Stephen King's It (1990)

With a new cinematic version of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It due to hit theaters in September, I thought I’d take a look at the previous adaptation of that classic novel: a miniseries which aired on ABC in the fall of 1990.

Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, who had previously directed the underappreciated Halloween III: Season of the Witch, this story begins with Maine librarian Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) realizing that he must summon his six childhood friends back to their hometown of Derry when he discovers that recent murders of children are linked to a malevolent force which takes on the guise of a clown named Pennywise (Tim Curry). Mike and his friends thought they destroyed the entity thirty years earlier, and made a pact to return if Pennywise ever re-emerged.

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Mike first calls Bill Denbrough (Richard Thomas), who’s now a best-selling horror novelist living in England with his actress wife Audra (Olivia Hussey). Mike’s phone call prompts Bill to remember when his younger self (Jonathan Brandis) gave his kid brother Georgie (Tony Dakota) a paper boat. George went out to play with it in the rain, only to be murdered by Pennywise when the clown tore his arm off, killing him. Ben’s recollection makes him quickly hop on the next plane to the States, to Audra’s confusion and dismay.

The next call is to Ben Hanscom (John Ritter), who’s a successful architect living in New York. Mike’s call quickly ends his romantic evening as Ben soon goes to the top of a building under construction, booze in hand, and reminisces about his younger self (Brandon Crane), who was harassed because of his weight by town bully Henry Bowers (Jarred Blancard). On his way home, having become smitten with new classmate Beverly Marsh (Emily Perkins), young Ben runs into Henry and his gang. They chase him down to a forested area known as the Barrens, where Ben eludes them, but not before Henry picks on Bill and Eddie Kaspbrak (Adam Faraizl). After the bullies leave, Ben befriends Bill and Eddie, and they agree to hang out together again. But as Ben returns home, he hears and sees his deceased father, inviting him to live with him in the sewers. Ben’s old man soon turns into Pennywise and this recollection prompts the adult Ben to tremble.

The third call is to the adult Beverly (Annette O’Toole), who’s a Chicago fashion designer. She receives Mike’s call after she and her abusive boyfriend Tom Rogan (Ryan Michael) are celebrating after making a successful deal for their business. When Tom strikes her for wanting to fulfill her promise to her friends, Beverly promptly kicks his ass and storms out. During her cab ride to the airport, Beverly reminisces about receiving an anonymous love note. Said note is from Ben, who watches from a distance as Beverly storms out of her house when her abusive father finds the note. Ben invites her to the Barrens where she meets Bill and Eddie. They are soon joined by preppy Stan Uris (Ben Heller) and comedic Richie Tozier (Seth Green, yes, that Seth Green). The six spend the afternoon building a damn which Ben has designed. On their way home, Ben notices the eyes Beverly and Bill are making at each other. That night, Beverly is washing up when she hears a voice in the bathroom sink. A balloon emerges from the sink and pops, splashing blood over her. She frantically informs her dad, but he apparently sees nothing amiss when he investigates. Beverly then assuages his doubts by saying that a spider came out of the sink. As her dad leaves, Beverly cowers in fear (both in the bathroom and in the cab) as Pennywise’s voice tells her she’ll die if she tries to stop him.

We next cut to Los Angeles, where adult Richie (Harry Anderson) is a successful comedian. Though he’s not laughing when Mike’s call comes through, and is soon vomiting in his bathroom. Richie’s flashback begins with the six friends watching the classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf at the movie theater. Eddie accidentally kicks popcorn onto Henry and his gang seated below them. Our six heroes bolt, but not before Richie spices things up by pouring his Coke on them.

At school the next day, Richie and Stan take note of how distraught their friends have recently become. Richie and Henry get into a brief scuffle, which is stopped by the principal, who orders Richie to get a mop to clean the mess up. Upon reaching the maintenance closet, Richie sees a werewolf that turns into a tormenting Pennywise. Racing back upstairs, Richie’s claims are (predictably) met with laughter.

The adult Eddie (Dennis Christopher), who runs a successful limousine business in New York, confesses to his overbearing mother that he must return to Derry. Despite her protests, Eddie promptly heads for the train station. En route, he reminisces about the time when his mom also told him to never take showers at the school gym so as not to get anyone else’s germs. But Eddie’s PE coach forces the issue, and we next see Eddie alone in the shower. The shower necks soon grow, pushing Eddie to the center of the shower. His asthma acts up when he sees Pennywise’s hand in the floor drain. The clown soon makes enough room to pop out and torment Eddie.

