Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Off the Shelf: Stephen King's IT (Blu-ray)

by Erich Asperschlager
Beep beep!

Stephen King is known almost as much for movies based on his books as the books themselves. Lord knows there are plenty of both. Since almost the beginning of his career as a novelist, King’s brand of macabre pop has been as popular on the page as it is in movie theaters, VHS rentals, and small screen adaptations in the form of anthology episodes, one-offs, and TV miniseries. Although King movies have a reputation as being schlocky at worst and “not as good as the book” at best, some hit a cinematic sweet spot. The best Stephen King movies find a way to fit a full story into a feature-length runtime—usually under the careful eye (and judicious scalpel) of great filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, and Rob Reiner.

The 1990 made-for-TV miniseries IT isn’t one of the best Stephen King movies. It struggles to contain one of King’s most sprawling novels, rushing the story so it feels more like a summary of the book than an adaptation. The acting is uneven, especially comparing the young cast and their adult counterparts. It’s been neutered to fit TV standards. And yet, it’s a mostly satisfying King adaptation—a fan favorite deserving of a new Blu-ray release from Warner Bros.
IT is the story of an ancient evil in the town of Derry, Maine that manifests as a demonic clown named Pennywise (Tim Curry) and awakens to abduct and murder children every 30 years. In 1960, a group of seven school-aged misfits—Bill (Jonathan Brandis), Ben (Brandon Crane), Eddie (Adam Faraizl), Beverly (Emily Perkins), Richie (Seth Green), Stan (Ben Heller), and Mike (Marlon Taylor)—band together to face off against the clown,and the school bully (Jarred Blancard) who made it his mission to destroy them all. Fast forward to 1990. All of the kids are grown up, and all but one have moved away. Bill (Richard Thomas) is now a horror author, Ben (John Ritter) a wealthy architect, Eddie (Dennis Christopher) a limo company owner, Beverly (Annette O’Toole) a fashion designer, Richie (Harry Anderson) a famous comedian, and Stan (Richard Masur) a real estate agent, while Mike (Tim Reid) still lives in Derry, working in the library and keeping watch over the town. When a new generation of children start disappearing, Mike contacts his estranged friends one by one, holding each to a promise they made after their first battle with the clown: to come back if necessary and finish the fight.

Released in 1986, Stephen King’s novel IT is a massive tome clocking in at northwards of 1,100 pages. Like The Stand, this book has little business being adapted for a movie or TV. However, also like The Stand, IT was made into a fondly remembered TV miniseries. IT made a big impact when it debuted on in November 1990, partly for its story, partly for its boundary-pushing blood effects, and partly for a certain depiction of a particular Dancing Clown.

To most King fans who remember the miniseries, Tim Curry IS IT. Compared to the child and adult ensemble casts, he has barely any screentime. You can see where his bald cap attaches. He chews up, swallows, and spits out the scenery. None of it matters. Clowns are scary and Curry taps into something primal with his oddly clean, red-eyed, gruff voiced, occasionally sharp-toothed killer bozo. I don’t know much about the history of childhood coulrophobia, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that King kicked off at least the modern era of clown terror. Tim Curry’s take on the creature amplifies those inherent fears of a red-nosed planet. The actor known for playing dignified weirdness keeps just enough of his character off-kilter to make Pennywise seem like something from a nightmare, even on television. It’s no wonder kids of my generation who watched IT on TV haven’t been able to shake it since.
Even without Curry, IT stands out among King adaptations for the extra large cast. Plenty of movies have flashbacks with child actors playing young versions of older characters, but few require that both generations pull the same weight. The adult players are easier to praise, brimming with the star power of actors like John Ritter, Harry Anderson, and Annette O’Toole, but the kids (including a young Seth Green and Jonathan Brandis) are asked to shoulder a lot of dramatic weight. The unseen-monster-picking-off-kids story has sequences reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, including a bloody sink explosion, werewolf attack in a steamy school basement, and a gym locker room scene where a child is terrorized by telescoping shower heads spraying scalding water. The kids don’t always give the most natural performances, but they feel like genuine friends—the kind who care enough about each other to reunite after 30 years and face off against an ancient evil.

