How Stephen King’s IT gripped the small screen

“Swear to me. Swear to me that if it isn’t dead, we’ll all come back.”

One simple red balloon. If you really want to send the chills up someone at Halloween, just tie a red balloon somewhere, and leave it floating innocently.

For all the capsules of fake blood, cheap horror masks and paper-thin costumes that British retail will be selling to part you from your cash at Halloween, it’s telling that something so simple can get under the skin better than all of it.

For it’s a balloon that’s the calling card, of course, of one Pennywise the clown, most recently seen in the big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s weighty horror tome, IT (with the sequel to that movie due next autumn). Yet for many, a balloon that belongs in the hands of Tim Curry, whose memorable turn as the aforementioned clown has him cemented as a horror icon – even though his performance never saw the big screen!

In the US, the 1990 adaptation – directed by Halloween III’s Tommy Lee Wallace, no less (replacing original choice, George A Romero!) – debuted on television. The success of IT goes to the heart of how horror is so effective on the small screen. There’s something particularly discomforting about letting Curry’s Pennywise into your home, and that was before the high definition upgrade, that allowed you to finesse every point of his teeth. More than that, though: IT has managed to live on and be discovered by pure word of mouth. Now it’ll find new fans, with interest buoyed thanks to the success of 2017’s IT.

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Here’s a nerdy fact or two, to whet your appetite. A clown lies ahead…

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The overall production was hardly starved of resources, it should be noted, but what’s particularly appealing about it – something that the recent film tapped into as well – is how it’s the small details that get under your skin.

Director Wallace knew what he was doing. A paper boat floating in a sewer, a balloon bobbling through the streets – and the film’s greatest asset is simply a man in clown makeup. Furthermore, he’s not a clown you see very often.

IT plays to the old notion of using its core threat sparingly. Thus, tension gets ratcheted up, and the moments Curry has on screen have extra impact. Perhaps that’s why Pennywise has endured: he was hugely effective, carefully used, and the mere memory of him was just a red balloon away.

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