Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Film Appreciation - Pennywise: Haunting Viewers Since 1990

Guest contributor Thomas Beane discusses the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's It for Film Appreciation.

If a poll asks about film and television monsters that have left an impact on the viewers, there is little doubt that it would include Pennywise, the evil clown from the 1990 miniseries based on Stephen King’s IT. Premiered just four years after the release of the best-selling novel of the same name, this film was shown in two parts on ABC television, featuring powerful performances by television and film stars at the top of their careers. Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III, Tour of Duty, Twilight Zone) directed the miniseries for Warner Bros, and brought a unique perspective to the project. His work with fantasy and horror made him a great choice to direct.

The story is a traditional Stephen King work about growing up in America with a terrifying twist. The story follows the adventures of a seven friends who grew up together in the small town of Derry, Maine. The group known as "The Losers Club" shares the same dark secret about their childhood and their hometown. They are the only ones who can battle an evil being in Derry that wakes every thirty years to feed on the children of their hometown. Key themes in this story, like many of King’s, are finding courage in the face of adversity and showing how everyone is special to someone else.

The television adaptation follows the pattern established in the book of bouncing between the modern times (1990) to scenes from the main characters’ childhood, which efficiently tells the story of their first showdown with IT in 1960. These scenes also set into motion a "call to action" for the Losers Club to return to Derry and battle the evil that they once thought to be dead. This part of the story was told in the final segment of the series. The story is really about the bond of friendship and the lengths to which people will go to fight evil that has targeted them. There is even a little revenge in the journey for Bill Denbrough (portrayed by Richard Thomas).

The miniseries features a diverse cast in a broad age range of film and television stars. Several actors known for their work on successful television programs fill the cast including Richard Thomas (John Boy from The Waltons), Harry Anderson (Night Court), Tim Reid (WKRP in Cincinnati), and John Ritter (Three’s Company). Several big screen actors are in the film as well, including Richard Mauser (The Mean Season, Shoot to Kill), Annette O’Toole (Cat People, Superman III, The Kennedys of Massachusetts), and Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away, Fade to Black). The film also starred a young Seth Green (Austin Powers movies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Jonathan Brandis (SeaQuest DMV,The Neverending Story II ). They are an extraordinary ensemble and deliver a moving performance in this classic film. 

The film production quality is good considering the technology used by the industry during the late 1980s and the budget for the complete production. The television feel adds to this film by recapturing the innocence of the childhood scenes within the story. It was easy to imagine oneself in the small 1960s town as the kids played in the creek of the Barrens or roamed the streets on their way to the Paramount, a local movie theater.

Pennywise has become an iconic king in pop culture. Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Legend) brilliantly portrayed the clown persona of IT, which was one of many forms that the monster could adopt. The producers did limit the amount of violence and gore seen by the audience, as it was for a national broadcast channel and they frowned on graphic images. However, the smooth mixture of perceived and psychological violence and terror were enough to make this film successful. I would dare to say that few people who have seen this film has not thought about the diabolical Pennywise when seeing a clown.

In the whirlwind of remakes, Stephen King’s work has become a target with the plans to remake IT for the Syfy Channel. Warner Bros. will be teaming with Syfy to create a new IT for a new generation. It may be possible for them to recreate the scenes in the film, and a lot of the novel was not included in the original script. However, I don’t believe there is a way for them to recapture that emotion between audiences and King’s work with a retelling of the story. It will be hard for them to deliver actors that have a relationship with a broad audience like those beloved stars of the original. It is worth remembering the original version for its contribution to television history.


  1. Excellent article, Thomas. I never understood those who are afraid of clowns until "IT." Tim Curry wasn't an actor I would think of when I think of "scary," but he was brilliant in this miniseries. I wish classic films and miniseries would be left alone, since remakes rarely add anything positive to the original's story, so I'm a bit nervous about an "IT" remake. It is possible for new voices to add a fresh perspective, however. I'll just hope for the best.
    ShapeshifterGigi (a.k.a. Angela Shafer)

  2. a few weeks ago, I just so happen to had popped this disk into my player after finding it unused and unviewed for three years. Three years, that's a lot of wait to see ole Pennywise again.

    ice article, mate!

  3. The novel is either my all-time favorite or the runner-up (I can never choose between this and "Lonesome Dove"). The movie just doesn't do much for me. Tim Curry is pretty great, but that's about all I'd say for it.