'It': TV horror at its finest

THE BOTTOM LINE on "It," the ABC two-parter that starts this weekend, is that if you start watching, you're not going to be able to stop. This is a good, at times brilliant, always solid and well-done example of the horror/suspense genre.

But be forewarned, the superb setup is better than the slightly disappointing payoff.


The shorthand description of this four-hour production, based on a Stephen King novel, is that a group of 40-year-olds gather together to face a murderous demon that they first encountered 30 years before when it was killing kids in their small town of Derry, Maine.

That's the way it starts, as town librarian Mike Hanlon, played by Tim Reid, realizes It is back and begins calling together his childhood chums, who gather in the person of actors who are big names for TV -- John Ritter as a successful architect, Richard Thomas as a writer of horror novels, Annette O'Toole as a fashion designer, Harry Anderson as a stand-up comedian, Dennis Christopher as a still-asthmatic businessman and Richard Masur as a happily-married type.


But, though it might be those names that get you to tune in, in the first part they hardly appear -- most of the two hours that will be shown Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ) consists of flashbacks to their original encounter with It.

And it is in these scenes that "It" develops its most potent power. In part, that's because flawed adults fighting evil can never seem as engaging as innocent, vulnerable children embarked on the same mission. But it's also because the outstanding group of young actors assembled rarely, if ever, miss a beat.

The demon can take on any appearance, including that of a dead brother or father, but is usually seen as a clown, clearly an image attractive to kids, beautifully played with appropriate enthusiasm and a nice comic touch by Tim Curry. He inhabits the sewers of the town of Derry, coming up through various drainpipes to claim his victims. Luckily, this small town has the most impressive sewer system this side of Paris, the better to film encounters with the monster.

Though there's an overly-obvious Freudian subtext here about the necessity of adults to face up to the fears of their childhood if they are ever to be free of them -- the scenes in the sewers with the adults come to resemble a psychological "Incredible Journey" -- "It" and its monster actually reach a more subtle, and more profound, level.

That's because King's clown is able to capture both the repulsion and seduction of death, promising the kids that the balloons he holds, indeed that everything, floats down where he is, an image of peace that is appealing. Then he reveals his treacherous fangs.

It's a dichotomy particularly appropriate to the kids who first encounter him in the midst of a successful evocation of the 1950s childhood of baby boomers. They are in the beginnings of adolescence, a time of boundless but painful curiosity that almost inevitably includes a fascination with what else there is besides life.

These kids are a diverse group who form what they call the loser's club, the outcasts from the tough and hip of their school. But, in classic heartwarming form, they form a strong bond, able as a group to accomplish what none could do alone, counter this monster. The experience is so life-changing that, 30 years later, one phone call makes them drop everything and respond immediately.

The second two hours, which will be on Tuesday night at 9 o'clock, suffers from too many scenes that try to make this a chilling "Big Chill." The drama also comes to rely too heavily on special effects and, for some reason, after having been developed in this perfect image of the evil clown, in the unsatisfying climactic scene, the demon turns into a huge spider. Go figure.


But, if you tune in Sunday night, such quibbling is not going to matter. You're going to watch until the final fight Tuesday night because you'll have already been hooked by two of the finest hours of horror ever made for TV.


*** A group of kids fight off a monster of a clown that's killing children in their small Maine town, and then gather from far flung places 30 years later when the evil being makes another appearance.

CAST: John Ritter, Richard Thomas

TIME: Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m.

CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)