The 1990 TV mini-series It — the adaptation of Stephen King’s creepy 1986 novel that came before the film opening in theaters this week — is often cited on lists of the scariest TV shows ever or the most frightening moments in King-related movies. If you were a kid when you first watched the two-part television event, which originally aired on ABC in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, it’s understandable that you place It in this context. A story about a bunch of kids who get terrorized by a clown who lives in the sewer and has a mouth full of daggers where his teeth should be? That’s terrifying as hell, especially if you’re 9 years old and sneak-watching it in the basement instead of sleeping in your bed, which is what your parents think you’re doing.
But the truth about the first It is that it’s actually less scary than you may remember. This is one of those shows that’s far more disturbing when broken down in still images, which is how our brains often recall certain experiences, than it is as an actual moving picture. The sight of Tim Curry as Pennywise peering out from a storm drain? That was unsettling in 1990, and it’s unsettling now, and it will be unsettling in the year 2035, when our entire government is run entirely by clowns and juggalos. (That prediction may be colored somewhat by too many viewings of the first episode of American Horror Story: Cult.)
But go back and view Curry as Pennywise in action in It as he assumes a gravelly, New York-ish accent while referring to one of his first victims as “bucko,” and you might be like, “You know what? I could definitely take this joker in an underground sewer fight.”
Actually, there’s a lot in the original It, which hews much closer to the structure of the novel than the new film, that doesn’t work at all. Culturally speaking, new decades always take at least a couple of years to find themselves, which explains why It reflects some of the worst elements in late-’80s television: clunky dialogue (at one point, a woman refers to an unruly child as “a young ruffian”); unconvincing special effects; flashbacks that don’t always reflect their time periods with enough authenticity (the bullies that torment the members of the Losers Club look more like mini-Squiggys and little Lennys than believably real kids); and a tendency to lean so hard into the drama of a moment that, at times, the whole mini-series threatens to fall on its face.
Several fine actors play the adult versions of the main characters, including Richard Thomas, John Ritter, Tim Reid, and Annette O’Toole. But because the project is so steeped in the time it was released, they’re sometimes put in situations that, especially in retrospect, come across as unintentionally comedic. Every woman who works in the same office as O’Toole’s Beverly looks like she just sashayed right out of Amy Schumer’s “80s Ladies” sketch. After sex with her ludicrously abusive boyfriend, grown-up Bev leans over to smell a bouquet of roses while wearing a negligee, as a fire crackles behind her. Because sex in the ’80s: It was exactly like a commercial for a collection of the greatest love songs of all time! As for the moment when Ritter is introduced as the wildly successful architect Ben Hanscom, I wrote in my notes: “drunk, bolero tie,” which is a pretty solid three-word summary of the 1980s when you think about it.
Pennywise is the most iconic part of It, and Curry plays the demonic clown by teetering intentionally between menacing and funny, not unlike another horror villain who became a sensation in the ’80s: Freddy Krueger. There are moments when he is genuinely frightening; when he runs to the foreground of an old photograph and growls, “I’m everything you ever were afraid of,” it freaks out the kids in the mini-series and undoubtedly freaked out most kids (and adults) who were watching the mini-series, too.
But other moments designed to register as alarming seem silly. At one point, an image of Pennywise appears to be emanating from the full moon. Because of the less-than-convincing effects — again, it was 1990s network television, they did what they could with what they had — this now seems less like an image of horror than an outtake from an extremely dark episode of Teletubbies. There’s also a make-out scene between grown-up Ben and Bev in which Bev reveals herself to be Pennywise in disguise, then shouts, “Kiss me, fat boy!” It seems to want us to gasp, then laugh at this, but all I could muster was a guffaw followed by an eye roll.
Reviews of the two-parter at the time were mixed. The New York Times praised its “creepy-crawly” frights and called it “far better than any adaptation so far of a King book.” (Side note: It is amazing how often the It reviews back then completely forgot that The Shining exists.)
But in the Washington Post, critic Tom Shales noted that, by comparison, “last week’s episode of ‘Twin Peaks’ was much more persuasively scary.” It was broadcast around the time that the episodes revealing Laura Palmer’s killer first aired, and other critics expressed similar sentiments.
In the original It’s defense, the more effective parts of the mini-series — and the scenes that probably made the biggest impression on ’80s and ’90s kids who would grow up to rank It highly on their most terrifying TV show and movie lists — are the ones that focus on the Losers Club as vulnerable kids doing their best to battle the evil entity haunting their drains and daydreams. (The young actors in those roles, including a baby Seth Green, are quite good.)
Both the novel and this mini-series stand as examples of a particular type of horror that became popular in the 1980s, in which teens and children often became the terrorized. While some of the biggest mainstream hits of the genre in the 1970s turned kids into vessels for terror — see: The Exorcist, The Omen movies, and King’s own Carrie — the ’80s frequently made teens, adolescents, and preadolescents the prey, as in Poltergeist, the growing number of slasher flicks in which young people were killed (the Friday the 13th and Halloween movies, among others), Fright Night, Child’s Play, and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, in which even sleep itself provided the opposite of escape.
All of these stories, like It, underscore the reality that nasty things can happen to society’s most innocent, and that parents and authorities can’t always protect them from those things. For all of its flaws and now-dated qualities, It served as a palpable reminder of that, one that was broadcast directly into America’s living rooms. Watching the mini-series now confirms that it was not as thoroughly hair-raising as memory suggests, but it also explains exactly why it’s understandable that, at the time, you felt like it was everything you were ever afraid of.