Friday, 2 October 2015

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, And The Horror: Revisiting "Stephen King's IT"

As an 11-year-old, I managed to see this two-part miniseries in its original airing back in 1990, and the scenes featuring Pennywise, the Dancing Clown (portrayed by Tim Curry) stayed with me for years and no doubt contributed to my dislike of clowns. But I also loved the story of childhood friendships, and of teamwork to take down evil. (It helped that at the time I had a major crush on Jonathan Brandis, about whom there will be more as this post progresses). It can't be denied that there are echoes of "Stand By Me" (1986) another film based on a work by Stephen King, who is known primarily as a horror writer but he has proven that he is much more than that. The nostalgic feel of much of the first half of "IT" and about a quarter of the second is what I enjoy the most and I've come across others who have the same opinion.

First off, let's get down to the outrage of novel purists who despise the fact that so much was omitted and changed from King's original novel, but the reasoning is as follows: 1990 was quite different compared today, whereas in recent years television is much more explicit and we have channels like HBO that are able to be more blatant regarding programming, as to what can be shown or what cannot. ABC simply would not have allowed the graphic and explicit content that King wrote about at the time. Secondly, the novel is massive, approximately 1, 900 pages long, and this was only a two part miniseries, clocking in at 187 minutes, without commercial breaks. Imagine the enormous task that director Tommy Lee Wallace and Lawrence D. Cohen faced, adapting this complex work for television. It simply could not be the book, period.

Also, Stephen King likes to ramble. A lot. That's not to say that he isn't a good writer, but he's the kind who feels the need to explain reasons for his characters to act the way they do, including complicated and intricate backstories and subplots. "IT" remains his longest novel to date, and the shifting of narratives and timelines (from the year 1958 to the present day when it was written, 1985), makes it so while reading you really have to pay attention because it's very easy to become lost and confused. Having said that, he writes the experience of childhood and adolescence very well, and in reading you will find yourself revisiting your own, and identifying with the characters that he lovingly creates. He simply "gets" it - the day to day reality of dealing with school, pressures, bullies and parents who aren't up to the job. Trauma and pain, but also friendship, and the bonds we form with others that can help us draw strength and help us overcome the very things that terrify us.

The "Lucky Seven, aka "The Loser's Club

The adult version of "The Lucky Seven"
The miniseries, while watered down, retains these themes. Despite dealing with a low budget, and a location where the weather was often unpredictable (British Columbia doubling for the fictional town of Derry, in Maine), for the most part, particularly the first half and pretty much any of the scenes involving the younger cast members, it is very effective. We have seven adults who made a promise to return to their hometown should the malevolent force they battled as kids return to wreck havoc as it did in the past, every 30 years or so (the novel explains it in much more detail). When Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), the lone member of the group who stayed in Derry, suspects that a string of child murders and disappearances is linked to the horror he and his friends endured as kids, he calls them up one by one and informs them that they need to keep their promise. Bill Denbourgh (Richard Thomas) is a novelist residing in England with his wife Audra (Olivia Hussey), and he flashes back to the year 1960 (the timeline was slightly altered to fit the present day of the production) to the day his little brother Georgie (Tony Dakota) was brutally and mysteriously murdered. Young Bill (the ill-fated Jonathan Brandis) blames himself for not going with Georgie that day, and sees something disturbing in his brother's room that his parents seem oblivious to. The next call is to Ben Hanscom (the late John Ritter), an architect who remembers as a rather overweight youngster (played by Brandon Crane), being tormented by the school bully, Henry Bowers (Jarred Blacard) and his gang. Ben also recalls his own encounter with IT, but decides to return to Derry. Then Beverly Marsh (Annette O'Toole), who runs a clothing design company, finds her evening with her abusive business partner and lover interrupted, but drops everything to keep her promise, despite the threats of a man who clearly has the same brutal and controlling patterns of her father (of course we are treated to a flashback to illustrate this, with Emily Perkins portraying the young Beverly). Eddie Kaspbrack (Dennis Christopher, looking uncannily like his good friend, Anthony Perkins), leaves his home despite the protestations of his overbearing mother (whom you just want to punch in the face). He recalls his own nightmare (played in youth by Adam Farazil) and seems terrified at the prospect of facing it again. Stand-up comedian Richie Tozier (Harry Anderson) is also hesitant to take on the entity that frightened him as a kid (in the person of Seth Green), but conceals his fear behind a humorous facade. Last but not least, business man Stan Uris (Richard Masur), is unwilling to face the horror and cannot bear the thought of reliving it all over again. He had been the last one to accept the truth, and his younger self (Ben Heller) had been the most terrified because of the logical workings of his mind.

Henry Bowers (Jarred Blacard) and his gang

Tim Curry as Pennywise
Young Beverly's father can't see the blood . . . .. 
. . . . but she and her friends do!

