Stephen King’s It and Salem’s Lot (TV, 2006)
Released together, and reviewed together, for SFX 147.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: David Soul, James Mason
Stephen King’s It
Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
Starring: Richard Thomas, Annette O’Toole, John Ritter
For all his power to enthrall with the written word, King has a wonky track record in translation from literature to live-action. Fortunately these two mini-series, bookending the 80s neatly, happen to be two of the better ones.
Like all King books, both have a number of archetypes in common – they feature writers, have grown-ups going back to their home towns, and are set in Maine… You know what you are getting with King. Where the difference lies is in the skill of the adapting production teams.
Tobe “Chainsaw Massacre” Hooper’s take on Salem’s Lot is of a consistently higher quality than IT. Besides Hooper’s direction (mostly pedestrian TV stuff, but with enough indie flair), David Soul’s and James Mason’s performances mark this out, with the blond-haired ex-Starsky doing a fine job of looking troubled as writer Ben Mears while Mason positively exudes an air of menacing aristo-Brit, wrapped up nice and neat in a Saville Row suit. It flags a little as the climax approaches, where Mears must confront his childhood fears and Mason’s vampire buddies, but it is obvious to see why Salem’s Lot set the benchmark for mini-series King for many years.
IT – though an Emmy winner – is patchier, but, to be fair, IT is a more complex book, hailing from a time when King had reached maturity as a scribe. IT has a vast cast, and is split over two time periods. It also deals with a more ethereal form of terror – that of your worst fears. IT itself is even harder to recreate effectively, and the finale borders on the ridiculous, as John Boy Walton (Richard Thomas) and his reunited childhood friends bludgeon a poorly realised space-arachnid to death with rocks. Still, the first part is artfully done, and manages to ram in the back stories of the central seven friends in 90 minutes without feeling bloated. But once the adults take over, displacing the excellent child actors, it all goes downhill. There’s a bit too much of Tim Curry’s prosthetic teeth, too. Overuse of shots of him hissing maniacally somewhat undermine his sinister portrayal of Pennywise the Clown, although not as much as the godawful synthesiser that erupts every time he appears.
Though Salem Lot’s simple tale, simply told wins out over this brave attempt to bring IT to the screen, there is at least a commentary (Salem’s Lot sports nary a special feature). The commentary features the director and three of the cast offers some insight into the production process – we learn the director rewrote part two, and that many of the locations were provided by a disused mental hospital in Vancouver. The rest tends toward the usual actor “What’s my motivation?” speak. Interesting, but not amazing. I for one would rather have heard King’s thoughts.