Friday, September 7, 2012

Just Do IT

I recently read and reviewed Stephen King's 11/22/63, in which the novel's time-traveling narrator spends an early passage of the book in the town of Derry. King fans know this fictional New England town well--it served as the location for his 1986 novel It, and 11/22/63 even features a cameo by teenaged versions of two of the earlier book's protagonists, Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier (their appearance is set a few years after their initial defeat of Pennywise). I hadn't read It, or watched the four-hour 1990 ABC miniseries adaptation, in probably two decades, but this brief taste of Derry and its strangely haunted inhabitants was enough to inspire me to check out both interpretations. And, much like the grown-up heroes of King's magnum opus, my memories had grown hazy, but they came flooding back with frightening speed and intensity.
It, the novel, was every bit as creepy and heartbreaking as I remembered it to be. Just as the Losers had to defeat the shapeshifting, child-murdering clown known as Pennywise as kids only to reunite as adults and return to Derry to really, truly put an end to It, I first read King's massive tome in junior high but returned to It as a reasonable hand-drawn facsimile of a grown-up. I found that I had a new appreciation for the way King's parallel narrative--one in 1958, the other in 1985--highlights the differences in the kid versions and the adult versions of the book's seven protagonists. I love how some of the characters escape the confines of their youth (fat kid Ben Hanscom loses his weight after a run-in with a nasty high school gym coach, motormouthed class clown Richie Tozier is able to parlay his obnoxious nature into a successful gig as a syndicated radio disc jockey), while others aren't able to fully shake their past (Beverly Marsh marries a simulacrum of her abusive father, while Eddie Kaspbrak weds a dead ringer for his worry-wart, hypochondriac mother). But of course, the thousand faces of Pennywise are the real show-stopper here; It knows what scares these kids, and feeds on that fear by transforming into, among other things, a mummy, a rotting leper, a witch, a vampire, a giant bird, Frankenstein's monster, and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. None of this would mean much besides mere name-dropping without King's wonderfully gruesome descriptions of these horrors, rendered vividly in the author's blackly humorous and inimitable voice. At the time, King said It was his last horror hurrah, and he definitely pulls out all the stops, even veering into crazily Lovecraftian territory for the beast's cosmic origins.
And then there's the time that John Boy, Venus Flytrap, Jack Tripper, Lana Lang, and Judge Harold T. Stone got together to fight a big rubber spider with googly eyes. All right, that might not be the fairest assessment of the TV adaptation of It, but the two-part miniseries is pretty rough going. A cast of TV mainstays that includes Richard Thomas (The Waltons), Tim Reid (WKRP In Cincinatti), John Ritter (Three's Company), Harry Anderson (Night Court), and Annette O'Toole (Lana Lang in Superman III, but somehow also Ma Kent on Smallville!) provides the star power as the grown-up monster killers (The Thing's Richard Masur and Dennis Christopher, who I only know from this miniseries, round out the cast). Also on board is Black Christmas's Olivia Hussey and, of course, Tim Curry (in a "Special Appearance") as Pennywise, in a role that apparently made a whole generation of kids terrified of clowns forever after.
To be fair, there wasn't much chance that It was ever going to work on a television budget. The makeup budget for Pennywise's various transformations alone would have been cost-prohibitive, not to mention the price tag for half of the story being a period piece. Then there's also the little matter of all those gruesome child murders--ABC's Standards & Practices Department wouldn't have been too amused. Unfortunately, the solutions arrived at by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and director Tommy Lee Wallace don't really cut the mustard. Instead of his run-in with the Leper--a symbol for his paralyzing fear of disease and decay--young Eddie Kaspbrak is menaced, snakelike shower faucets? Rather than being killed by the Frankenstein Monster in the sewers beneath Derry, bullies Victor Criss and Belch Huggins are dispatched instead by a glowy light that pulls them into sewer pipes. And instead of a monster bird nesting in the Derry Ironworks, Mike Hanlon sees...nothing. Not until he joins up with the Losers, anyway (here bafflingly referred to as the "Lucky Seven"). At times, the miniseries is hilariously literal in its interpretation of King's text--Belch Huggins really does deliver approximately 80% of his dialogue in belch form. That must have been a fun audition process.
Tim Curry really gets into the spirit of Pennywise, cackling, capering, and hissing with evil glee. John Ritter, Tim Reid, and Dennis Christopher all do quite well as the adult versions of Ben, Mike, and Eddie. The young cast, which includes Seth Green and Jonathan Brandis as Richie and Bill, respectively, is solid, and some of the monster makeups--like the Teenage Werewolf and an acid-scarred incarnation of Pennywise--are actually pretty good. But then there are those aforementioned compromises of budget and the censors, which serve to de-fang King's monster menagerie. The climax is spectacularly goofy. The nightmarish spider that serves as It's ultimate form in the novel, a black-furred monstrosity with red eyes and ooze-dripping mandibles, is represented here by a rubbery, lobsterlike, animatronic beastie with hypnotic plates in its underbelly. King himself said it best in a Fangoria interview, where he called the creature a "Tonka Toy". There's been talk recently of Warner Brothers adapting It once again, this time as two feature films directed by Cary Fukunaga (2011's Jane Eyre). In this new adaptation, the flashbacks would be set in the early 1980s, which makes sense but begs the question--will the children of Derry now be terrorized by Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers instead of the Mummy and the Creature? Time will tell if the new version works, assuming it ever reaches the screen...but it's safe to say that as far as the exploits of Pennywise the Dancing Clown are concerned, nobody does It better than Stephen King himself.

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