Stephen King’s It (1990)

Alex Haley isn’t the only author whose name can help sell a miniseries.  Stephen King, a worldwide favorite, had a slew of miniseries made from his books, though “It” is the best of the lot, appropriately scary and definitely creepy, but with King’s unique sense of humor intact.  And an evil clown.  You can’t top an evil clown. 

I should add that it makes sense to turn “It” into a miniseries rather than a feature film like so many other King tales because this one has an emotional resonance to it that TV did so well at the time.  All of King’s stories have true heart to them somewhere (poor Carrie is a victim of her mother, Annie of her lonely life, etc.), but “It” balances precariously on the fine line between emotional truth and emotional goo.  The latter would have been laughed out of a movie theater, so it’s better on TV where it can be PG, meaning gooey and scary as heck, rather than scary as hell. 

You don’t need to be told that the story takes place in Maine.  They all do.  In the present, a little girl rides into her backyard as a storm is brewing, hearing the laughter of children and seeing the craziest clown.  Her mother goes to fetch her, only to find out the kid is dead.  Librarian Tim Reid is worried because six kids have gone missing, with varying excuses.  This murder has him spooked.  “It’s time to tell the others what’s happening,” he says to himself. 

The others would be his childhood friends.  There is writer Richard Thomas, married to complaining Olivia Hussey (as far from the Virgin Mary as you can get), unhappy that he is writing a screenplay based on one of his.  Tim calls Richard first and there starts a flashback to 30 years ago.  Younger Richard (Jonathan Brandis, keeping Richard’s stutter that appears only when he thinks of this episode), has an annoying little brother he sends out in a rainstorm with a boat made out of newspaper.  The boat goes down the sewer and as the little brother is going to reach for it, the scary clown Pennywise (Tim Curry) appears.  Pennywise taunts the kid with all the fun stuff in the sewer and then bares his fangs and kills the tyke.  Guilty Young Richard goes into his brother’s room and a book of pictures flutters and leaks blood.  “I forgot, how could I forget?” Richard says and leaves his wife, with the parting words that his brother was murdered and never told her because he “forgot.” 

Next up is drunken John Ritter, complete with a fling of the night in massive shoulder pads.  He’s a New York City architect who lives in a gigantic loft, so gigantic it’s the size of a borough.  As he’s kissing the bimbo, he tells her how fat he was a child, and that’s when Tim calls.  Timing, huh?  Tim asks him to return to Maine, and John, who claims to remember “very little,” shoos away the bimbo and gulps down a drink.  “You’re going to kill yourself,” she says.  “No, but it might be better if I did,” he snaps and then takes the elevator all the way up to one of his buildings for his flashback.  Young John is new in town, but he’s so fat that the cool kids make fun of him.  The main cool kid looks as if he’s been held back about 15 years, and he’s sent to detention, causing one of the other kids to quip, “it’s gonna be a good funeral” to Young John.  And, of course, on his way home, the cool, if noticeably older kids, attack him, but he escapes into a sewage tunnel, where they are distracted by two of the other outcasts, one of them being stuttering Young Richard.  Young John has a lot of problems.  Not only are his new friends all considered nerds, but he’s had to move to Maine with his mother because his mother is on the dole, dad having died in Korea.  Back at the creek where he hid out from the old cool kids, he sees a vision of his father, which soon turns into the evil clown, with Tim Curry going all out,.

The only female member of the gang is Annette O’Toole, living as a designer in Chicago with an overbearing business partner and lover, Ryan Michael, who scares the hell out of her.  Since it’s 1990, she’s designing a collection to be bought by the Japanese.  The Japanese owned everything in in the 80s, remember?  Annette gets her call from Tim while Ryan should be combing his chest hair, but is instead on the hunt for a bottle of champagne.  Annette tries to leave after the call, but Ryan slaps her.  “You’ve forgotten your lessons,” he says, pulling out a strap with which to whip her.  She knocks him out with a bottle of cold cream and threatens to kill him in the best up close melodrama acting she can muster.  In her flashback, she is a nerdy girl with an abusive father who receives a lovely poem from Young John.  He brings her to meet his other new friends and they have fun together at the creek.  Young Annette hears voices of dead kids calling to her from the sink and a balloon pops through and explodes, covering her in blood.  The scene is so chilling because the blood is only in her mind and her father touches the sink, covered in blood he can’t see and then keeps touching her.  “You’ll die if you try,” the clown’s voice repeats over and over. 

