It (1990) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
October, 1957: the small town of Derry, Maine. Seven children face an unthinkable horror which appears in various forms, including Pennywise (Tim Curry) – a clown who lives, hunts, and kills from the town’s sewers. Years later, the surviving adults who are brave enough to return try to stop ‘Its’ new killing spree – this time for good. (From WB’s official synopsis)
Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) may have set the precedent for the made-for-TV Stephen King mini-series, but Tommy Lee Wallace’s It (1990) set the standard. The two-night, star-studded series was a hit and was followed closely by the likes of Golden Years (1991), John Power’s (no relation) The Tommyknockers (1993), Mick Garris’ The Stand (1994), and Tom Holland’s The Langoliers (1995). 26 years later, It still stands apart from the rabble with a fervent fan-base and multiple, popular home video releases. Much of its enduring legacy is owed to Tim Curry’s indelible performance as the villain, Pennywise the Clown, who scared the bejesus out of now-adult children who happened to see the series on primetime television. Revisiting It all these years later, I’m surprised how little screentime Curry actually has. I suppose his presence is just that strong. Outside of Curry, however, the mini-series hasn’t aged very well at all. The kid-driven sequences benefit from the ‘child logic’ of Pennywise’s frightening assaults (well, frightening when I was a kid, at least – they surely aren’t anymore). Wallace’s ambitious (for TV) and energetic direction works in the confines of this type of fantasy (as it had for his feature debut, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, 1982), but, in the context of the adult world, the stagey melodrama and overwrought characterizations are laughable at first, then boring as the movie drags on into its second half. The kid actors are also a lot more compelling than their grownup counterparts, despite the super high-calibre adult cast.
It was one of many Stephen King adaptations that George Romero was attached to direct, along with Pet Semetery and The Stand. Romero worked with screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (not to be confused with Larry Cohen) during pre-production, though their original script was pared down from six hours to about three. Romero obviously didn’t get to finish the project (apparently, the production overlapped with his work on Tom Savini’s 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake), but the mini-series’ creative adaptation of King’s unfilmable book is likely due to Romero’s influence. The basic story is still too internalized and tied to King’s worst instincts (obsessive nostalgia and armchair psychology) to work here (again, especially considering the stricter standards of the era’s TV censorship), but Wallace and Cohen fill the time and balance the past/present elements well. And they decided to cut the underage child orgy chapter of the original book, so that’s nice.
This is the same slightly shorter 187-minute cut that appeared on the various DVD releases. The complete broadcast version was 192 minutes. It appears that credits, titles, and a single scene account for the missing footage.
As far as I know, It was only ever released on flipper DVD from WB. Like Salem’s Lot, it was originally aired at the tube television-friendly aspect ratio of 1.33:1, but, unlike Hooper’s film, it was cropped to 1.85:1 for DVD. I understand this created controversy among fans and that controversy appears to have convinced WB to release the Blu-ray version in 1.33:1. I think that it’s obvious that Wallace and cinematographer Richard Leiterman were conscious of widescreen framing when they shot the movie (just employ your set’s zoom function for proof) and that the option for both the 4x3 and 16x9 transfers would’ve been ideal. That said, this is another fabulous transfer, possibly even the best of the three. Details are extremely sharp and patterns are complex without any notable artifacts. Grain levels appear pretty accurate, based on the film’s age, though inconsistent. Black levels may have been pushed a bit further than their ‘natural’ levels, which does create some crush (specifically during outdoor sunlit scenes) and may be the reason the grain cakes-up a bit during some of the darker sequences. The second half of the mini-series also has some hot spot issues. The color timing leans a little more orange & blue than I recall, but I haven’t seen the movie in nearly 20 years and important stuff – like skin tones, lush greens, and poppy early ‘90s fashions – look fine.
It is presented in its original 2.0 stereo sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s sound design is perhaps even more minimalistic than Salem’s Lot’s, despite having been released so much later. Dialogue and incidental effects are more consistent, but there’s not a lot going on in terms of directional enhancement, aside from the supernaturally-driven sequences, which are relatively impressive for ‘90s television. Richard Bellis’ faux-symphonic keyboard score is nicely mixed with a decent stereo spread and bass support (despite the lack of a discrete LFE). It’s too bad it’s not very good.
Commentary with director Tommy Lee Wallace and actors Dennis Christopher, Tim Reid, John Ritter, and Richard Thomas – As the presence of the late Ritter indicates, this track was recorded before the actor’s death and accompanied most DVD versions of the film. Like Hooper’s solo track, this one runs out of steam over the super-long runtime, but Wallace and the cast do an admirable job filling as much time as they can muster with memories from the making of the mini-series. Ritter is actually a very valuable commentator, because he was a huge fan of King’s work and knows more about the subject than even Wallace.
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps.