Pennywise: The Story of IT Feasts on Production Stories

Pennywise, IT’s monstrous clown, is a horror icon. A trans-morphic ancient creature able to shapeshift and warp perceptions, Pennywise has been scaring audiences through the pages of Stephen King’s book since 1986. However, in 1990, Tommy Lee Wallace and Tim Curry turned the imaginative tale into a horrifying reality, growing the strength of the killer clown through the fear of all who watched. Pennywise has never been more popular. Pennywise: The Story of IT remembers the 1990 production through stories and interviews from the miniseries set. Featuring exclusive interviews with director Tommy Lee Wallace, teleplay writer Lawrence D. Cohen, and stars Tim Curry, Seth Green, Richard Thomas, Tim Reid, Richard Masur, Emily Perkins, and more. 

A cast photo of all of the child actors in IT
Image courtesy of Screambox

Originally planned as an eight-hour miniseries, Cohen takes center stage early in the film as he discusses the original scope of the project. Cohen said he pitched the project to ABC as an ideally ten-episode “novel-for-television.” George A. Romero was attached to direct the series at that point, potentially hoping the miniseries could be elevated beyond what broadcast television was capable of at that point. “I think the dream of what we had in mind was absolutely amazing, I think we were just about twenty years early in having it. We would have been Game of Thrones,” Cohen says. 

Cohen has worked on numerous Stephen King scripts over the years, including both versions of Carrie, but to hear him talk about his work on IT is akin to a kid talking about candy. He knows his 1990 teleplay is special and enjoys talking about it. Any fan of the 1990 version of the film will remember the nightmarish terror IT elicited from its viewers. Still, there is something heartbreaking in hearing Cohen discuss the unrealized idea of what could have been from the innovation of what we now consider an entire season of television.  

With an IT prequel series in the works over at HBOMax, and Romero’s posthumous presence felt on Shudder’s Creepshow, there is a sense of melancholy for the innovation surrounding the 1990 production. Remember, this was six to seven years before television had the rating system of TV-Y to TV-MA that it has today. Governed only by the ethical, moral, and legal implications imposed by the FCC, broadcast standards were more mailable. Yet, there were still discussions between the board of standards and practices and IT’s executive producers about even allowing Tim Curry’s Pennywise on air. ABC ultimately had to present the series with a disclaimer, just like we see now ahead of broadcast shows like The Walking Dead. 

Tim Curry speaks to the camera in Pennywise: The Story of IT
Image courtesy of Screambox

Funny enough, IT was never even a blip on the standards and practices reason for a rating system. Unlike the PG-13 rating that came to fruition in the ’80s thanks to films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and Poltergeist, it was the animated X-Men series, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and other “violent” content aimed at children that called upon the development of a rating system that was supposed to work hand-in-hand with an unsuccessful V-chip. But I digress. 

This is just a sliver of what the entertaining new documentary Pennywise: The Story of IT touches upon, as well as a little of my own research because the film begets wistful nostalgia into our childhood memories of watching IT and many other movies on broadcast television in the ’90s. I mean, who the hell would I even be today if I couldn’t quote every broadcast alternative cuss word from Tremors? Where IT delivers a seventies nostalgia trip for viewers, Pennywise: The Story of IT provides a fond look back at the production and problems of making a film for TV that frankly scared the hell out of people and imbued an entire generation with coulrophobia (fear of clowns). 

That being said, the two-hour film only briefly colors outside the lines of its subject matter and only details the 1990 film. The film is a straight-up homage to Tommy Lee Wallace’s fantastic vision of the Stephen King novel, and, in some places, it feels like a missed opportunity.  

IT was a cultural sensation. The ABC miniseries based on King’s book was nominated for two Emmy’s, winning one, and garnered the network’s highest ratings in 1990 with nearly 30 million viewers over its two-night premiere. Curry’s Pennywise also preyed on the paranoia of its audience, who were still reeling from the John Wayne Gacy murders, and awaited his execution. Pennywise: The Story of IT ventures into this territory momentarily but never reaches below the surface into the zeitgeist defining effectiveness IT had. 

The original miniseries stacks up among the absolute best miniseries to ever air on broadcast television over the years. TV Insider named it number five on their list of miniseries from the ’90s, where other King miniseries like the very well received The Stand, Storm of the Century, and The Langoliers are all suspiciously absent. IT was the catalyst for what a horror miniseries phenomenon could be, propelling those titles into production in the first place. Pennywise: The Story of IT talks fondly about its legacy, even showing some scenes of cosplaying horror convention enthusiasts and tattooed fans. Regardless, it never dives into what the film means to those IT had an effect on and only ever alludes to the film’s remakes.  

I was happy the film touched on the death of one of its extremely talented young stars: Jonathan Brandis. I always viewed Brandis as a younger version of River Phoenix, in that, like Phoenix, Brandis was also a charismatic and talented child actor with a long career ahead of him and whose light went out far too soon. The actor was the heart of SeaQuest DSV and appeared in the lesser-known sequels to The Stepfather and The Neverending Story, films I was more familiar with as a kid than their more successful counterparts. I still remember the news, and like the news about Phoenix, this one stung too. I thought it was very respectful the way Pennywise: The Story of IT honored the late actor, especially as it’s one of the few times it deviates from the exclusivity of the IT subject matter. 

Tim Curry appears in full face makeup giving a funny face in Pennywise: The Story of IT
Image courtesy of Screambox

The bulk of Pennywise: The Story of IT is immensely enjoyable, detailing everything from the casting process to night two’s somewhat lackluster finale. One of the more interesting sequences details how the production held a camp for the child actors to meet with their adult counterparts in the film, learning their inflections and mannerisms, then showing the comparisons side by side.  

Finally, we have the crème de la crème, Tim Curry. Curry looks great here in the documentary, given all that he’s been through, and his words are gold in Pennywise: The Story of IT. His views on the character are what we’re here for, after all, and who better to tell us about the sinister clown than the actor who took King’s idea, made it his own, and turned it into a phenomenon? Curry’s insight into fighting for fewer prosthetics to allow him to emote is easily why Pennywise is able to scare the hell out of us, and it’s hard to imagine the role almost went to Harvey Firestein or Roddy McDowell. We only ever want more insight from Curry, who’s, understandably, featured in the documentary for a short time. 

Directors John Campopiano and Chris Griffiths’ Pennywise: The Story of IT is a great documentary specifically for horror movie fans, but especially those with an affinity for the IT miniseries. The film concentrates its efforts on the 1990 production exceptionally well, deep-diving to deliver terrific behind-the-scenes stories. However, those looking for a more encompassing feature into the fandom and legacy surrounding IT,  insight into why it’s influential in horror, and an essential part of the era it was released, will find it lacks those elements in its just over two-hour run time. I suppose the phrase “always leave them wanting more” is appropriate here because it’s nonetheless a worthwhile two hours that you’ll spend grinning from ear to ear. Watch it, and you’ll float too! 

Pennywise: The Story of IT is now playing exclusively on Screambox. Thirty-day free trials are available to new subscribers.

Be sure to check out Chris Miller’s interview with Bart Mixon, special effects artist on the set of IT, as he talks about the looks he created for IT and more!

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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