Meet Dennis Christopher, then and now an asthmatic helpless without his inhaler, and the runt of our goofy gang  As an adult, he lives with a shrieking mother, and as a kid, he and his pals were constantly running into those ever-aging cool kids and getting into trouble.  The nerdy kids have become quite a crowd, smart asses who speak like then current Borscht Belt comedians, but his mother says, “you don’t need any friends but your old ma.”  She forbids him to shower with the other kids, but the phys ed teacher refuses to let him off from showering.  Alone in the shower, suddenly all the nozzles turn on and start chasing him around the room.  The clown comes out of the drain to taunt him about his weaknesses and then bares those horrible fangs. 

Since it’s 1990, Harry Anderson was still a big star and an obvious choice to be in a miniseries (thankfully time would flatten his annoying nonsense crap).  In the present, he’s a successful comedian (really playing against type, stretch it, Harry).  Harry’s agent isn’t happy that Harry has to go back to Maine.  Who will sub for Carson next week like Harry was supposed to do?  “Let Leno do it!” how prophetic.  In the past, he’s a red-haired kid with glasses.  As he and his friends are down at the creek, a police officer comes to tell them another child has been killed and they should always be there together, never alone.  Now about 47, the evil cool kids are after him because he dropped food on them at the movies and they go after him in the cafeteria, but he has the last laugh because they slip on mashed potatoes.  The principal sends him to the basement to get a mop to clean up the mess (Annette’s father is the janitor).  Down in the bowels of the school, he encounters the clown dressed as a movie monster, giving his usual refrain about teaching the kids to “float.”  Young Harry runs back upstairs and announces to the whole school that there’s a monster in the basement and all but his friends laugh at him.  They have all seen things too horrible to understand as well.

Tim deserves a flashback too!  His starts in class, where the teacher asks what we’ve all been asking of the 84-year old cool kid, “how many years will you be in this classroom with me?”  Young Tim likes stories about death, people who vanished, etc.  Of course, being the only black in town (in all of Maine, no doubt, since it’s 1960), he’s picked on mercilessly.  The nerd brigade is discussing the visions they have had for the first time when he is chased into their presence by the cool kids (walkers not included).  The nerds are wondering what they are seeing.  Is it in their imagination or is it real?  Anyway, Young Tim comes running their way and since they hate the senior cool kids, they help him.  “The fat boy, the Jew and the sissy…” the main cool kid addresses them, including epithets for all of them.  “I have bones to pick with all of you,” he tells the nerds, who then pelt him and his friends with rocks.  It turns into a giant melee, with the geeks winning the day.  The main old cool kid is left behind and the seven threaten to “put you in the hospital” before sending him off brave togetherness.  If this weren’t Stephen King, it would be almost inspiring.  “You want in,” Young Tim is asked?  “We’re seven now.  Lucky seven,” Young John notes and then they take a picture together.  In one of Tim’s books on macabre old stuff, they see pictures of Pennywise the Clown.   “It…It…” Young Richard stutters and then the book comes to live.  It’s a few hundred years ago and Pennywise is running through the barely-settled town right to talk to them.  “I’m everything you EVER were afraid of,” he yells at the kids.  The kids want to tell someone, but they know no one will listen.  “You grow up, you stop believing,” Young Richard notes, before taunting the clown to make an appearance so he can kill him, begging help from his friends, who of course all agree. 

