The two-part TV miniseries Salem's Lot, the second film ever adapted from the writings of Stephen King, premiered on CBS in November, 1979, and other than a scant handful of anthology series episodes, that was it for King on television for eleven years. The two-part TV miniseries It premiered on ABC in November, 1990, and kicked of a run of televised King adaptations that didn't even slightly start to lose momentum until 1999, and didn't fully come to a stop until 2006. So far be it from me to suggest that It wasn't a massive, game changing success, or that people didn't love it. I'll merely suggest that It isn't very good - a whole hell of a lot worse than Salem's Lot, at any rate - and that as much as I respect people's right to nostalgia, I suspect they're subconsciously increasing Tim Curry's prominence in the series at least three- or fourfold.

Because Curry's great, no two ways about it: he gives one of the best movie monster performances from either of the decades we might reasonably decide It belongs to. The good news and bad news, identical in this case, is that It would much rather dole him out sparingly, presenting his character - the It of the title - as an omnipresent psychic force that only occasionally feels to need to incarnate and cause active trouble. A great approach for a slow-build horror film, and a great approach for the beefy, 1100+ page novel that's generally regarded as one of King's very best. A great approach for this miniseries, too, except for the small problem that Curry is very nearly the only thing about It that's good at all, let alone great, and with a running time of three hours and seven minutes (once you've cut out the commercials and interstitial credits), there's a whole shitload of It that just sort of squats there, bland and chintzy as you like. Without Curry to add flavor, It is absolutely nothing but a boring-ass 1990 TV production.

Anyway, I don't get to talk about what It isn't - three hours of being turned into a gelatinous mass of terror by Curry - so how about talking what It is. The miniseries, scripted by director/John Carpenter protégé Tommy Lee Wallace, Lawrence D. Cohen, and King himself, closely follows the large-scale structure of the book, and as much of its specific story as can be fit into the time allowed. In 1990, something foul is happening in the town of Derry, Maine, with many children going missing under apparently violent circumstances. For most adults, this is just one of those sad things, assuming they notice it at all, but for librarian Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), it's the payoff to 30 years of patient watching. Back in 1960, Mike was one of seven friends who all saw something unspeakably terrifying in Derry, and who pledged that they would return to fight it if it ever cropped up again. Well, up it's cropping, and so Mike calls the other six, all of them living somewhat emotionally compromised lives, none of them possessing even the faintest memories of 1960 or their dear friends at the time. As they hear from Mike, one-by-one, those memories come rushing back, and most of the miniseries' first episode takes the form of flashbacks to that horrifying summer when they were all 13 and the Derry sewers ran with the blood of children.

The obvious downside to the script largely mirroring King's novel is that it inherits the biggest problem with King's novel. Or second-biggest, I guess; the biggest problem, the book's legendarily misjudged climax, has been removed, a victim of network standard & practices and basic good taste. But what this does leave us with is a hopscotching structure between the adults in 1990 and their childhood selves in 1960, and in all incarnations of It, the grown-ups just plain aren't as interesting. It's worse in the miniseries, which trends towards more and more scenes in the present, while the book mostly keeps them in balance; we therefore have a first episode which is generally solid TV horror, not really all that scary or tense, but satisfying enough as we follow six kids - in rough order of narrative importance, Bill Denbrough (Jonathan Brandis), Beverly Marsh (Emily Perkins), Ben Hanscom (Brandon Crane), Richie Tozier (Seth Green), Eddie Kaspbrak (Adam Faraizi), Mike (Marlon Taylor), and Stan Uris (Ben Heller) - through their very fraught vacation, as they grow aware that an evil presence is devouring Derry, and they're the only ones with any real clue what it is or where, and even they don't have much of an idea how to stop it. And we have a second episode that's boring shit with a bunch of adults debating what they should do.

