Most made-for-television movies are disappointing. Most movies based on Stephen King books, likewise. But here’s a nightmare-inducing film that overturns both those rules: The 1990 adaptation of It. Ask an adult who saw it many years ago what they remember and you may hear, after a shudder, the half-whispered words “That clown…”.
The plot (including the ending) is a bit inscrutable at times, but it runs something like this: In 1990, in the small town of Derry, Maine, a horrifying clown named Pennywise (A ghoulishly good Tim Curry) is preying on children. One adult resident of the town, Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid, who like the many other experienced adult TV actors in this film is solid throughout), begins to remember that he and his friends were terrorized by Pennywise as children. He contacts each of them, now successful adults, and they too awaken from a strange amnesia. They suddenly recall that as socially rejected kids, self-dubbed “The Loser Club”, they banded together to successfully combat Pennywise. Now they know that Pennywise is but one manifestation of a deeper, darker force which slumbers beneath the town, re-awakening every 30 years to feed again. “It” has returned, and The Loser Club must reunite to save the children of Derry and also conquer the demons that haunt them as adults.
The film is structured in two parts, which were originally shown over two nights on television. In the first, we meet the central characters as children, battling It in 1960. The second part focuses mainly on the adults in 1990. However, this section of the movie cannily injects flashbacks to the 1960 part of the story, which helps hold interest over the 3+ hour running time because the child actors are so compelling and the scenes with Pennywise menacing the children are so chilling.
There are many shocks and screams here, but as with much of King’s best work (e.g., Stand by Me), there are also remarkable insights into the world of children and warm portrayals of life-changing friendships. The small budget shows here and there: Not all the special effects are first-rate and there are no Hollywood mega-stars in view. But the story is gripping enough, the actors appealing and talented enough and the scares plentiful enough to make It one of the best horror films in television history.
And remember: “They all float!”