The movie: It, ABC’s version of the Stephen King 1986 best-seller. The setting: a Cantonese restaurant on the outskirts of Vancouver, B.C., where dessert is about to be served.
A special-effects engineer smears petroleum jelly on the lip of a rubber fortune cookie screwed to the table, then ducks below to manipulate metal rods and wires that control the confection’s innards.
Above the table, actor Richard Thomas watches as the cookie begins to convulse. A hairy, six-inch-long spider leg pops out. It flexes, like a beckoning finger.
Thomas looks as though he has just swallowed some rancid moo shu pork.
Director Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III) steps out from behind the camera. ”That,” he says with a grin, ”is going to be a great frame of film.”
For sure, not the sort of frame that Nielsen families are accustomed to seeing on network TV. Prime-time doesn’t attempt scary stuff very often (King’s novels have been adapted for the small screen only once before, with the 1979 TV movie of his book Salem’s Lot). Television has done well with creepy (The Twilight Zone, for example), but genuine horror? Not much in evidence.
It, which airs in two parts (Nov. 18 and 20, 9 o’clock both nights), is thus something of a departure. The story revolves around a monster that - slumbers in the sewers of a Maine town and awakens every few decades with a craving for children. Thomas and his castmates — John Ritter (Hooperman), Tim Reid (Frank’s Place), Harry Anderson (Night Court), Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away), Annette O’Toole (The Kennedys of Massachusetts), and Richard Masur (Rhoda) — play friends who return to kill the creature 30 years after their initial childhood battle with it.
”This is not exactly All Quiet on the Western Front,” says Thomas, who appeared in the TV retelling of that classic novel. ”But it’s fascinating. I have all these toys to look at that I’ve never seen before. Just watching that cookie, my face was shaking.”
There seem to be a number of face-shaking moments in It (another one: when O’Toole’s bathroom sink mysteriously fills with blood).
The monster itself, which looks part spider, part crab, devoured a good chunk of the movie’s $1 million-plus special-effects budget. Until the final showdown, the beast assumes different forms, including a clown.
Think Bozo’s bad seed. Ronald McPsycho.
”We wanted to find a face jolly and seductive that could turn in a second to really mean,” explains Tim Curry, the English actor whose most prominent credit is the fabled Rocky Horror Picture Show. In It, he plays a clown named Pennywise, the monster’s main manifestation. ”The clown is a kind of basic image that children trust,” Curry says. ”I’m subverting one of the cozier images in the world.”
But even with a crazed Clarabelle, It will be more restrained than most big-screen scare-a-thons; network policies on gore make sure of it. This doesn’t bother director Wallace. In fact, he’s sort of pleased. ”This is something,” he says, ”I may even be able to show my children.” Yes, but will they ever eat fortune cookies again?