There are two things adult viewers should know about "Stephen King's It," which airs at 9 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).
First, it is very, very smart television. It is both highly entertaining and deep. It works with mythic patterns -- like the rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood and the loss of innocence and acquaintance with evil -- the way "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "The Natural" travel that territory.
Second, despite all that good stuff, I wouldn't let anyone under the age of 12 anywhere near the television set while "It" is on. The four-hour film (which concludes at 9 p.m. Tuesday) could scare some youngsters right out of their childhood.
It is this issue that parents need to think long and hard about in terms of what the family is going to watch tonight. "It" is compelling and controversial television.
For those who did not read King's best-seller, the story centers on two series of child-killings in a small town in Maine. The first wave of disappearances and murders happens in 1960. The second wave is present day.
The film opens in the present with a child sitting on her tricycle. Her mother calls out, telling her to hurry in before a thunderstorm hits. The child hesitates because she sees a smiling clown in the yard. The clown calls the child to him. In the next frame, all that's left is the tricycle.
That's a little scary. But it is the second murder that will rattle around in some viewers' heads and pop up in their minds' eyes when the lights go out tonight. That killing is one of the 1960 disappearances.
Georgie, a boy of about 6, is sailing a paper boat in the gutter during a rain shower. When the boat goes down a sewer, Georgie looks through the grate to try to spot it.
But what he sees is a clown (played by Tim Curry) who appears under the sewer grate. The clown knows Georgie's name, and asks the boy if he'd like his boat back. Georgie says sure. The clown invites him into the sewer. As the boy hesitates, the clown undergoes a transfiguration. His smile turns to a diabolical grin. His teeth become fangs. Georgie disappears. Bob, the long-haired, fang-toothed killer on "Twin Peaks," is Howdy Doody compared to this clown.
Georgie was the younger brother of Bill Denbrough, who in 1960 was about 12. Bill (played by Jonathan Brandis) and a group of his friends have their own visitations from the clown that summer. Partially in response, these adolescent misfits form a club called "the lucky seven." They meet in a wooded area under a bridge and ultimately do battle with the clown in the sewers and drains beneath the city of Derry, Maine.
All of that is in tonight's episode, which centers on the summer of 1960. The young actors are exceptional. The story is resonant and lyrical. It will remind some viewers of Rob Reiner's "Stand by Me." The mythic and religious elements -- the gang members forming a circle and chanting to ward off the evil, the hero's journey into the bowels of the sewer system to do battle with the monster, the notion of supernatural good and evil entering our realm through a kind of world navel -- are so numerous and finely crafted that it would take the kind of myth criticism the late Joseph Campbell practiced to appreciate its range.
But there is also the ongoing horror story. There are the clown's fangs and blood all over the place --blood boiling up out of drains in bathroom sinks and tubs and showers until this looks like "Carrie" and you wish things hadn't gone so wrong at the prom. The blood and the fangs and the fright are not lyrical. But some will find them exciting.
If tonight's installment is "Stand by Me" meets "Carrie," Tuesday's two hours is "Carrie" meets "The Big Chill" -- only they've come to bury a clown instead of one of their buddies. It is not as strong as Part One. In fact, the ending is a bit of a disappointment. But it's still a pretty good ride.
Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), the only member of "the lucky seven" to stay in Derry, knows who killed the little girl on the tricycle. He starts calling the other members of the group back to Derry to make good on their pledge of 30 years ago that if the clown ever returned, they would reunite to do battle.
Richard Thomas plays Bill Denbrough as an adult. Annette O'Toole plays Beverly Marsh. The others are played by John Ritter, Harry Anderson, Richard Masur and Dennis Christopher. Thomas, Curry, Reid and Anderson all do very good work.
King poses certain questions with "It," the book. Does the clown represent some primordial force of evil? Is such evil within all of us?
But there is another set of more immediate questions relating to "It," the television movie, that needs to be asked.
Should television be making movies that have this kind of potential to rock the psyche of children? Feature films is one thing. Children can be kept out of theaters to some extent. It is almost impossible to keep a child from seeing something on television if he or she really wants to see it. We allow television not just into our homes, but into our childrens' bedrooms. Do we want 6-year-olds introduced to the concept of the killer clown who lurks just out of sight in sewers, bathroom drains, sinks and culverts?
Films like "It" are one of the ways television robs children of their youth. And that loss of innocence at such an early age is one of the sadder aspects of our culture -- no matter how smart or deep the made-for-TV movie doing the robbing.