Still, let's focus on the positive, for the moment. Wallace is a satisfactory director at best, definitely not what you'd hope for of a man who could be described as a John Carpenter protégé. But he handles the 1960 scenes with a certain stolid, square effectiveness, particularly in the numerous scenes set in the woods, where he and cinematographer Richard Leiterman rely on the natural diffusion of sunlight through trees to provide a sense of pastoral tension. The restrictions on the production resources and budget don't allow for much in the way of gathering atmosphere, and I'm not certain that the man whose best-known project other than It was and remains Halloween III: Season of the Witch should be counted on for creating a strong sense of mood anyway. Still, the sense of stillness that pervades the kids' half of the series brings along its own form of tension, and a feeling that something is curled up and waiting in between the moments that we actually see anything particularly overt.

There's also little doubt that the kids in the cast are, as a body, stronger than their adult counterparts (John Ritter, the grown up, slimmed down Ben, is the obvious stand out; Annette O'Toole gets one good scene as the adult Beverly, but the script is not that character's friend by any stretch of the imagination). There's a certain level of worn out acceptance in their performances that works exceedingly well at evoking the threshold state between innocent childhood and established adulthood, when the thing they're most certain of is that nobody will take them seriously and so they're entirely dependent on their own wits.

The 1990 scenes, in contrast, are close to an unmitigated disaster. As the functional leader, Richard Thomas makes for a flimsy, watery Ben; Harry Anderson's portrayal of professional comedian Richie is loud and obnoxious and little else (so was the character in the book, but is it not the job of adaptations to fix the problems with their source material?), and nobody else makes a significant impression. The ever so slightly grainy outdoor photography that marks the 1960 scenes is replaced by overlit interiors that look like any boring space in any boring American small city. Which is the point, after a fashion, but the miniseries pays so little mind to the book's theme of time passing and robbing places of their identity that it doesn't register at all that this might have been the intention. It looks like a cheap TV show from 1990, basically, and it loses all of the spell that the 1960 scenes are able to somewhat build up for themselves. It just isn't scary, barely even threatening, and while it's easy to blame network television for that, it's worth pointing out that just a little bit more than a week prior to It, the same network aired the harrowing nightmare of Episode 14 of Twin Peaks, still a brutal and upsetting hour of television more than a quarter of a century later.

Throughout all of this, the only truly memorable or even slightly frightening thing is Curry. As the favorite incarnation of the dark being in Derry, a costume shop clown naming itself Pennywise, Curry is amazing: he plays the role as something like a meanspirited carnival barker, with a blaring nasal American accent that the actor uses to deliver lines just a couple of notches louder than they should be. He's all violent self-amusement, arguably closer to Joker from DC Comics than the devouring force of evil that King wrote, but it translates beautifully to the screen, particularly with the simple, direct make-up and costuming Curry wears: the huge blocks of solid color (yellow outfit, clear white grease paint, the latter emphasised by the bulbous forehead proesthetic Curry has been fitted with) make him a festive character, and a huge lot of fun to simply look at. Which is used ironically, of course; the coarse cruelty of the actor's delivery and the brutal lines the screenwriters feed him cut against the colorful, goofy design of the character, and the incongruity is a fair part of why Pennywise is such a strong figure. There's some explicit gestures used to make him scarier: yellow contacts, razor sharp teeth; but it's not really necessary. Curry's mercurial shifts from jolly asshole huckster to hungry monster are scarier than anything Wallace and the make-up team can do, because they happen so suddenly, and in front of us, and damn near invisibly.

This leaves us with only one question: can a great monster performance save a foundering movie? It ranges from unmemorably decent (the kids gathering their courage) all the way down to fucking awful (adult Richie), but every time - every time - that Curry shows up, it suddenly becomes a rock-solid horror classic from an era when good horror was at its very rarest. I confess that, for me, it's not enough. The needs are the script are such that it makes sense for Pennywise's appearance to feel like an intrusion into the movie, but the fact that Curry feels so obviously apart from the rest of the project mostly just calls attention to how much better he is than the rest of it. By the low standards of Stephen King adaptations, this is certainly no worse than middle-tier, but it's not much better, either, with all apologies to the countless childhoods that got messed up by catching this at just the right age.