Last of the group is Richard Masur, a happily married adult man in a bow tie who suddenly turns into a bowl of jelly when Tim calls.  The new flashback has all of the kids swearing allegiance to each other by taking a puff from Young Dennis’ inhaler and then going into the castle-like entrance to the sewer system.  The 106-year old cool kids spot them and want to know where they are going, but the leader chirps, “they are not coming out.”  They follow the nerd brigade, though one of the three is a little frightened.  A lot of weird stuff happens in the sewer, noises and lights.  Young Richard M is grabbed by two of the old cool kids.  “I guess you’re the first,” they say, pulling out a switchblade.  After way too long, they notice that Young Richard M is gone, just the bullies are cutting the buttons off his shirt.  The weird lights and sounds come blowing into the room and takes away one of the old cool kids, bending him in half and sucking him into a sewer pipe.  And then he’s gone.  The lights come back for the main old cool kid, turning his hair shocking white, but Young Richard M is able to get back to his friends, where they join hands against the approaching “it.”  The presence hovers over them and then disappears, or so they think.  Suddenly the world’s largest sewage system (in Maine, no less), is flooded with a vapor.  Young Richard T tells them they have to be strong and resist.  Each of the kids is taunted by a voice important to them, almost getting them to break the circle, but they remain strong.  Young Richard M is taken by the clown, who says “you always taste better when you are afraid.  I am eternal child, the eater of worlds and children…and you are next,” the clown hisses until young Dennis sprays his inhaler at the clown and then Young Annette knocks a hole in his head with a slingshot.  He’s sucked down into the bowels of the sewer in one of the cheapest special effects of the decade, trying to take the kids with it.  They aren’t sure if he’s really dead or not. 

The kids make a pact that if It ever returns, they will all come back.  Young Richard M is at first the only hold-out, but he too swears and they all join arms. 

Back in the present, Richard M’s wife finds him in the bathtub, having slit his wrists.  IT is scrawled on the wall in blood.

The second parts starts with Richard T coming back to Maine and going to visit his brother’s grave.  There are seven graves dug and the clown pops out from one of them, telling Richard there is a grave for each of them, except the one on the end, already taken.  Richard, sporting the stupidest hairdo in miniseries history (a pony tail, which on him looks utterly ridiculous), goes to the library, where Tim has set up a shrine to his books, since he’s the most important author to ever come out of the town (Stephen King does like to scribble instead of masturbate now and then).  Tim takes him to “poor town,” where Tim now lives.  “It’s clean and better yet, it’s paid for,” rather pathetic Tim whines. 

Harry arrives in town, zipping past the old movie theater in his convertible where he sees his birth AND DEATH dates on the marquee.  Harry rushes to the library, wher ehe sees the clown and hundreds of balloons, each one popping and drenching a library denizen in blood.  “You’re all too old to stop me!” the clown yells at Harry.  Worse of all, he repeats Harry’s awful jokes in his scary voice.

Tim and Richard are fooling around in a parking lot with an old bicycle they used to ride and see the clown in a deck of cards. 

Every important John, who hasn’t lost a huge amount of weight in 30 years, arrives in town, stopping at the creek just as a fat kid is being tormented by appropriately youthful bullies.  He sees the corpse of one of his bullies by the entrance to the sewer, or at least things he does.  He sees the clown hitchhiking and then a balloon appears in his car telling him “turn back now.” 

When Dennis gets back in town, he remembers the pharmacist telling him the medication he’s been taking is a placebo, which he thought to be a lie.  The pharmacist is still there, sitting in a back room asking for a cigar.  Dennis tries to thank him, and the pharmacist remembers him.  Or does he?  Suddenly he grabs Dennis and tells him to leave in the clown’s horrid voice.  Annette comes back and goes to her old house, where she finds out her father died a few years ago.  The widow who lives there now invites her in and lets Annette “freshen up” (people still did that by 1990?).  Of course it’s the sink where the clown had appeared to her.  She sees the widow slurping tea, which is blood and then she turns a vision of her father in drag (uglier than Norman Bates).  That vision turns into the clown, telling her to leave town.  But, all along, she’s actually just been standing in the street, because the house is boarded up.  Just her and a balloon. 

