Director – Tommy Lee Wallace, Teleplay – Lawrence D. Cohen & Tommy Lee Wallace, Based on the Novel by Stephen King, Photography – Richard Leiterman, Music – Richard Bellis, Visual Effects – Fantasy II (Supervisor – Gene Warren Jr.), Special Effects Supervisor – John Thomas, Makeup Effects – Bart J. Mixon, Production Design – Douglas Higgins. Production Company – The Konigsberg-Sanitsky Company/Green-Epstein Productions.
Richard Thomas (Bill Denbrough), John Ritter (Ben Hanscom), Annette O’Toole (Beverly Marsh), Harry Anderson (Richie Tozier), Tim Reid (Mike Hanlon), Dennis Christopher (Eddie Kaspbrak), Tim Curry (Pennywise), Jonathan Brandis (Bill Denbrough Age 12), Brandon Crane (Ben Hanscom Age 12), Emily Perkins (Beverly Marsh Age 12), Seth Green (Richie Tozier Age 12), Marlon Taylor (Mike Hanlon Age 12), Adam Faraizl (Eddie Kaspbrak Age 12), Ben Heller (Stanley Uris Age 12), Jarred Blanchard (Henry Bowers), Olivia Hussey (Audra Denbrough), Richard Masur (Stanley Uris), Michael Cole (Henry Bowers), Drum Garrett (Belch), Gabe Khouth (Patrick), Tony Dakota (Georgie Denbrough)
In 1960, seven twelve-year old school friends in the town of Derry form The Losers Club. They are drawn to investigate a series of child murders that have occurred around the town, which include that of Bill Denbrough’s younger brother Georgie. In doing so, they are haunted by the sinister clown Pennywise and a terrifying series of hallucinations drawn from their fears. In realising a commonality to their experiences, they venture down into the town’s sewers and defeat what they call It, the creature that lives there and preys upon children. They make a pact to return if It should ever re-emerge. Thirty years later in the present-day, all of them are having degrees of success in their adult lives. They then suddenly receive a call from Mike Hanlon, the only one of the group to have remained in town, to say that It has returned and is killing again. They make a reluctant return to Derry to face It again, many with great fear. At the same time, It invades their dreams and nightmares, creating illusions to drive them away.
The Stephen King mini-series became its own industry in the 1990s. The genre was begun with Salem’s Lot (1979), which was in fact the second ever King adaptation to be filmed and still remains the best of the tv adaptations. It was the second King mini-series and was followed over the next few years by the likes of The Tommyknockers (1993), The Stand (1994), The Langoliers (1995), the remake of The Shining (1997), Storm of the Century (1999), the remake of Carrie (2002), Firestarter Rekindled (2002), Rose Red (2002), the remake of ‘Salem’s Lot (2004), Desperation (2006), Bag of Bones (2011) and 11.22.63 (2016). The mini-series form seems far better suited to King’s doorstopper-sized works than feature-film length, which has frequently resulted in accusations of his books being curtailed.
It the mini-series was a directorial outing for Tommy Lee Wallace, a John Carpenter associate who had moved from working as production designer on Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980) to making his directorial debut with Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). He went onto direct Fright Night Part 2 (1989) and another sequel for Carpenter with Vampires: Los Muertos (2002). Wallace also wrote the screenplay for Amityville II: The Possession (1982) and produced The Fields (2011).
It (1986) hails in as Stephen King’s second longest novel – 1138 pages, just fifteen pages shorter than The Stand (1977). I have no information about what King’s source of inspiration for the book was and can only speculate. The most obvious of these would seem to be in tapping his own youth growing up in the late 1950s and bringing together some of the experiences as a kid. He also pays homage to the monsters from the films he enjoyed back then – although It’s other form are greatly minimised in the tv version, they can be seen briefly, including appearances of the werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), the mummy and (not seen here) the Frankenstein monster. Rob Reiner has just had an enormous hit with Stand By Me (1986) adapted from a King novella – it’s improbable that King could have composed and published a 1138 page book in the two months following the film’s release, nevertheless there is the sense of It almost acting as a dark version of Stand By Me. Both works tap the Great American Coming of Age story and emphasise the nature of childhood camaraderie.
It also essentially created the image of the Killer Clown, which has become a staple trope of the horror genre since, particularly at Halloween haunted houses. There were some precedents to this such as (arguably) The Joker of Batman comics and in particular the excellent slasher film Clownhouse (1989), however the Killer Clown was popularised here. The one thing that almost certain to have inspired King was the then-recent arrest of Illinois serial killer John Wayne Gacy in 1978. One of the more ghoulish aspects of the Gacy story that came out is how he liked to dress up in a clown suit for children’s parties – not to mention painted dozens of quite sinister pictures of clowns while he was in jail. In the mini-series, Tim Curry provides Pennywise with his own life in ways that King never intended. His performance gives the figure a sinister and demoniacal nature that quite unsettles.
The script is co-written by Lawrence D. Cohen who also wrote the very first King film adaptation Carrie (1976) and the subsequent The Tommyknockers. The book has been trimmed to the screen. What we end up with on screen is generally faithful to the book, it’s just that both major and minor characters get much more in the way of backstory on the written page, while incidents and the appearance of It happen in a great deal more detail. (What is wisely omitted is the scene where Beverly gangbangs the entire group down in the sewers). The mini-series certainly inherits much of the greater nuance of the characters and subtle interplay between reality and illusion. It is these things that make It work far better than some of the later disastrously tone-deaf King mini-series such as The Tommyknockers, The Stand and Bag of Bones.
