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Stephen King's It
The reason Stephen King's It still has staying power amongst his gazillion other novels, enough to garner a theatrical release in 2017, is in the way it turns the concept of fear into an unstoppable abstract form that can ultimately destroy us. Yes, Pennywise the clown is the general embodiment of fear in It, but the timeless nonfigurative monster beneath him feeds off of specific fears that all of us struggle to put behind us but might not able to even face. That, more than anything else, makes King's magnum opus still relevant and terrifyingly relatable.
Before the 2017 feature came onto the scene, the only visual adaptation of King's novel was the 1990 TV mini-series directed by John Carpenter protégée Tommy Lee Wallace, memorable mostly because of a dedicatedly creepy performance by Tim Curry as the eponymous evil clown. I was twelve when it came out on home video, the perfect age to be scared by a TV movie that admittedly pushed the envelope regarding how much graphic violence and blood could be shown on the small screen at the time. That being said, of course a 26-year-old TV horror adaptation feels dated and not nearly as effective when watched today.
Wallace gets a lot of credit for implying the kind of violence that he certainly couldn't get away with at the time. A big chunk of the story focuses on Pennywise stalking children by using their fears against them in order to weaken them enough to kill them. Child murder is a taboo subject even in R-rated horror films, so Wallace must have known that he had to tread the issue lightly on TV. In that sense, he knows that his greatest asset is to just stick to close-up shots of Curry's terrifyingly playful delivery, while sufficiently implying violence with clever cutaways.
It was broadcast in two separate parts, each one around 90 minutes long, even though the Blu-ray shows the miniseries in its' entirety like a three-hour feature. The problem with sitting through the whole thing is that the first part is clearly more effective and engaging than the awkwardly paced and anti-climactic final section. The first 90 minutes mostly focuses on the flashbacks that show a group of seven children (One of them played by a very young Seth Green) who vow to destroy what they believe is a child-murdering demon that's terrorizing their otherwise quiet Maine town.
The isolated scenes where Pennywise scares the children using creative ways to get into their heads are still fun and creepy, thanks to some inventive practical effects, and of course, Curry's giddy weirdness. The climax of this section, showing the kids fighting back their fears in order to beat the demon feels relevant today, thanks to the resurgence of nostalgia based kids' adventure-horror material like Stranger Things. It's when we deal entirely with the adults during the second section that the whole thing kind of falls apart.
Returning to the town thirty years after they defeated the monster, the lucky seven has to face him again, while dealing with the inner demons that now plague them as adults. Instead of dealing with adult fear as a concept while organically inserting horror set pieces based on it, the second part rushes through the story by throwing at us a bunch of ineffective jump scares until we get a wholly unsatisfactory final battle. The strength of the first part, Wallace showing the kind of restraint that he learned from his mentor, letting the audience imagine the terror more than experiencing it, disappears as Pennywise takes the center stage while showing up far too often in order to deliver one-liners like a second-grade Freddy Krueger.
That being said, It still has cultural relevance as a halfway decent adaptation of one of Stephen King's best books. Until the 2017 version comes along, this is all we get, and considering the TV roots and the low budget, it could have been so much worse.
I'm glad that the 4:3 frame was retained for this release, instead of going for a 16:9 reframing that would have screwed up the intended aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer is the best home video version of the mini-series that we will get, but it still has that overtly clean TV look, with enough DNR to scrape off as much grain and contrast as possible. Yes, It was made for TV, but it was still shot on film, and a more film-like look would have been appreciated.
The DTS-HD 2.0 track gets the job done as far as delivering the TV experience to Blu-ray, but the sound design and the score still has that tinny and low-key TV audio, without much of an overhaul to bring the whole thing into a more HD experience.
Commentary by Tommy Lee Wallace, Dennis Christopher, Tim Reid, John Ritter, and Richard Thomas: Wallace and his cast for the adult versions of the main characters deliver a very informative and loose commentary where they have enough time to really get into the many details of the production. Ported over from the DVD release, this is a very good addition for the fans.
Just like the adults in It, it's been almost thirty years since I was last scared by Pennywise. The effect is of course not as prevalent, but this adaptation is still an impressive take on King's style. Hopefully the upcoming feature will fix the ending.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com