Sunday, October 23, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #11 - Pennywise

I'm a bit of a snob about TV movies, generally refusing to group them in with feature films - while Angels in America, for instance, was among the best movies of 2003, it's a miniseries, it's its own thing, and it doesn't make sense to me to put it on a ten best list with films that are essentially a different medium. However, I have to make an exception for this list, which just wouldn't be complete without Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown in the 1990 miniseries of Stephen King's It. The book is one of King's strongest, and Pennywise - the shape-shifting embodiment of the element of fear itself, which for some reason favors the persona of a clown as its default avatar - is King's most terrifying creation. Pennywise preys on the fears of children in the fictional small town of Derry, Maine before devouring them; set in the 1950s, the book is about a group of friends who manage to defeat Pennywise before having to return to the town 30 years later to face the clown again. Mixing moments of pulpy horror, a Lovecraftian mythology that encompasses universal good and evil, and a sensitive, Bradbury-influenced story of childhood's end, It is King's magnum opus (no small feat given he has never been into the whole brevity thing).

The miniseries is good but limited by the restrictions of network censorship, discarding the darker and more esoteric aspects of the book. Still, it's a strong effort with a good cast - the adult members of the "lucky seven" are mostly played by TV stars like John Ritter and Harry Anderson, and you can tell they're relishing being given the opportunity to play such well-crafted characters. And if there's one thing the miniseries gets absolutely right, it's the casting of Tim Curry as Pennywise. Curry has never balked at playing larger-than-life characters or creating a character beneath heavy makeup, whether the role is Dr. Frank-n-Further or Legend's Darkness. Beneath white grease paint and a flaming red wig, Curry makes hairpin turns from aw-shucks geniality to blood-curdling menace; he's one of the few actors who could be believable as a murderous supernatural clown. And director Tommy Lee Wallace, a protégé of John Carpenter, does a great job of making Pennywise's appearances unpredictable, often framing him in wide shots as the clown occupies the frame with the same uncanny quality as Michael Myers.

I watched It on its original two-night airing, when I was six; Pennywise was all I and the other kids in the neighborhood who had parents questionably permissive enough to allow them to watch It could talk about. While I can see the low-budget seams more clearly as an adult, Curry's performance still gives me the willies. I don't know whether coulrophobia was common before It - whether King was influenced by a collective fear of clowns or if his book was the impetus for the "evil clown" trend. In any case, It would make an excellent teaching tool to encourage one's children not to accept balloons from strange clowns.

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