The gang gathers for Chinese food, seeing each other for the first time in years.  Annette faints after calling them all “old men” and then kisses everyone.  It’s a love-fest, a real one by the way she kisses a few of ’em!  Dennis says he can’t remember much about the past, except spraying his inhaler at a clown.  By the way, this gang of six screaming adults talking about a giant clown attracts no attention among the other restaurant patrons.  As if they were “The Big Chill,” there is a montage of the gang yucking it up at the Chinese restuarant, drinking and eating without a care in the world.  The conversation turns to the old bully, who was pulled out of the sewer by the police and confessed to killing all the kids, now living in an institution and looking age appropriate (Michael Cole is now playing him).  Just as the gang members are talking about him, the clown appears to him in the institution and asks for his help again to kill the kids. 

Back at the restaurant, they are not all in agreement to pursue what they came for, until they start opening the fortune cookies and blood, bugs and such come out of them.  Their horrified reactions do get noticed by the waitress.  After all that!  They run as fast as they can from the restaurant.  They head the library, where Harry goes into his comedy schtick, none of it funny, as they try to get in touch with Richard M.  When they find out what happend to him, the comedy stops. 

This reminds Richard T to tell us that Richard M, always the non-believer, was the last one to see It.  He had been out birdwatching one afternoon and heard a voice calling him into a house.  He goes and the door locks behind him.  To ward off the mummified figure approaching, he recites the names of all the birds he can recall and that sets him free.  According to Dennis, Richard M was the only one who ever saw It, “what was behind the clown.”  They all need a drink, but when they open the mini fridge, balloons come out and Richard M’s head taunts them about how awful their lives are, before once again hearing that “they all float down here.”  In one of those epic Stephen King moments, the library is attacked: the books fly off the shelves, rain comes pouring down, everything happens, but when the gang members join hands in a circle, it all stops.  Harry pulls out the schtick again to ask everyone to leave.  Why does he have to yell it like a coke-snorting 80s comic when he could just ask politely (hmmmm). 

Meanwhile, It, in the form of one of the dead-no-longer-aging cool kids, begs Michael to help again, giving him a switchblade as a way to escape.  When the guard comes to stop him from leaving, a clown with a dog’s head attacks and kills him (or maybe it’s just another ghoulish mind trick). 

It’s up to Tim to fill the gang members in on what happened.  Stephen King is not a sloppy writer and his book is far tighter than the screenplay here, but there are some revealing details in the expository scenes.  We find out that the murders of children happen every 30 years, that the adults in the town know about it but can’t speak of it and that the whole town is nuts.  Tim, being a lover of mass murders, has tracked the murders throughout the years.  “For some reason, there’s something very special about us being together…otherwise It would have picked us off one-by-one,” Tim says, reminding everyone that as kids they were losers and as adults, they are all financially successful, but none have kids.  They all appreciate that Tim has stayed in town when they didn’t.  Awww, that’s sweet of them. 

Olivia has decided to track Richard to Maine and stops at a gas station to ask for directions where she encounters the clown. 

Annette fills in another memory, the blood in her bathroom as a child.  All of the other kids see it.  “I fell in love with all of you guys that day…and after we cleaned it up, the blood never game back,” she tells them.  As morning is dawning, none of them want to be alone, even keeping their hotel doors open when they need things from their rooms.  Michael shows up in Tim’s room and stabs him, though the others don’t hear it.  Annette can even recite the poem young John wrote for her and they are making out hot and heavy when John realizes it’s the clown he’s kissing. 

Finallly, Dennis and John break into Tim’s room and pull Michael off Tim, with the switchblade going into Michael.  Tim isn’t completely deda, so they all pile into Harry car and speed off to the hospital (nobody trusts an ambulance, I suppose.  Annette and John have a repeat kissing/poem recitation moment, this time for real, after Annette has a mini breakdown.  Dennis catches them smooching and calls them back into the hospital.  Tim is going to live.  Richard tells him the cover story, that they all got drunk, Tim danced on a table and fell.  “Anyone who has seen me dance will know that’s a lie,” Tim whispers, obviously forgetting his days as Venus Fly Trap on “WKRP.”  Tim confides to Richard that he went back to the sewer as an adult to pick up the two rocks Annette had used to crack the clown’s skull, and walked out with graying hair.

And what to do with Michael’s body?  They realize that if they call the police, the town will not handle it correctly.  Some want to leave and some want to simply ignore it.  Harry turns on the TV to find out there has been a rash of child killings in town, but everyone is in too much of a hurry to leave and he wants to stick around least of all!  On the way out, Richard sees a vision and decides, in an emotion speech to the others about fear, that “I don’t want to be scared anymore.  I’m going back in,” he tells them and we flash back to his young self begging for help as he had 30 years earlier.  Of course they all join in a group hug.  Group hugs are awfully popular in this movie, strange for a Stephen King novel filmed in 1990, more appropriate for say, “Designing Women?”

They all go to the sewer, armed with Annette’s slingshot and the rocks Tim saved.  Harry puts up a fight for a moment, once more making sure we understand he’s giving the worst performance in the flick, but he agrees to go in as well.  It turns out the massive sewer has not changed much in 30 years.  Robert finds Olivia’s purse and goes running down the hallway after her, alone.  Richard hugs his knees to his chest and starts stuttering, but Annette gives him the verbal equivalent of a slap across the face and brings him back to his senses.  “Stay close together,” they agree.  They find their way to the center room where they once battled It, and It is there once again, showing up in the form of the newspaper boat Richard had made for his brother.  The brother is there too, blaming Richard.  “You sent me out and it killed me,” he says and Richard starts to collapse again, but his friends urge him to fight the feelings of guilt and fear.  When he openly denies the vision, it disappears. 

A vision of the clown replaces it to tease them all into doubting themselves.  “Maybe we can’t fight that thing.  It’s like trying to fight smoke,” Harry he weakling says, but Richard knows that It wakes up every 30 years to cause mayhem and death and it’s time to stop it.  So, he sets the paper boat adrift in the water and they follow it to a door littered with bones.  Dennis picks this moment to tell the group he’s a virgin.  He is afraid to sleep with anyone he doesn’t love and he’s never loved anyone but this gang.  None of them volunteer.  Maybe once they kill It, someone will step up to that plate, but that’s something only Mr. King knows. 

They come to a room filled with coccoons and Richard sees Olivia in one.  But, a giant spider bars his access to her.  Time for Annette to do her thing with the slingshot.  “Damn it to hell,” Richard says to her, but the first stone misses.  The second stone is a direct hit, but a light emanates from the spider that hypnotizes all of them.  Annette goes to find her first stone and Dennis remembers to use his inhaler, saying he believes in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, but not It.  The giant spider grabs him and Annete gets another chance, hitting it dead center in the light coming from its torso.  It releases Dennis and scampers away, but the damage is done and Dennis dies. 

The remaining four go after the giantn spider and beat at it tearing out it’s center, killing it.  They race back to the cocoon room where the cocoons descend and Richard is able to save Olivia. 

Tim puts one last journal entry about It and his mind forgets everything that happened.  Harry goes onto a movie career, John and Annette get married and have a baby, “breaking another curse,” while Richard and Olivia have stayed in town for a while since Olivia’s mind is gone.  Tim admits they have to ask each other’s names now and then, so fully have they erased the memories.  Before leaving, Richard takes Olivia on the bike he had used to help Richard M escape It and rides through town until he mind returns. 

I have to be honest, the end is really anti-climactic, one of those times a visual medium can’t compete with the written word.  The gang’s attack of the spider is really quick and so easy that one wonders why it couldn’t have been done 30 years previously.

But, the three hours leading up to that finale are great fun.  It’s nice to see a miniseries delve into the spooky.  No World Wars, not sagas of rich families through ages, no history lesson and definitely no sappy romance.  “Stephen King’s It” is it’s own piece, standing firmly on the shoulders of veteran TV actors who can make it work, with especially good acting from Tim Curry, who gets to soar into wild overacting on purpose!

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

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