977), Pet Sematary (1983) and IT(1986), the author takes special delight in dwelling on the terrors of children. The 1,138-page, best-selling IT, which tells the gruesome story of a child-killer with supernatural powers, stands as King’s epic of childhood dread. Now, as one of the most ambitious entries in the fall ratings war of the TV networks, that big book is hitting the small screen. But even though the four-hour, two-part dramatic special is rife with grisly thrills and features admirable performances by Tim Curry and John Ritter, IT the TV movie never fully captures the sense of horror that pervades King’s novel.
IT is part of a major horror assault from King this season. In August, he released his 28th book, Four Past Midnight. And last month, Graveyard Shift, a movie based on his 1978 short story about mutant rats living in a textile mill, arrived in theatres. Misery, his 1987 tale of a psychopathic woman who kidnaps a crippled novelist, hits the big screen on Nov. 30. All of them are based on one of King’s favorite narrative devices: truly horrific characters who lurk among ordinary people.
In IT, the culprit is Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Curry, star of the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show), whose gaily colored circus attire, bushy, bright red hair and affection for The Wall Street Journal disguise a darker side.
Pennywise also has razorsharp teeth, a demonically wicked laugh and a penchant for mutilating and murdering small children. In the words of one character, whom Pennywise has unsuccessfully tried to lure to his sewer home beneath the streets of small town Derry, Me., the clown is “a creep.”
Pennywise persists in stalking the streets of Derry, despite his apparent murder 30 years ago by a group of brave, young children. In one of the movie’s early scenes, he is wandering the town’s backyards when he spots a little girl named Laurie Ann (Chelan Simmons). As the girl’s mother hangs sheets on the clothesline, Laurie Ann catches glimpses of Pennywise behind the fluttering laundry. He leers; she gasps. Soon, both little girl and clown have disappeared.
It is the town’s sixth straight case of a missing child. Yet the attitude of the buffoonish local police chief to the fate of the victims is shockingly lackadaisical. But Derry librarian
Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) soon links the little girl’s disappearance to the murder of Georgie, a little boy who was killed by a clown 30 years ago. He recalls how he and six of his friends, including Georgie’s brother, Bill—faced with adults who refused to believe in Pennywise’s existence—banded together to put an end to the creature’s murder spree. Now, the adult Hanlon phones his former chums, giving each of them the same, simple message: “It’s back.”
Part one of IT consists mainly of gripping flashbacks to each of the children’s first encounters with “It”—a creature who, it becomes clear, can take many forms besides Pennywise. One of the most disturbing scenes depicts the young Bill Qonathan Brandis) as he returns home from Georgie’s funeral. Staring at a picture of his brother in a photo album, Bill suddenly realizes that the photo has come to life—and is giving him a menacing wink. He suspects that it is Pennywise taunting him, but when he tells his parents of the picture, their reaction, strangely, is to forbid him ever to go into his brother’s bedroom.
That scene illustrates a common theme in King’s fiction—the isolation and desperation that children feel when adults refuse to take
their fears seriously. But the movie also shows how children get power by banding together to defend themselves. The seven young people form a squad and trace It to its subterranean home in Derry’s sewers. There, they unnerve the creature with their bald courage. Their enemy weakened, the youngsters kill It with a home-made slingshot—or so they think.
The story of their temporary victory contains some of the movie’s most artfully executed shivers. But while those scenes, at the end of the first episode, hint at a horrifying second instalment, /rfalls apart in its final two hours. When the grown-up friends gather in Derry to confront It once again, the movie takes an almost comedic turn, as scriptwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and director Tommy Lee Wallace resort to a frenetic 9 series of cheap thrills and 5 special effects. And unlike the - book, which contained nuassault merous clues about the killer,
the TV version never satisfac-
torily identifies who or what It really is.
The actors do their best with the script. Particularly effective are Ritter, who plays an alcoholic architect, drinking to forget his impending rematch with It, and Curry, whose manic Pennywise is truly frightening. But they cannot save the movie from sputtering to a disappointing conclusion. Near the end, It takes the form of a giant insect. A female character aims her slingshot—the same one that felled the creature 30 years earlier—and moans, “Please, God, don’t let me miss.” She does not. But in the shadow of King’s rivetting book, IT the movie ultimately does.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.