One of the best handled aspects of the mini-series is the constant vying between illusory terrors and reality. This kind of game playing has become tedious in horror films but I have rarely seen it handled in a more unsettling and effective way than it is by Tommy Lee Wallace here. This is where the mini-series gets all of its best shocks from – of books, an entire hand basin in Emily Perkins’ bathroom burbling with blood that the children can see but the adults don’t, or the scene where Harry Anderson sits in the library having to deal with balloons of exploding blood and Tim Curry’s maniacal clown-suited antics amid the unnoticing adults all around him.
Some of the best and creepiest scenes are the ones where Pennywise starts to invade the reality of the adults as they return to town – the Chinese restaurant scene where they are having to deal with fortune cookies that metamorphose into bugs, develop eyes or start spouting blood; where Annette O’Toole comes to John Ritter’s room and starts kissing him only for him to see that she is wearing clown makeup in the mirror; or where O’Toole goes to her former home and is invited in by the old lady who now lives there and makes her a cup of tea and then starts talking in Tm Curry’s voice as she is bent over picking up pieces of a broken cup from the floor. The climactic payoff is let down by the weak stop-motion animated creature that represents the natural form of It, otherwise the show remains uncommonly effective.
The film has an amazing cast line-up including John Ritter, then best known for comedy roles in tv series like Three’s Company (1976-84) and Hooperman (1987-9), in a straight dramatic role; Richard Thomas who always be remembered as John-Boy in The Waltons (1971-9) as another of King’s writer heroes where it must be said that Thomas does not suit the whole ponytail look at all. Harry Anderson was a stage magician who gained some fame as the lead in the sitcom Night Court (1984-92), although his name has faded since. The same can be said for Dennis Christopher who was seen as a promising name back in the 1970s on the basis of Breaking Away (1979) but has since slipped into a series of supporting parts where he always plays highly introverted characters. As the children we have Jonathan Brandis, caught between The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990) and seaQuest DSV (1993-6); a young and unknown Seth Green; and a young unknown Emily Perkins, the Canadian actress best known for the Ginger Snaps films. The childhood sections are cast with an uncommonly good ensemble, including standout work from the very likeable Brandon Crane and a hyperactive Seth Green. You can also spot William B. Davis, the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X Files (1993-2002, 2016– ), in a small role as a school teacher.
The idea of a theatrical remake of It has been floated in the 2010s under Cory Fukunaga, best known for the first season of tv’s True Detective (2014– ). Fukunaga wanted to mount It was a two-part film – the first part taking place in the 1980s, the second in the present. However, Fukunaga departed over differences with the studio concerning budget and their wanting to push the film towards being a more standard horror film. The film finally went ahead as a single film It (2017) under director Andres Muschietti with Bill Skarsgaard as Pennywise, although this only tells the first half of the book with the characters as kids. The second part following the kids as adults is due with It: Chapter Two (2019). An appealing fan rumour that circulated the internet was that the adults in this version would be played by the grown-up kid actors from the mini-series here, although one should point out that this is merely fanciful fan thinking that had no basis in casting actuality.
Other Stephen King genre adaptations include:- Carrie (1976), Salem’s Lot (1979), The Shining (1980), Christine (1983), Cujo (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), Children of the Corn (1984), Firestarter (1984), Cat’s Eye (1985), Silver Bullet (1985), The Running Man (1987), Pet Sematary (1989), Graveyard Shift (1990), Misery (1990), a segment of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), Sometimes They Come Back (1991), The Lawnmower Man (1992), The Dark Half (1993), Needful Things (1993), The Tommyknockers (tv mini-series, 1993), The Stand (tv mini-series, 1994), The Langoliers (tv mini-series, 1995), The Mangler (1995), Thinner (1996), The Night Flier (1997), Quicksilver Highway (1997), The Shining (tv mini-series, 1997), Trucks (1997), Apt Pupil (1998), The Green Mile (1999), The Dead Zone (tv series, 2001-2), Hearts in Atlantis (2001), Carrie (tv mini-series, 2002), Dreamcatcher (2003), Riding the Bullet (2004), ‘Salem’s Lot (tv mini-series, 2004), Secret Window (2004), Desperation (tv mini-series, 2006), Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (tv mini-series, 2006), 1408 (2007), The Mist (2007), Children of the Corn (2009), Everything’s Eventual (2009), the tv series Haven (2010-5), Bag of Bones (tv mini-series, 2011), Carrie (2013), Under the Dome (tv series, 2013-5), Big Driver (2014), A Good Marriage (2014), Mercy (2014), Cell (2016), 11.22.63 (tv mini-series, 2016), The Dark Tower (2017), Gerald’s Game (2017), It (2017), The Mist (tv series, 2017), Mr. Mercedes (tv series, 2017– ), 1922 (2017), Castle Rock (tv series, 2018- ), Pet Sematary (2019) and Doctor Sleep (2020). Stephen King had also written a number of original screen works with Creepshow (1982), Golden Years (tv mini-series, 1991), Sleepwalkers (1992), Storm of the Century (tv mini-series, 1999), Rose Red (tv mini-series, 2002) and the tv series Kingdom Hospital (2004), as well as adapted his own works with the screenplays for Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet, Pet Sematary, The Stand, The Shining, Desperation, Children of the Corn 2009, A Good Marriage and Cell. King also directed one film with Maximum Overdrive (1986).