For all its drawbacks, the 1990 miniseries boasted an instantly iconic rendition of Stephen King’s murderous clown.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.
The pantheon of great performances in Stephen King adaptations is as large as the author’s five-decade-long bibliography. Starting with Sissy Spacek’s star-making role in Carrie, to Kathy Bates’s Oscar winning and foot-destroying Annie Wilkes in Misery, King’s gift for writing characters that are both salt-of-the-Earth and pure evil allows the right actor with the right part to put on an absolute clinic.
Many actors have had iconic roles in these adaptations, but there is one performance that received zero awards and little critical acclaim at the time, even though it may take up the biggest real estate in our collective nightmares and single-handedly made clowns go from unsettling to terrifying monsters in the cultural zeitgeist: Pennywise, the Dancing Clown.
Let’s set the stage: it’s Sunday evening, November 18, 1990. We are in year ten of the Reagan-Bush dynasty and halfway through the Gulf War. A person turns on the television to ABC to watch America’s Funniest Home Videos, hosted by Full House co-star, Bob Saget. Fun times. After that show, they leave it on the same station to watch America’s Funniest People, hosted by fellow Full House co-star, Dave Coulier. A show that was like America’s Funniest Home Videos but with less hits to the groin and more people making weird faces into the camera. Awesome.
They continue watching ABC, because we’re on a roll at this point. The next thing that airs that night is ABC’s Movie of the Week, which happens to be part one of an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, It. A thousand-page horror epic that features an evil space entity who crashes to Earth, takes the form of a clown, and appears every 27 years to lure children into its sewer lair and feast on them.
Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, the film opens on a rainy day in a wholesome neighborhood in the town of Derry, Maine. A mother calls for her young daughter to get inside from the rain before leaving her unattended. The little girl finds herself alone in her backyard before hearing the giggles of Pennywise (Tim Curry). He waves at her, beckons her closer to him, and then proceeds to devour her. Seventeen million people watched this.
Although it was considered a success at the time (it came in fifth in the ratings that week), in the pre-streaming, pre-social media days where people couldn’t tweet, “Holy moly did people see this scary-ass sewer clown movie last night?”, the film could have easily been forgotten in the dustbin of made-for-television King adaptations like The Tommyknockers or the Steven Weber version of The Shining. The fact that it still lives on in our imaginations and continues to ruin clowns generation after generation is mostly the result of the unbelievable performance by British actor Tim Curry.
He already had a few memorable performances under his belt by 1990. Curry quickly came out of the gate with the role he will probably be best remembered for: Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the 1973 midnight cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He also was a villain in the 1982 version of Annie, a demon in the 1985 Legend, and a mischievous butler in Clue that same year. Not to mention he was already an accomplished voice actor and stage performer, starring in the 1981 Broadway premiere of Amadeus, earning him a Tony nomination (he lost to his co-star, future wizard Ian McKellen).
When I watched IT for the first time in 1997 at a friend’s sleepover, I saw Tim Curry as just the dude from Home Alone 2 and Muppet Treasure Island, two of the greatest films of all-time according to nine-year-old me. After that fateful night, Curry would become the reason I still don’t get too close to storm drains. The power of Curry’s performance is most potent if you watch as a child, which is how most people of my generation first encountered it.
It was the first film that made me think about my own mortality and that being a kid does not mean I am safe in this world.
In my case, it started with a dare from an older sibling, and aided by parents that did not seem to mind if we rented a double VHS with a terrifying clown on the cover from our local Blockbuster. Up until this point of my pop culture consumption, children were usually off-limits for murder. Some children’s films had mild kid endangerment, or in the case of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, destruction of children’s bodies in a terrifying candy factory.
It was the first film that made me think about my own mortality and that being a kid does not mean I am safe in this world. In fact, my lack of size, strength, and worldly knowledge makes me especially vulnerable to monsters lurking in dark places.
This became apparent when first watching the iconic scene when Georgie (Tony Dakota) encounters Pennywise in a storm drain after his paper boat falls through the opening. It’s the Hamlet monologue of modern horror and maybe the best scene of Tim Curry’s career. In just one minute and twenty seconds, Curry’s Pennywise plays several different notes: friendly, charming, and seductive––before turning on a dime to full-on predator.
One would be correct in thinking that seeing a clown floating in a sewer who, by the way, knows your name already, would be a billion red flags, but as a child watching this scene, you are seduced along with poor Georgie. When Pennywise talks about how fun it is down in the sewer, Curry delivers it in a way that makes you think, “Maybe this sewer clown has a good point?”
In the era of practical effects, Curry just needed contacts and a cheap clown costume to create a terrifying performance. He uses every gift he developed through years of stage and screen to embody Pennywise with a sense of off-kilter charm and whimsy. His eyes are in full Buster-Keaton-mode with expression, and his gravelly voice gives him the air of a seasoned circus performer who has been smoking cigars since he was a baby clown.
Also, this next point is largely forgotten, but it doesn’t hurt to mention that young Tim Curry was a very charismatic and sexy man. He brings that gravitas straight from Rocky Horror into scary clown mode. When he’s not confined to a sewer, Curry sashays and steps as if he were in a flashy musical. When he tricks grown up Ben Hanscom (played by the late great John Ritter), he smooches him like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
This level of camp is what separates Curry’s Pennywise from Bill Skarsgård’s take on the character in Andy Muschietti’s updated version of It. Skarsgård uses more animal characteristics, like a tiger playing with its prey. It’s definitely a more physical and intense performance, and is scary for sure, but it misses the playful nature that Curry brought to it. When you see Skarsgård’s Pennywise, you immediately know that clown is going to eat you. When you see Curry’s, he might make a funny joke and offer you a beer first, and then eat you, which ultimately makes the original Pennywise more terrifying.
Whether future generations of kids will lose sleep at slumber parties because of the 2010s evil clown instead of the 1990 version is yet to be determined. But considering these days of remakes, re-imaginings, and re-doing everything that was ever a thing, chances are Tim Curry’s Pennywise may slowly become a dated relic that is only a curiosity for future die-hard King fans. All I know is that whenever I pass by a storm drain or have to walk into a dark basement, Curry’s Pennywise will always be there laughing, immortal, and hungry.