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Clowning Around

Back when I was in elementary school, Stephen King’s It (1990) was considered the ne plus ultra of scary movies. I’m not sure where this impression came from, but to us kids, it was The Scary Movie We Were Not Allowed To Watch. I suspect that this bit of received wisdom has something to do with It’s title: any movie named for a pronoun so short and ubiquitous had to be the scariest thing ever, right? Over a decade later, I’ve finally caught up with It, and been retroactively disappointed: it’s not especially scary, but it is also a drab, never-ending slog of a movie.

Both layers of my disappointment stem primarily from It’s made-for-TV nature. Being an ABC miniseries meant that 1) it couldn’t indulge in the gore afforded to theatrically released horror movies and 2) the lack of limitations on its running time allowed the screenwriters to faithfully adapt King’s mammoth novel. Consequently, It has more generation-spanning subplots and character arcs than any viewer could ever desire. The end product is a toothless, miserably paced PSA about the power of friendship, made watchable only by Tim Curry’s child- and scenery-chewing performance as the killer clown Pennywise.

And ohhh, what a performance it is! Curry dances, prances, guffaws, and hams it up for three solid hours, telling corny jokes when he’s not somberly intoning, “Oh yes… they float!” But, to my eternal consternation, It’s marathon duration works against Curry’s makeup-slathered menace as well. Contrary to the “hide the monster” wisdom* of classics like Jaws and Alien, It overexposes Pennywise; he’s onscreen nonstop, and eventually I became inured to him—hell, even annoyed by him. Curry makes a terrifying clown, it’s true, but 3 hours of the same schtick gets tiresome.

Unfortunately, that schtick is the glue that holds It together. When Curry’s not around, the film cycles through its seven misfit protagonists—The One Who Was Fat as a Child, The Mama’s Boy with Asthma, The Jokey One, The One Who’s Obviously Stephen King, The Jewish One, and The Girl—as they flash back to the unforgettable summer of 1960, deal with Pennywise’s return in 1990, hallucinate, go through sketchily defined crises, etc., etc. These parts are fatally repetitive, ridiculously melodramatic, and contain risible overacting like, uh, this:

That’s Ryan Michael as The Girl’s abusive, possessive boyfriend, who can only communicate in shouted dialogue taken from a Lifetime original movie. Granted, most of the acting is at least mildly subtler than this; as a matter of fact, the child actors playing the protagonists’ young selves acquit themselves quite well and demonstrate an endearing Stand by Me-style camaraderie. Alas, their collective rapport is pretty much the only sign of a light, careful touch in a movie full of absurdly broad strokes.

I especially have to single out the direction by Tommy Lee Wallace, famed for playing Michael Myers in the original Halloween. At best, it’s lackluster; at worst, antagonistic toward the audience. It is peppered with gratuitous camera movement, from slight angle changes to pointlessly mobile crane shots. The gang’s dinner at a Chinese restaurant is in theory a great horror set-piece, but the camera inexplicably circles the table, as if Wallace was trying to make us dizzy. It’s frustrating, and diminishes the impact of the grotesque imagery that follows. It is also a bland, ugly movie. Consider, for example, my favorite image from It’s three hours:

Pretty slow week at Time, eh? Nothing to report on but architects and, um, architects. So slow, in fact, that they let their graphic designers take the week off, which would explain this hideous cover and its photo of Ben (The One Who Was Fat as a Child) scowling. The cover’s complemented by the awfulness of the shot containing it; together, they form an aesthetic monstrosity worse than anything Pennywise could hope to unleash. That’s the real horor of It.

Also the way it forces me to use “It’s” as a possessive instead of a contraction. It’s the kind of grammatical disorientation that could drive someone mad. Compared to that, what’s one demonic clown here or there? (Even if he does transform the neighborhood bully into Jim Jarmusch.)

*Of course, other horror classics (like The Exorcist and The Thing) have opted for a “show the monster” approach and been equally successful. I’m just saying that It would’ve been better off with any choice but “have the monster giggling in plain sight for most of the movie.”

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