How the Original It Miniseries Traumatized a Generation of Kids – Vanity Fair

Director Tommy Lee Wallace knew clowns could be scary long before he directed ABCs 1990 miniseries adaptation of It. As the director points out in a phone interview, many people naturally have an aversion to the red-nosed fools; just look at Michael Myers, whobelieve it or notalmost wore a very different getup in Halloween. Wallace was a production designer for that film, and he almost bypassed that iconic Shatner mask for something else: I had an alternate choice, and guess what it was. A clown! A classic Emmett Kelly clown, the sad-sack clown. And it was very spooky.

Still, perhaps no one has made clowns scarier than Stephen King and Tim Curry. Kings Pennywise has been haunting book readers since 1986, and Currys performance has haunted another generation of TV viewers since 1990. As the new movie adaptation of It prepares to hit theaters next week, its worth looking back to the originalif you dare re-live that childhood traumato remember what, exactly, made it so haunting.

It was far from TVs first foray into horror and sci-fi; The Twilight Zone blazed that trail decades before the novel was even published. But at a time when TV was still largely dominated by safe sitcom fare, It stood out. Wallace recalls being impressed by how hands-off ABC was; he notes that the network largely didnt censor the miniseries, although that may have been because Wallace was already a seasoned horror director in both the television and film worldsmeaning he knew what would pass muster with the censors and what wouldnt. (As he put it, I wasnt about to show on-screen decapitations and stuff, because I knew it wouldnt fly.) Larry Cohen, who wrote the scripts, also gave Wallace good material to work withand whats more, the project seemed naturally made for TV for one oddly specific reason.

Traditionally, a two-hour structure on television is divided into seven actsjust so they can cram more commercials in and sell shoes and cars and deodorant and all the rest, Wallace says. However, on this particular occasion, for once in the history of television, a seven-act structure was exactly what was needed because theres seven characters. And I thought Larry handled that brilliantly.

Still, Cohen has admitted that the project posed a bit of a challenge; while Wallace says that ABC was largely hands-off, Cohen noted in an earlier interview with Yahoo TV that the material was anathema to what networks wanted: The cardinal rule of the Standards and Practices division of a network is not to show kids in jeopardy. Ironically, though, thats the very basis of It.

Luckily, the creative team knew how to make the horror work. For example, Cohen said, we couldnt be explicit about, say, Georgies arm being yanked off by Pennywise, but we could talk about it. And we could do things that allowed viewers to fill in the blank with their imaginations. But there were still amazing amounts of real horror that got on screen, like Pennywise cornering Eddie in the shower, and the fortune cookie scene. The sequence is so Stephen. He has that gift for taking something perfectly ordinary and turning it into a case where youll never be able to look at a fortune cookie in the same way again.

Indeed, even the actors had a memorable experience during the fortune cookie scenelargely because, as Tim Reid (who played the older Mike Hanlon) told Yahoo, None of us were allowed to know what was going to happen in the fortune cookie scene. So our expressions were all real in the first take. Annette OToole, who played the adult Beverly Marsh, added, I remember that Harry [Andersons] fortune cookie had an eye inside it. And he said, Oh man, its an eye! I dont know why, but it struck us as so hilarious at the time. We were all so slap-happy that day. So anytime during the rest of the shoot that Harry said, Oh man, its an eye, we would all just die laughing.

However memorable certain scenes might be, the core of the films scare factor is Tim Currys horrifying performance. Wallace recalled Curry being very gentlemanly and friendly, even funny sometimes, but very quiet.

I dont know how much of that was just Tims personality versus him consciously wanting to keep his distance from the kids for legitimate acting reasons, Wallace explained. I did not push either way; I dont like directors who manipulate kids.

Emily Perkins, who played the young Beverly Marsh, has a very evocative memory of what Curry was like on-set. As she explained to Yahoo, Tim would sit in his chair chain-smoking in his makeup. Whenever the kid actors got too close, he would grin at us with his horribly pointed teeth. He really tried to intimidate us, because he wanted the fear to be real in our performances. He didnt make any effort to be nice, at least not to me!

Curry, unsurprisingly, once offered perhaps the most poetic description one could think of for Pennywise: I think of him all the time as a smile gone bad. The decision to rely primarily on makeup rather than prosthetics for the killer clowns signature look came partly from Curry himself: In some ways I think that horror movies have got a little too far away from the mind, Curry has said. We had a much more prosthetic version of this makeup, which was very scary looking and beautifully executed but did too much work by itself. And I personally think that what is most horrifying is the moment of decision behind somebodys eyes when they decide to kill somebodyrather than a pint of blood . . . One sacrifices the human element at great risk.

What a fine actor, and what a really brilliant performance. . . . I think its sort of criminal he didnt get an Emmy for that, Wallace says, adding, He nailed the character. . . . That was my chief concern when I heard that they were actually at long last going to do a remake. It was, Well, whos going to play Tim Curry? He defined it so thoroughly. Those are big shoes to fill, in both senses of the word. (Good luck, Bill Skarsgrd.)

In many ways, Wallaces interpretation of It is a reminder that good horror requires something that modern projects tend to lack: heart. It works largely because of its focus on character: The noveland the miniseries, I hopecertainly had a message of positivity about rites of childhood and sticking together, Wallace says. Thats what I think Stephen King is best at, frankly. . . . He is especially insightful about childhood and its rites of passage and its traumas as well as its triumphs. I think he’s really tuned in to that, and probably doesn’t get as much respect as he should as a great American novelist.

