Thursday, October 09, 2014

Needs More Clown: Watching Stephen King's IT on a Saturday Night

Well, if clowns are everything you were
ever afraid of, you’re still coming up short.
I wasn’t getting anything done at the keyboard anyway, so I made good on a threat I’d made to myself last spring to watch the 1990 made-for-television adaptation of Stephen King’s IT.

I bought the DVD and put it under the tree as a gag gift for Christmas four years ago. My children, who were five years removed from having seen it with me in another age and another state, actually backed away at the sight of Pennywise the Dancing Clown’s face on the cover of the DVD case. In all these years, we’ve never watched it, although I did learn my son had taken it with him to a sleepover once. “They didn’t appreciate it,” was all he had to say about it.

Tim Curry, on top of being the Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania, has ruined clowns for generations of children with this movie. Watching it again last night, I realized he really didn’t have a lot to do. And when he did have something to do, he could have done a lot more.

I can only imagine what people who had not read the original novel made of this. If you didn’t know the Lovecraftian backstory, the antagonist appears to be an evil, child-eating force that manifests as a clown before attacking. Not that he always eats them. In one case, we hear of a body being found that was “severely mutilated.” The modus operandi is entice-terrorize-kill. 

The first kill in the film is cleverly done in broad daylight, just before a storm. We first see Pennywise in and out of the blowing sheets on a clothesline. But does the girl go to see the strange clown among the sheets (who reveals his evil face at one point) or does the clown grab her? All we know is this happens in broad daylight, and the girl disappears along with the clown.
As soon as I saw this face I’d be inside that house so fast you’d think I’d teleported.

So what’s so special about the “Lucky Seven” or “Loser’s Club” kids that they don’t get killed when Pennywise shows up to terrorize them? The notion of these ‘tween and early-teen children getting together is borne of one character having his brother killed, along a public street (albeit empty of cars and pedestrians) in broad daylight. The entity we call IT (when IT’s not Pennywise) manifests itself in a talking photograph and a bleeding book to this same brother. His parents take the book, and seem not to notice the blood everywhere. Later, we learn that the citizens of Derry either don’t see these gory manifestations, or choose not to see them. These manifestations torment the children—six boys, and one semi-magic girl—and find them wherever they are. Yet, despite many encounters, in a school shower, a home bathroom, a Chinese restaurant, the school basement, etc., IT/Pennywise does not kill them outright as he does other children.

Note my slash. The entity that kills and eats children is not always a clown. Sometimes he appears as a big, moving, malignant ball of blinding light that can levitate its victims to their deaths. In the town library he’s a poltergeist blowing out the glass in the doors and sending books flying. We learn from the token black kid that every 30 years something awful happens in Derry, and what our hero kids are witnessing happens to be, well, IT.
Promises, promises.


Except we learn IT didn’t always terrorize before he killed. Also, he didn’t always single out children, despite describing himself as, “I am eternal. I eat children.” To cap off one 30-year period, the town was somehow enticed to a picnic in a meadow next to a metal works shop that exploded, killing adults and children alike. In another year, there was a big fire. (We see an old drawing, supposedly from the period, of Pennywise holding the match that started it.) Again, adults and children. Then there was that time in colonial days when over 200 settlers—say it with me—adults and children alike, disappeared without a trace, without so much as a “Crotoan” carved into a tree to mark their passing.

This major inconsistency threatens to obscure the biggest inconsistency of all, though: that this is a very, very  powerful entity, capable of taking on hundreds of humans at once, and it doesn’t care if it does its business by dark of night or by the light of the sun, because whatcha gonna do, puny mortal? So I ask again: how do seven children—children the entity is able to isolate and visit individually—manage not to get killed?

Incidentally, whatever power the Lucky Seven’s number had is diminished when one of the children, since grown, commits suicide rather than face IT/Pennywise again. This was something that could have been used as a pinch/plot point, but is essentially thrown away.

Reading the original novel won’t help on these points. Although, in a passage as reminiscent of James Michener as it was H.P. Lovecraft, we learn the entity crashed in from outer space during the time of the dinosaurs, and that little piece of real estate over the crash site, which would eventually become a town, despite all (including having the first settlement vanish entirely), was just rotten from then on.

[SPOILER ALERT] Reading the novel barely prepares you for the children encountering Pennywise one last time as a cheap projection on the wall before finding an impossibly tiny door to that leads to...the lair of a giant spider. Which has to be struck in its glowing underbelly with a wad of silver, then beaten with fists before having its heart torn out. Somehow, the spray from an asthma inhaler, which worked 30 years ago, doesn’t work so well when IT is in spider form.

The original novel is one of those Stephen King works you can effectively rip down the middle, and keep the first half as a really good book. Although in this case, we still had a very disturbing scene with the Loser’s Club (as they were exclusively known in the book), to wit: in order to cement the Mystic Bond between all the children, the girl of the group lies down for a mystic gang-bang from the boys. There was an image of birds gathering on a wire, then leaving the wire. There was nothing prurient meant by this, as near as I could tell (not that I was looking for it), but it was hard to look at these kids and not think about that part in the book:

So, no, don’t read the book. I love Stephen King, don’t get me wrong. He’s the only writer alive in America who knows how to write about what it’s like for normal, working people to actually have to live here. When he tries getting mystical, though, as he did bringing God into the post-apocalypse of The Stand, or riffing on Ancient Evils and where they come from in IT, he trips all over himself. 

The only reason for this nearly three-hour movie to exist is for the 15 minutes Tim Curry appears as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. It would have been gruesome good fun to really see him dance. I was at least hoping for some of that same frisson that frightened my then-small children ten years ago when we saw it on DVD for the first time. But that was then, and this is now. 

You know how the old tag line used to go, “DON’T WATCH THIS ALONE”? In this case, not having people squealing and screaming to either side of me drew my attention to everything that was wrong about the movie.