The two-part miniseries is loosely split into the ‘60s story in the first half and the ‘90s story in the second. In 3 hour movie mode, that divide is less obvious. The two halves of the complicated story are woven together in an impressive mix of editing, screenwriting, and performance. There are narrative shortcuts, creaky dialogue, and a laughably bad rubber monster, but with something like IT it’s worth watching to see whether the filmmakers can pull it off. For the most part, they do.
Director and co-writer Tommy Lee Wallace got his start working as an editor and production designer with John Carpenter before going on to helm Halloween III and Fright Night 2. IT isn’t a sequel but it does have a second run feel, whether because it’s an adaptation of a popular novel or because it bears the dreaded “made for TV” label. Dismissing it for being either would be a mistake. The film has a bigger budget and more artistry than your average disposable TV movie. That it’s regularly included in the running for best King adaptations is evidence of that.

IT is one of a Warner Bros. trio of Stephen King films newly out on Blu-ray. Fans of the movie should be excited to have it in HD, just as long as they aren’t expecting much else. The new 1080p 1.33:1 Blu-ray transfer looks great, especially for something that originally aired on TV and made its home video bones on VHS (the video tape behind Pennywise is still visible in the cover art). There’s no doubt IT looks better than it has before, but the visual upgrade has limitations. Detail, color, and contrast are best in well-lit scenes and close-ups. The dark scenes are a different story. Shadows swallow detail and make for a generally muddier picture. What you think of the transfer will also depend on how much you like film grain. The ‘60s scenes seem to have a much heavier layer of grain than the modern day story for some reason. None of which should keep interested parties from buying the Blu-ray. Just adjust your expectations accordingly. Audio is presented as 2.0 DTS-MA. It sounds fine. Again, adjust those expectations.

The disc’s only bonus feature is a group audio commentary with Wallace, John Ritter, Dennis Christopher, Tim Reid, and Richard Thomas. It’s fun and insightful, but it’s also the same commentary that was on the DVD. Considering these Warner discs are low-price offerings compared to the feature-rich, pricier Scream Factory sets, the lack of new extras is understandable -- if disappointing.
Stephen King’s IT should have been unfilmable. Made for TV, its depictions of child murder, vicious bullying, and evil should be neutered. Tim Curry in clown makeup should be a joke. For the most part, it’s none of those things. The ‘90s miniseries can’t match the character development and world-building of the book, but it juggles a lot and manages some legitimate scares. The new Blu-ray offers fans a clearer look an ambitious King adaptation whose influence can still be felt today. By which I mean, they are remaking it. Sadly, IT’s journey to hi-def doesn’t come with any new supplemental materials, but as a budget release it should help round out many a future Scary Movie Month playlist.

8 comments:

  1. Nice write-up Erich, I watched it again for the first time in a looong time this SMM - I was impressed with the blu-ray but also pretty impressed with how well the movie held up. If anything it was some of the adult interactions that made me cringe a little with that special brand of King-cutesy-ness that doesn't translate very well to the screen.

    A question about one mysterious line in your review: "Tim Curry’s take on the creature amplifies those inherent fears of a red-nosed planet." I don't like to point out typos but I can't even figure out what that's supposed to be. Or maybe it's not a typo because, I gotta say, I do feel a little uneasy about red-nosed planets now.

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  2. Thanks Sol! I probably overreached with that sentence. I meant that Curry's Pennywise may have rekindled a cultural fear of clowns. The "fear of a red-nosed planet" is a Public Enemy joke that may have been a mistake.

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    1. I have a reservation under Joke. Table for one. :-)

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    2. Pfff - I was totally picturing a giant planet with a red nose on it - I get it now - funny how sometimes you see something a certain way and then you can't think out of that box. I was like, did he mean red-nosed "alien from another" planet? You know, that classic inherent fear?

      I'll never doubt you again, sir!

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    3. Don't encourage me. I have a nasty habit of trying to be too clever by five-eighths.

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    4. Yeah, maybe you're right - even there, you just had to take it that extra 1/8 past standard smartassery. But...it might be why I love you...I don't know it's all very confusing.

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    5. Great write up Erich! I just recently picked this but just haven't been able to find the time to watch it.

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