The first half goes back and forth between present day and flashback, and is extremely well-handled. The soundtrack inserts a couple of oldies that will take you back (even if, like myself, you weren't around in those times), and the score by Richard Bellis demonstrates the innocence, terror, humor and emotion. Each member of the group recalls how they came together in their youth and how their determination to overcome the fear made them stronger as a team. When young Mike (Marlon Taylor) joins them they become "Lucky Seven" and jokingly "The Loser's Club" as they are all outcasts at school and the target of the sadistic Henry Bowers, and when they all realize they've encountered the same evil entity that is killing the town's children, they decide they must stop it. The battle in the sewer is very well done and very interesting. You believe that they are working together to conquer this evil being, that often takes the form of Pennywise, The Dancing Clown, but is able to take the form of your greatest fear. The adults around don't see it, because as Bill says, "When you grow up, you stop believing". While this could be chalked up to small town mentality of looking the other way, in Derry it has a whole new meaning. Literally, the grown ups don't see what the children do - because, kids are far more sensitive, imaginative and psychic, something that we tend to lose as we get older. The power that the youngsters have in this situation sends a very positive message. If you believe, and you work together, you can triumph over evil.

The kids prepare to battle it out with IT
Things don't go as planned
But they fight and win!

The adults in the sewer
Unfortunately, Part 2 doesn't really have the same power, due to far too much focus on the adults and poor use of flashbacks, and the low budget rearing its ugly head during the final battle, which pales in comparison to what we saw at the end of Part 1. The adult cast just were not as compelling to watch, and their rapport was just not as believable. It didn't help that several of them looked nothing like the actors who portrayed them as kids (Richard Masur, who does a good job in his brief screen time, well, he just doesn't conjure up the image of the cherubic lad who portrayed the young Stan), or that the adult Richie came across as more obnoxious than funny. They have some good moments (particularly in the first 20 minutes of the second installment) but it pales in comparison to the performances that we see even in the all too brief flashback sequences in Part 2. Even Tommy Lee Wallace stated that the kids were far easier to become invested in than the adults. Part 1 made it easier to watch the grown members of the Lucky Seven because it was balanced so well by their backstories, and how their friendship began. The second half is ultimately a disappointment in comparison, but still worth watching. Just don't expect anything spectacular.

To be fair, this isn't the only television or film project to fall victim to this result of story structure. The Canadian miniseries "The Boys Of St. Vincent" (1992), as well as the feature films "Now And Then" (1995) and "Sleepers" (1996) had similar issues. The actors playing the adult characters, regardless of talent, were unable to capture the essence and dynamic of their child counterparts. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why "Stand By Me" (1986) doesn't suffer the same fate is due to the fact that almost the entire film takes place in flashback and the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss),  while serving as narrator, only appears onscreen for a few minutes, sparing him the difficult task of having to live up to the younger incarnation of Gordie (Wil Wheaton).

Re-watching this miniseries as an adult, what scared me when I was 11 doesn't have quite the same impact today, but some scenes still pack a pretty good wallop. In Part 1, Tim Curry's portrayal of Pennywise is terrifying and fascinating at the same time. Although Curry was hesitant to take the role because of the heavy make-up he was required to wear, he obviously had a ball and it shows. Although in Part 2 he comes across as comical rather than scary (and he was not used to his full potential in the final installment), he is incredible and I can't imagine "IT" without him.

As I said, the child performers were wonderful and utterly believable. I really think a TV series could have been built around them alone. Some went on to have successful careers (Seth Green, Emily Perkins), but Jonathan Brandis tragically took his own life in 2003, leaving behind many questions and an interesting body of work. It is bittersweet to watch this now, knowing the tragic turn his life would take (as with John Ritter).

This remains the only credit for Ben Heller, which is hard to believe because he was so good. His scenes in the sewer and when young Stan had his own encounter with IT were very compelling. He conveyed so much through facial expressions. Although Stan is the skeptic of the group, when he finally forces himself to accept the terrifying being, it becomes clear that it is far more difficult and scary for him than the others. Jarred Blancard as Henry Bowers didn't fare quite as well, but he was entertaining to watch nonetheless.

I do think "IT" is worth watching, but of course I also recommend the book. Regarding some criticism of the latter I will admit there is far too much profanity during the 1958 chapters, but that was also something that was noted in the novella "The Body" which was the basis for "Stand By Me" (1986).

I will close with this excerpt from the book, as the adults realize they are going to forget everything, once they have left Derry, as we all  tend to forget experiences that are traumatic, but also as adults we let go of the past that shaped us, but part of it still remains, even if we don't consciously recall it.

"You don't have to look back to see those children; part of your mind will see them forever, live with them forever,  love with them forever. They are not necessarily the best part of you, but they were once the repository of all you could become.

Children, I love you. I love you so much."

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