Tim Curry’s Pennywise Terrified The World 30 Years Ago Today
He’s every nightmare we’ve ever had, our worst dream come true, everything we were ever afraid of; 30 years ago, Tim Curry’s Pennywise was unleashed.
Lest we forget Stephen King’s three categories: ‘the gross-out… the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs; the horror… the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around; and the terror… when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there.’
His works have long fascinated, spooked and terrified readers and moviegoers alike. However, atop all his fiendish creations, embodying every distinction of horror, is a dancing clown with a penchant for kids, balloons and blood. Today marks three decades since Pennywise was first brought to life.
Clowns are scary, any sane soul would agree – but why? Is it their garish make-up and clobber? Is it their inane, strangulated laughing? Is it their inexplicable handiwork, from bouncing hammers to little flowers that squirt water?
Or, is it because of Pennywise? More specifically, Curry’s Pennywise – an indelible villain in a crappy miniseries (often incorrectly cited as a movie) that’s managed to not only pervade, but mould the public opinion on our once-beloved jesters.
Via some sort of twisted cultural osmosis, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t aware of It. King’s horror totem is legendary, whether it be the ‘shooketh’ testimony of its readers or the viewers trapped in its universal nightmares.
I was first exposed to Pennywise at the age of 10. As my friends and I surfed the web, perusing YouTube, we eventually came across an assortment of clips from the 1990 adaptation. ‘SCARIEST MOMENTS IN IT (1990)’, or something of a similar hyped-up sentiment.
How naive, how clueless we were of the irreparable damage of the next five minutes. In united, petrified silence, we watched Curry’s grinning, gravelly clown lure and torment young Georgie into the sewer.
‘Do they float?’ asks the young boy. ‘Oh yes,’ Pennywise replies. ‘They float, Georgie. They float. And when you’re down here, with me… you’ll float too.’ The shot swirls to fade in his spiky jaw. I didn’t sleep properly for weeks.
Hilariously, curiosity persisted through the fear. Eventually, we got out our hands on a copy and waited for a night where we could stay over at the other’s house.
I dozed off before the end, but I dreamed of Pennywise’s horrifying grimace through the wafting bedsheets, like Michael Myers at a carnival. I awoke in the wee hours to the DVD’s menu screen, illuminating the darkness, with Richard Bellis’s score of twinkly fairground music and blood-trickling electronica on an endless loop. A good night’s rest became a fantasy.
The miniseries takes on a different structure from Andy Muschietti’s films, blending childhood flashbacks with the Losers Club reunion over a beefy 192-minute runtime.
Of its inadequacies, there’s the dreadfully spotty pacing and woeful CGI (in a post-Cronenberg world, the level of puppetry in the climactic spider seems even worse). Often, as the young children get to know each other, it has all the nuance of a cereal advert. Henry Bowers, a fearsome bully in the book, is sketched like a juvenile T-Bird souped up on Red Bull and hair gel.
Yet, despite aging like a carton of eggs, the odd masterstrokes of horror imagery are indebted to one key decision by director Tommy Lee Wallace: anchoring it on Curry, who laps up every single second of screen-time. His sporadic appearances, from an eerie wave in a swamp to rattling a noisemaker in a library with viscera-splattering balloons, are unforgettable (for better or worse).
Bill Skarsgård’s later twist on Pennywise is entirely different, and pretty much incomparable; flamboyant with babyish drool and nasty, clearer hunger. As Richie and the Losers beat him down in Chapter One, the goal of getting fed is evident.
Though a little bonkers to say for a shapeshifter, Curry’s take is more realistic. He taunts his victims, young and old, with a coarse Brooklynite accent and chesty cackle, like a serial killer lurking in the shadows. It’s less a case of nourishment, more of a monstrous vendetta. ‘I’ll kill you all,’ he screams. ‘I’ll drive you crazy, and I’ll kill you all!’
Nostalgic praise aside, I live under the actor’s ingrained legacy every day: then, now and always, I still inch away from drains on the street.
Stephen King’s It is available to stream on-demand from Amazon Prime and other providers.
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