Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Three Faces of It: Part Two

After almost a decade of false starts and behind the scenes difficulty, a new adaptation of Stephen King's It is headed for theaters this September. I'm a huge fan of the story so I'll be writing a three-part series about it - first about the book, then the 1990 TV miniseries and finally the new film when it's released. Spoilers should be expected.

See the first part if you want a refresher on the plot and characters of this story.

A long horror movie is hard to do. The few that are out there demonstrate this pretty well. Rosemary's Baby is well over 2 hours and while it may be a classic, I think you could cut about a half hour from it and it would still be just as good. Dawn of the Dead also cracks the two hour mark and the film's interminable middle act slows things down to a crawl. But if there was ever a horror story that demanded an epic canvas, It The first adaptation of the gigantic book was a three-hour miniseries (four with commercials) roughly divided by the two eras in the novel. Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace from a script by Lawrence Cohen, this version cuts a lot of the more gruesome stuff from the book was still pretty boundary-pushing for its era. It was unusual to see blood on prime time network TV in 1990, let alone balloons full of it.

However, this was also a long time before our modern era of Prestige TV and the budgetary limitations are evident. This is not an easy book to adapt in the first place and not having the means to realize the more mystical elements of the story results in only a few brief references to the true metaphysical nature of It and without the full context of the book, these moments seem like non sequiturs. Later on I'll get into just how much it trips at the finish line with a huge anticlimax of an ending. I may be sounding at bit harsh now but there was also quite a few things this adaptation got right. To start with, the enduring appeal of the miniseries over 25 years later can be summed up in two words - Tim Curry.

Among people who saw this as children, that scene is discussed in almost mythic terms. Simply saying that Curry is "good" as Pennywise doesn't seem like enough. He absolutely disappears into the part and it's become standard practice in entertainment journalism to give him sole credit for making children afraid of clowns. And indeed I have read so many testimonials and spoken to many people who recall how much Pennywise scared them. I can't imagine any other film from that era (the 1990s was pretty weak as far as horror goes) which had that kind of effect.

Considering the limitations, particularly the reluctance to show kids in mortal danger on network television, the movie did pretty well. While the most gruesome stuff was obviously left out, a large amount of dialogue and scenes from the book found its way into the script. At its best moments, the movie captures the camaraderie among the seven kids. It helps that the child actors are really very good, including a young Seth Green as Richie and the late Jonathan Brandis as Bill. The Emmy winning score by Richard Bellis is also a major asset - not just for the demented carnival music that plays for Pennywise but for its main theme, a beautiful melody that nails the novel's combination of nostalgia and fear.

If you only have time to watch half, go with the first half. The strong performances of the child actors make it even more surprising that it's the adult actors who struggle with the material in the second half. Some of this is the dialogue's fault. Adult Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) makes a sarcastic comment about Acapulco that is borderline incomprehensible. Annette O'Toole as adult Beverly gets the groaner, "Why is It so mean?!" Harry Anderson fares best as adult Richie, who gets a big laugh right before the final showdown with It when he says "I don't suppose anyone thought to bring something really useful? Like a machine gun?" In general, the second half is just harder to take seriously. Pennywise is an intimidating presence in the first part but the intervening 27 years must have messed with him a bit since he's much more goofy. He cracks himself up shouting "Kiss me, fat boy!" at Ben and later appears as a severed head to roast the group like he's on Comedy Central. And then there's the hilarious library scene. I used to rewind the VHS over and over again just to hear that wacky laugh Pennywise does after he makes a lame joke. Thankfully, now we have YouTube.

A little trivia - two X-Files stars appear in the miniseries. Megan Leitch, who played Mulder's sister Samantha, is the librarian at the start of that clip and William B. "Cigarette Man" Davis shows up briefly in one of the 1950s scenes.

So the major issue people tend to have with this version is the ending, and rightfully so. At the end of the first half, the kids drive off Pennywise but, unlike the book, never see the creature's true form. This made sense but the confrontation with the adults is a huge anticlimax. The audience has waited 3 hours to learn the monster's true form and then...a stop-motion giant spider walks into the room. Not even very good stop-motion either, Ray Harryhausen was making more convincing stuff in the 1950s. There's a puppet used for close-ups that looks a little better but that doesn't help much. Everyone says "It's just a spider?! What a let down!" I've even seen an article on the movie that tried to blame this on the book, to which I say: Oh, hell no.

Anyone who has read at the book will remember that the giant spider encounter is just a prelude to the real final battle - the psychic Ritual of Chud where Bill and It engage in a battle of wills. As a child, Bill defeated It this way by reciting a phrase he learned to help him with his stutter. The determination required to overcome his speech impediment and repeatedly say the tricky phrase ("he thrusts his fists against the posts but still insists he sees the ghosts") severely wounds It and the creature retreats. As an adult, Bill tries again but loses the fight. He would have been dead if not for Richie, who leapt in and began spouting up different voice impersonations, showing that his powerful childhood imagination was alive and well. It is disoriented and becomes trapped in the spider form it uses to anchor Itself to Earth. In this brief window, the group beats the spider to death and rips out Its heart, defeating It once and for all. (But did they get all the eggs? Bum bum bum) There's more stuff going on, but that's the gist. In the movie, Beverly hits the spider with a slingshot (which makes no sense) and then the group beats it to death. So yeah, they didn't exactly stick the landing.

But just as in the book, 27 years have passed and sure enough, Pennywise is set to show his face once again this September. I'm beyond excited to check it out and Part 3 will hopefully come shortly afterward.

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