Its scares, too, are less about blood and more about psychological terror. I think what has been forgotten as time has gone on in the scary movie world, the horror world, is the difference between scary and gory. It just seems commonplace now for there to be huge CGI effects and buckets of blood, and just disgusting stuff that’s like, O.K., thats impressive. Im impressed, but Im not scared. Its not scary; its just big. And loud. And I think what directors are tending to forget about is, youve got to be invested in the characters. Youve got to be invested in the story for any of it to matter.

Re-watch the original It, and youll find a refreshing lack of jump scares. To the modern eye, some of the effects might appear a little datedbut the important moments are still unnerving as ever. Its a self-assured, enduring testament to the fact that less can often be more. (Just ignore the giant spider at the end, and the fact that in the book, the Losers learn how to defeat him with the help of an ancient turtle.) At the end of the day, its the story of a group of traumatized kids who grow up to be traumatized adultsand must finally face their fears. Will the new one pull off that same alchemy? Wallace wishes the new effort well, although he admits he has no skin in this game.

People have been asking me about the new It for 10 or 15 years, Wallace says. The rumor mill has had it, Oh, theyre going to remake it this fall, blah, blah, blah, and years go by. So Im impressed that they finally did it. . . . You know, I go to a few of these horror-thon shows on the weekends in various places, and countless numbers of peopletheyre either talking about Michael Myers and the mask, or theyre talking about Pennywise and It. And the quote is usually, Oh, man, you scared the shit out of me. I think we kind of ruined clowns for a generation of peoplenot that they needed ruining.

Just try and find a lighter, more delightfully bubbly series. We dare you. Freshly added to Hulus library, this charming comedy is going on its fourth season on TV Land. If you can resist the combined charm of Sutton Foster and Hilary Duff, Im not sure we have much left to talk about.

Think of this as a more playful version of The Girlfriend Experience, set in 18th-century London. The series blends thoughtfulness and frank humor well; its worth checking out for those who enjoyed The Handmaids Tale and want to give another, less harrowing Hulu original a try.

Three seasons in, this comedy is as hilarious as ever. And Season 4 has one of Carrie Fishers very last performancesmore than enough reason to catch up. The best part? As a Britcom, each season of the series only contains six episodes. Youll breeze through it in no time. (Catch up on Hulu.)

Not getting enough Kaitlin Olson on Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Try The Mick, which basically imagines what would happen if Dee were to get stuck with a brood of bratty children. Canned wine is an optional, but encouraged, accompaniment. (Catch up on Hulu.)

You might have heard about this show; with its 80s focus and drug-toting robot, its all the rage on Netflix right now. Come for the zany fashion, stay for Alison Bries soulful Audrey Hepburn impression.

As Issa Raes comedy prepares for its second-season debut next month, make sure youre caught up on all the laughs, dating woes, and girlfriend drama. Insecure was one of the freshest new shows of 2016, and its second season promises to be just as delightful. (Catch up on HBO.)

Yes, there are far too many comedies about Rich People Problemsbut few are as frothy and enjoyable as this Bravo original, a scripted comedy based on the life of its star, Jill Kargman. Come for the hyper-specific 1-percenter jokes; stay for Abby Elliotts masterful performance as the ultimate Upper East Side monster.

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Just try and find a lighter, more delightfully bubbly series. We dare you. Freshly added to Hulus library, this charming comedy is going on its fourth season on TV Land. If you can resist the combined charm of Sutton Foster and Hilary Duff, Im not sure we have much left to talk about.

Courtesy of TV Land.

Think of this as a more playful version of The Girlfriend Experience, set in 18th-century London. The series blends thoughtfulness and frank humor well; its worth checking out for those who enjoyed The Handmaids Tale and want to give another, less harrowing Hulu original a try.

Courtesy of Liam Daniel/Hulu.

Three seasons in, this comedy is as hilarious as ever. And Season 4 has one of Carrie Fishers very last performancesmore than enough reason to catch up. The best part? As a Britcom, each season of the series only contains six episodes. Youll breeze through it in no time. (Catch up on Hulu.)

Courtesy of Ed Miller/Amazon Video.

Not getting enough Kaitlin Olson on Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Try The Mick, which basically imagines what would happen if Dee were to get stuck with a brood of bratty children. Canned wine is an optional, but encouraged, accompaniment. (Catch up on Hulu.)

Courtesy of Patrick McElhenney/Fox.

You might have heard about this show; with its 80s focus and drug-toting robot, its all the rage on Netflix right now. Come for the zany fashion, stay for Alison Bries soulful Audrey Hepburn impression.

Courtesy of Erica Parise/Netflix.

As Issa Raes comedy prepares for its second-season debut next month, make sure youre caught up on all the laughs, dating woes, and girlfriend drama. Insecure was one of the freshest new shows of 2016, and its second season promises to be just as delightful. (Catch up on HBO.)

Courtesy of HBO.

Yes, there are far too many comedies about Rich People Problemsbut few are as frothy and enjoyable as this Bravo original, a scripted comedy based on the life of its star, Jill Kargman. Come for the hyper-specific 1-percenter jokes; stay for Abby Elliotts masterful performance as the ultimate Upper East Side monster.

Courtesy of Bravo.

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How the Original It Miniseries Traumatized a Generation of Kids – Vanity Fair

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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero
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