We next see Mike alone in the library reminiscing about the day he met his six friends. After his interest in Derry’s history unnerves his teacher, Mike is accosted by Henry and his gang. They chase him to where the other six kids are hanging out. Henry calls the seven “the Losers’ Club” and tells them to get lost, but they tell him to piss off by throwing rocks at the bullies. Henry leaves, promising to kill them. Mike thanks his new friends, and they celebrate by having a 1960s-style selfie with Mike’s camera. The “Lucky Seven”, as they now call themselves, next go through Mike’s book, which is a collection of town images his dad collected. They soon see that Pennywise figures in a number of pics from nearly two centuries earlier. One such picture comes to life in front of them, with Pennywise leaping forward, saying he’s their worst nightmare.

Mike’s flashback ends when he sees footprints in the library, along with a balloon, which pops. He’s frightened upon hearing Pennywise laugh.

The adult Stan (Richard Masur) is a real estate broker in Atlanta, Georgia. He and his wife are cuddling with Perfect Strangers playing in the background when Mike calls. When Mike informs him that Pennywise is back, Stan is unable to tell Mike that he’ll fulfill his promise to return, and after the call ends, he calmly tells his wife that’s he’s going upstairs to take a bath.

As he gets ready to do so, Stan flashes back to when he and the other prepared to go into Derry’s sewers to vanquish Pennywise. After some of them attempt to perfect their skills with a slingshot, Beverly is picked to do the honors when she gets perfect hits each time. The skeptical Stan is still unconvinced that Pennywise can be killed, but Bill produces silver projectiles that he says will do the trick if they believe they will.

Henry and his gang clandestinely follow the seven and soon kidnap Stan. But before they do him in, Pennywise emerges as a bright light and kills Henry’s two cronies. This gives Stan a chance to escape before Henry himself is left in a terrified state, his hair now white.

Stan reunites with his friends and they form a circle in order to combat Pennywise. But the clown quickly appears and is about to kill Stan when Eddie fights him with what he claims is battery acid. This gives Beverly the chance she needs to fire one of her spheres, which takes off a piece of the clown’s head, showing light beneath. Pennywise then forces himself into the sewer drain below, and after a brief struggle, seems to perish. Upon exiting the sewer, the seven make their pact to return to Derry if Pennywise isn’t dead.

The next scene is of Stan’s wife coming up to the bathroom, only to find her husband has slit his wrists. As she cries out, we see that Stan’s blood has spilled the word “IT” on the bathroom wall.

Part two of this miniseries begins with the remaining six friends reuniting. Bill visits Georgie’s grave and reunites with Mike, before Pennywise appears to them in a deck of Bicycle playing cards. Richie is tormented by It in the library, as is Ben when he returns to the spot near the sewers where he first saw It, and also Beverly when she visits her dad (whom It impersonates as a rotting corpse), and Eddie when he goes to the local general store.

Despite this terror, the six meet up for dinner at a Chinese restaurant and catch up, with Mike informing them that Henry was sent to an institution after he confessed to the killings 30 years earlier. Pennywise then prompts them to head to the library after their fortune cookies come apart in various sickening ways.

Once at the library, they learn that Stan is dead. When Mike opens his small fridge, balloons emerge before our heroes see what seems to be Stan’s head in the fridge. “Stan” greets them all before his voice becomes that of Pennywise, and a pouring rain comes down. The group form a circle to drive off It’s influence.

At the same time, Pennywise manages to get Henry out of his cell, but not before the clown renders Audra catatonic when she arrives in Derry to find her husband. Both go to the hotel that the six friends have regrouped at. Henry attacks Mike, while Pennywise distracts Ben in a scene reminiscent to one in The Shining by acting romantic with him using Beverly’s form (and I thought Frank-N-Furter making out with someone was nightmarish!). But the wounded Mike is saved by Ben and Eddie, with Henry killed in the brief struggle.

At the hospital, Ben and Beverly confess their love before they learn Mike will recover. In his hospital room, Mike tells Bill that he returned to the sewer a few years earlier and retrieved the silver spheres. But Mike’s five friends are still uncertain about combating Pennywise again, until Bill convinces them to do some soul searching.

While Richie remains reluctant, he joins the other four as they make their way down to It’s lair again. They discover Audra’s purse but press on, resisting the image of Georgie. Our heroes then find Pennywise’s hiding place, which is littered with many bodies hanging from the ceiling, including Audra. It then takes the form of a huge spider, which renders Bill, Ben, and Richie catatonic before Eddie works up the courage to distract it again. It then fatally wounds Eddie, giving Beverly a good shot, and freeing the other three. The wounded It scampers away, prompting all four to literally rip It to shreds before It can escape again.

With Pennywise finally vanquished, a recovered Mike notes that Richie has resumed his career, Ben and Beverly are married, and Bill is attempting to bring Audra back. Just as the couple is about to leave, Bill gets the idea to ride with Audra on his bicycle, Silver. The fast trip down Derry’s streets revives her, and the movie ends with them embracing, traffic be damned!

