Film Review: Pennywise: The Story of It

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Horror often thrives on creating the perfect bad guy. The eighties spawned a plethora of memorable villains who each starred in a series of films that seemed to stretch on into infinity; from Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees to Pinhead and Chucky, it was an era that created characters who would endure the test of time. But in the 1990’s, in amongst the franchise fair and diminishing returns of our wisecracking monsters, there was one character who stood alone. 

Pennywise the clown

Over two quiet November evenings in 1990, director Tommy Lee Wallace would present Pennywise the Clown to an audience of 30 million eager Americans at home, unleashing a new horror icon from the mind of Stephen King that would endure the test of time. With just that single mini-series appearance, Tim Curry would deliver a character who scarred and terrified an entire generation of children and changed the pop-culture image of the clown forever.

Co-directed by filmmakers John Campopiano and Christopher Griffiths, Pennywise: The Story of It is a fascinating and insightful documentary about the making of and legacy of one of the most widely seen and fondly remembered Stephen King adaptations of all time. Told with a lot of gusto through well considered chapters with a real focus, the duo have put together the most comprehensive documentary imaginable. 

Packed full of interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, this film leaves no stone unturned in painstakingly and lovingly exploring every facet of the It mini-series of 1990. Although the film clocks in at a little over two hours, it is a treat for horror fans of all ages as we get some amazing behind the scenes footage and stills that are like catnip to a kitten.

The kid cast members from It

The film is full of interesting tales about the production. The story that the adult and child actors were sent off to a Lucky Seven Club style bootcamp to spend time with one another, developing habits alongside each other that would serve as connective tissue between the generational jumps is fascinating. It is a lot of fun to see that both sets of casts were incredibly tight knit and enjoyed spending time with one another, even though they would often cause trouble on set by being a little too raucous. Of the adult cast, Richard Thomas is particularly giving and shares some lovely stories of the cast bonding and apologising in retrospect to the director for their over exuberance on set.

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Pretty much everyone that you would want to hear from on the production is here, out with those who have sadly passed on since filming. The documentary tenderly touches on the deaths of John Ritter and Jonathan Brandis but never does it feel too intrusive; you can feel the real sadness among the actors and crew who worked with both at their loss. 

The documentary is filled with some fantastic titbits of information. For instance, the original list of actors considered to play the part of Pennywise included Harvey Fierstein, Alice Cooper and Malcolm McDowell! And George Romero was originally attached to the project, but left when the mini-series was cut from twelve hours to only four. I won’t spoil anymore but suffice to say that this documentary really digs into every nook and cranny to shine its deadlights on every possible angle. 

Behind the scenes with the spider. Still from Pennywise: The Story of It

There is a fun segment towards the end of the documentary where the infamous ‘Spider’ ending is debated and argued about by the various creative forces involved. The mini-series’ denouement is famously hammy and silly, and it is interesting to get the conflicting perspectives of those involved behind the camera as to why that was. Depending on which side you believe, there was either miscommunication as to what was required or giant spider malfunctions that hampered the ending of a tremendously well told story until that point. 

Some of the behind-the-scenes videos of the cast playing around with the spider puppet are enormous fun, and while it looks fantastic on the set and on the workshop floor something definitely gets missed on the way to the finished output on screen.

Tim Curry in Pennywise: The Story of IT

The film’s real ace in the hole is the involvement of Tim Curry as a talking head in the film. Having largely withdrawn from the public eye in recent years, it was a real privilege to hear his thoughts on the film and to see the glee he still takes in helping to have created a character who has endured as one of horror’s all-time greats thirty years on. The archive interviews of Curry from before It and around the time of filming are a wonderful reminder of what a charming, self-deprecating and considered actor he was in his prime.

The only missing voice that I would have loved to have heard from is perhaps Annette O’Toole who doesn’t appear on the documentary. As the only female cast member among the adult actors, her voice is sadly missed and would have given the production a more complete recollection. Similarly, while there is chat of Pennywise as a pop-culture icon, I found it a little unusual that the filmmakers didn’t touch on Andres Muschietti’s two-part film version of It released in 2017 and 2019. As a rare opportunity to compare and contrast it felt like an opportunity wasted.

The adult cast members of It

But these are minor quibbles. As a fan of the 1986 novel and the 1990 mini-series, Pennywise: The Story of It is as thorough, engaging, enlightening, and touching a documentary as you could ever have hoped to find. Made with a real love of the source material and reuniting the important players in bringing the original to screen, Campopiano and Griffiths have given us a real love letter to the original that Ben Hanscom himself would have been proud of.

By: Hugh McStay

Pennywise: The Story of It is available now to rent or buy on digital and will be available on Blu-ray & DVD from 24th October.