With the upcoming release of the new, big-budget adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, attention is invariably turning to the previous attempt at bringing King’s gargantuan novel to the screen: the 1990 miniseries. The original IT is mostly remembered for Tim Curry’s performance in the role of Pennywise, the sinister clown that terrorizes the children of Derry, Maine. Curry’s Pennywise can often be found on lists of the most iconic horror characters of all time, and it would be easy to assume that without this one element, It would most likely have fallen into the same obscurity that many of those King miniseries now find themselves in, because as the number of people who’ll be watching the 1990 version before flocking to theatres to catch the new one are finding out this week, the original It isn’t actually that good. It’s not exactly bad, but aside from one memorably over-the-top performance, it’s ultimately still an above-average early 90s miniseries.
The story takes place (as the vast majority of King properties do) in a small town in Maine, and something is targeting the local children, in particular the group of outcasts and misfits dubbed the Loser’s Club. But rather than a run-of-the-mill serial killer, the entity leaving a trail of dead children in its wake is Pennywise, a sinister clown with supernatural powers and a thirst for blood. With the adults seemingly blind to Pennywise, the Loser’s club must band together to put a stop to his reign of terror, and then meet again thirty years later when their old nemesis returns.
It’s place as a beloved horror property — or at least a fondly remembered one — can largely be attributed to one element: Tim Curry’s Pennywise. To be sure, it is a memorable performance, full of the kind of enthusiasm and gusto that Curry made a name for himself with. To what degree you’re bound to find Curry’s character actually scary depends a lot on how you feel about clowns. If coulrophobia isn’t something you suffer from, it’s very likely that Curry’s antics, dripping with camp from start to finish, won’t do much to send chills up your spine. Then there’s the infamous ending, which sees Curry’s Pennywise drop away in favor of a giant spider creature, ostensibly his true form. Full credit to the effects designers — it’s a great looking effect, but it’s also completely devoid of subtlety, substituting the sinister, unsettling vibe of much of the series for a big monster in a surprisingly well-lit cave. Luckily for IT, there’s a deeper horror lurking under the surface, but more on that later.
When Curry isn’t onscreen, which is the vast majority of the time, the series rests solely on the shoulders of the cast and production staff, who usually strain under the weight. In a surprising twist, the child actors who portray the Loser’s Club in their initial encounter with Pennywise vastly outshine their adult counterparts, whose performances generally leave a lot to be desired. Even usually dependable players like John Ritter fall short more often than not. The inadequacies of the adult actors are made somewhat worse by the fact that the second half of the series is notably weaker than the first, with the atmosphere undone by too many montages set to upbeat music.
The production staff, including director Tommy Lee Wallace, also don’t do much to stand out. Wallace’s direction is fine, occasionally capturing a spooky atmosphere, but for the most part the direction in IT feels like exactly what it is: flat, by the numbers TV direction typical of the time period.
So if Pennywise isn’t that scary and the formal aspects of the 1990 production aren’t that interesting, what is there to IT in the end? The series’ best moments, the ones that almost make it worth sitting through all three hours, are the moments of true horror scattered in between clown attacks and the giant spider finale. The Losers Club, like so many child protagonists in horror properties, are the only ones who can see Pennywise and all the aftermath of his antics, but IT throws a twist into this tried and true formula. Horror fans will doubtlessly be familiar with this scenario: during a moment alone, one of the protagonists will see a horrifying vision, in this particular case an explosion of blood from a drain or a family photo album. They’ll run and grab their parents, only to return and find everything normal. What they saw was a vision, a hallucination. IT throws a curveball in this formula by having the blood, creatures, and other terrifying manifestations stay around when the adults are in the room. These aren’t visions or hallucinations, but reality — a reality that adults have trained themselves to overlook.
Why does this matter? Because the true horror of IT isn’t the scary clown or the giant spider — it’s the willingness of societies to look the other way when something is clearly wrong. There’s a key scene when Bev, the only female members of The Loser’s Club, recalls being attacked by the neighborhood bullies. A man across the street sees this happening, and rather than intercede, he quietly returns to his house. It is about what happens when people become so used to cruelty and horror that they train themselves not to see it, to look the other way when presented with something clearly harmful. It’s about the normalization of the abnormal, about the seductive power of willful ignorance when the alternative — action — puts oneself at risk. Look at Henry Bowers, the local bully who’s clearly a dangerous sociopath to anyone who pays attention. What is he, if not just another Pennywise? He’s a problem that everyone looks past because trying to fix it is harder than ignoring it.
Admittedly, this far more interesting aspect is something native to King’s novel rather than something concocted by the makers of the series, so we can’t credit Stephen King’s IT with bringing this particular aspect to the table. We can, however, be grateful that this crucial element was preserved rather than putting a focus on the much shallower horrors of scary clowns and giant spiders.
Watching the 1990 IT, it becomes clear that a second stab is needed to really plumb the depths of the novel and do it justice, as there is a lot of interesting material to be mined. In addition to the more interesting commentary on societal apathy, there’s also King’s dabblings with cosmic horror, something the miniseries pays the barest of lip service to. By the sound of things, Andrés Muschietti has presented us with a far superior version of King’s novel. Does that make the 1990 version obsolete? No, not entirely. Tim Curry’s performance, campy as it is, is still fun to watch. But apart from that element, it won’t be hard for the upcoming second attempt to overshadow its predecessor in most regards.