As is often the case, the book is better than the movie. However, this adaptation certainly does it justice. The moments with our heroes as children do a slightly better job at capturing the spirit of the book, but the adult actors are fine, as well. My only complaint is the spider Pennywise becomes at the climax, which is cheesy, to say the least.

But the scene-stealer is definitely Curry, whose Pennywise deservedly became a beloved horror icon. Interestingly enough, this aired at virtually the same time Rob Reiner’s great adaptation of King’s Misery hit cinemas.

While the climax could’ve used a little work, this is a nice, spooky film and more worthy of its title than Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

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  • Linda Thacker

    I agree, that the first part (when they’re kids) is superior to the second part (adults). That being said, I think it’s Great. I Love IT!

  • prairiemike

    I would agree that for what it is, It covers the material as well as it can. But even in min-series format, (Gunslinger fans take note) there’s simply not enough time to give the story its proper scope and do it justice.. This is a common problem with King adaptations. His greatest strength as a writer is character development. He has a knack for populating his incredible plots with believable people you want to root for (and against). This almost never translates on screen, The best parts of the novel (for me) were the scenes in which we get to see how and why the children develop the particular idiosyncracies that initially draw them to each other and, ultimately, make the whole of the Loser’s Club greater than the sum of its parts and, thus, able to defeat the monster.

    Very little of this in the film, and while I thought the kids’ portion of the movie was very well done, the danger of having read the source material beforehand — as most any King fan will tell you — is that it is almost impossible to measure up on the screen. The mention of Misery running concurrently in theaters is interesting, as it shows how a more compact, linear story translates much better to film. One of the complaints you often hear from readers is that the actors chosen to portray their favorite characters often don’t resemble the characters they’ve conjured in their heads (A complaint heard most often about The Stand mini-series). But I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think Kathy Bates was the perfect Annie Wilkes.

    (Honorable mention should also go to Keith Gordon as Arnie Cunningham in Johm Carpenter”s Christine. Although … there again …. you don’t get to see Arnie’s slow transformation from geek to badass that is so engaging in the novel.. In the film (which I like well enough) Arnie simply goes to bed as Arnie — after snapping uncharacheristically at his mom — and then wakes up as James Dean.

  • DamonD

    Given the confines it has to deal with, of time and content as a network production, this version of IT is pretty good. Curry is the definite highlight, his Pennywise loathsome yet entertainingly bombastic, but the young cast (particularly Brandis, RIP) give a good account of themselves.

    I feel like a fair part of the huge success of the 2017 film is thanks to not just the original book or quality of the new film, but the familiarity of this version. Many kids frightened as hell by this are the ones that eagerly went to watch the new one, in a pleasing little parallel to the two halves of this story, don’t you think?

  • Greenhornet

    =It then fatally wounds Eddie, giving Beverly a good shot, and freeing the other three.=
    Just out of curiosity, what did she shoot IT with? I hope it wasn’t another slingshot, because they had thirty years to prepare for this, they all could have had shotguns. Even if “The Lucky Seven” lived in areas that prohibited guns, there were other weapons they could have used: arrows with sliver tips, a baseball bat with silver bullion “rounds” nailed to it, even a silver-plated saber. In just TEN years, they all could have become experts in their chosen weapons, even though other people would find it odd that the targets they practiced on were always clowns and spiders.
    To quote Star Wars The Force Awakens Alternate HISHE: “we’ve had thirty years and the plans to prepare!”

    • Xander

      In the book they do research and find that most of the ways they could create a silver weapon wouldn’t work: heat would melt silver bullets, arrows may warp and not penetrate, etc. So they took slingshot because it would be most efficient with the silver slug.

      • Greenhornet

        Having used and studied weapons for decades, I doubt that.
        As for the amnesia explanation (The_Shadow_Knows), that sounds like a cop-out. It sounds like King wanted them to face IT like a bunch of amateur dorks as before. It just won’t do to have the monster defeated easily:
        IT: “I know what you’re afraid of!”
        Potential Victims: BLAM!BLAM!BLAM!BLAM!BLAM!
        They then take turns peeing on IT.

    • The_Shadow_Knows

      In the book (and this comes across somewhat in the miniseries as well), the adults didn’t really remember facing IT as children until Mike reminded them. They had a mental block about the experience (for some reason that wasn’t clearly explained, but which seemed to have a mystical basis – i.e., it wasn’t supposed to be just traumatic amnesia or something). They hadn’t spent thirty years preparing to face IT again, because they didn’t remember facing IT the first time.

      • Xander

        You’re right. I remembered there being a reason for the slingshot, but I’d forgotten about the memory block.

  • Jerry Fritschle

    Okay, I’ll continue reading this, but you gave me pause when referencing the “underappreciated Halloween III.” That movie unspooled like a trainwreck in slow motion; when I say it sucked, I’m insulting things that suck. Well, look forward to the recap :-)