The theme of Nightmare on Film Street this month, “The Return,” offers any number of tantalizing possibilities. From monsters that hibernate and await reactivation, to legends like Dracula who are reimagined every few years, to 80s slashers who always come back even after their “final chapters,” horror is always reminding us the evil never dies. One Stephen King story sticks out when you talk about evil returning, the story about a monster buried deep in the Earth for eons only to emerge once every three decades to feed on your fear.
Many King stories involve some kind of return. Salem’s Lot begins with main character Ben Mears returning to his hometown, the titular Pet Semetary returns dead pets to the land of the living, and the Dark Tower saga ends with the Gunslinger basically returning to the beginning of the story. The idea of returning is built directly into It in a couple of ways: the schedule that the creature keeps to return to the surface and feed every 27 years, and the seven kids who defeated it and must return to Derry as adults to fight it again.
Like a lot of King stories, It can be unwieldy and expansive to a point that could defy adaptation. It’s no wonder that the two times it’s been adapted its been explicitly set-up as a multi-part affair, once as a miniseries and once as a duology. In the short history of Remake Redemption we’ve probably never evaluated two projects so different based on the same material: the first being a product of stringent network standards of the late-80s, and other modern with only the outer most restraints of an R-rating.
It aired over two nights in November 1990 on ABC. Directed by Halloween III filmmaker Tommy Lee Wallace, It came at the end of the great era of the lavish network miniseries that began in the 70s with hits like The Thorne Birds, Holocaust and Roots. It also came during a time of dwindling returns for King adaptations; for every hit, there were two or three bombs. Horror’s golden boy was having a hard time spinning gold, and the odds were stacked against his material when it came to getting past network standards and practices. It the miniseries was damned to be mostly bloodless.
That’s all still true if you’re revisiting the It miniseries today, and while there’s a certain kind of charm to its quaintness, the production still manages some unsettling moments. Without the shock and awe of blood and gore, it fell upon Tim Curry to deliver as Pennywise, the villain of the film’s title, an immortal creature under the mask of a supposedly happy and care-free clown.
At the time, Curry was an English actor who was mostly known for his stage work, but he did make his presence known in a couple of iconic film roles including Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (role he originated in the London’s famed East End), and as the demonic Darkness in Legend. Curry knew how to play camp, and he knew how to play frightening, and on top of that he had the inherent dread many people feel about clowns themselves. Incidents of coulrophobia would only increase in the years after Curry’s performance, and for many, he was patient zero for the condition.
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Fascinatingly, Curry has only about 20 minutes of screentime in the four-hour run of the miniseries, but his presence is almost constantly felt. The actor’s smooth baritone and piercing stare combined with the simple and colourful costume and make-up job created an instantly iconic villain, perhaps the most iconic of King’s staple of otherworldly characters. Any actor that would take on the role in any future remake would not only be standing in the shadowing of a great performance, but they would also be standing in the shadow of a cross-cultural phenom. You didn’t need to see It to know Pennywise.
The actor who would take up the challenge 27 years later (coincidentally enough) was Bill Skarsgård, a relatively unknown Swedish actor at the time whose biggest film credit at the time was a role in the third chapter of the Divergent series of films. Skarsgård’s Pennywise would not be as flashy as Curry’s, he instead hugged the shadows and let his deeds speak more than his words. Curry had 20 minutes of screentime, but it’s doubtful that Curry had even that many lines across the two It films by Andy Muschietti. Interestingly, Skarsgård’s older brother Alexander is now playing another iconic King villain in the person of Randall Flagg on the CBS All Access remake of The Stand.
So points go to the original miniseries for having the more theatrical and engaging Pennywise, but what about the Losers? In an interesting move, Wallace cast actors who stand out in a horror movie due to their lack of horror experience. Richard Thomas, famous for playing John-Boy in the Depression-era family drama The Waltons, led the cast as the adult Bill, while sitcom stars John Ritter (Three’s Company), Harry Anderson (Night Court) and Tim Reid (WKRP in Cincinnati) played Ben, Ritchie and Mike respectively. Only Annette O’Toole who had a supporting role in Cat People, and Dennis Christopher, who’s gained newfound appreciation for his leading role in Fade to Black thanks to Shudder, had any real “horror” experience.
Muschietti’s casting in the remakes though is impeccable. James Ransone, Andy Bean, and Isaiah Mustafa are spitting images of their young counterparts Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Chosen Jacobs as Eddie, Stan, and Mike. Casting Jessica Chastain as the grown-up version of Sophia Lillis as Beverly was one of the rare instances of fan casting coming true, while James McAvoy and Bill Hader lent some additional dramatic heft and experience as Bill and Ritchie (succeeding Jaeden Martell and Finn Wolfhard in those two roles).
A good cast is a good cast no matter where they come from, and both productions of It manage to deliver that much. If we’re comparing the two companies directly, a slight edge might have to be given to Muschietti’s films, but can we say one version of It is truly better than the other casting-wise?
Wallace’s miniseries followed a similar structure to the novel where the narrative goes back and forth between the Losers as kids and their return to Derry as adults where as Muschietti tried to bifurcate the two stories into their own separate films, but either because there was too much story for one film, or because of the massive popularity of the first film and its young cast, the young Losers nearly eclipse the adults in their own story. The luxurious pace of the second It movie is also a let down after the tightly packed first part, and you feel it doubly since the adult Losers spend so much time apart in their story.
There’s no such thing as a leisurely pace in the miniseries though because without commercials it has about half the running time of both Muschietti films combined. What it does have though is a more explicit understanding of one of the subplots from the book, the fact that whole town of Derry is rotten because of Pennywise’s influence. There’s one scene where young Beverly, played by future Ginger Snap Emily Perkins, is accosted by Henry Bowers and company, one of the neighbours sees her fear and panic, and then goes blank and looks away. Pennywise isn’t just a monster, but a state of mind.
“Both It projects, in their own way, manage to capture much of the original novel’s essence and details, but they still left a lot on the proverbial cutting room floor.”
The psychological dread is where the miniseries might have an edge over the remake because Wallace couldn’t lean on the shock value of seeing arms cut off, or naked old monster ladies, or scenes with rooms full of blood. The It remakes have the ability to rub your face in all of Pennywise’s ugliness and his vicious imagination, but those are details. The point of the character is that he represents fear, and pain, and trauma, and people who feel those things acutely know that terror has no movie rating when you’re feeling it.
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Both It projects, in their own way, manage to capture much of the original novel’s essence and details, but they still left a lot on the proverbial cutting room floor. Can any film or TV project truly capture all the nuance of It right down to the DNA? It’s doubtful, but the two versions of It prove that great filmmakers can use the restrictions of their given medium to their benefit, or that it can be a demerit if “creative freedom” goes relatively unchecked.
Perhaps in another 27 years someone will try again with It, perhaps improving or expanding what both Wallace and Muschietti in their two versions of the story. That nature of It invites return because no matter what era you grew up in, and no matter what era you live in now, fear never goes away, and neither does the struggle to overcome our own personal demons. It will return, and what form it will take should have some interesting new facets.