The struggle with an adaptation of IT, one of Stephen King‘s most celebrated scarefests, has always been the same. A case of one half being far stronger than the other, the appeal of the young Losers Club in a period setting facing their collective childhood fears and trauma in the form of a terrifying shapeshifting clown (the ultimate first real phobia of any child) is imminently appealing and the part everyone remembers whether they’re thinking the book or the Tim Curry-starring television adaptation. The genius of the Warner Bros. approach to split the childhood and adult narratives into IT and IT Chapter Two paved the way for one of the biggest horror hits of all time and a pretty effective adaptation to boot, though we had some reservations.
But with the sequel rearing its head, Andy Muschietti and company now had the towering task of tackling what most people consider to be the lesser back-half of the voluminous novel. And with a stacked cast led off by Jessica Chastain (maybe the best actress working today), James McAvoy, and the brilliant Bill Hader as the forefronted trio the old gang this time around, it seemed like it might be tough to go wrong, at least on paper.
Well, films aren’t made on paper, is the thing, and the results are a little on the mixed side, as the source material might portend.
In IT Chapter Two, Ben (McAvoy), Beverly (Chastain), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Hader), Mike (Isiah Mustafa), and Eddie (a really well-cast James Ransone) have all grown-up following their defeat of Pennywise during their middle school years. After a young man is murdered outside of a carnival, Mike investigates the area and discovers startling signs that their old enemy wasn’t as deceased as they might have believed. One by one, he calls the Losers Club back to the town of Derry. While they’ve almost all entered career fields that somehow align with their pre-teen interests (with success coming for some to a ridiculous degree) and have firmly established adult lives, as soon as that call comes in, they’re quickly reduced to quivering masses.
No one can quite remember what it was they did during that time and the trials they faced, but they all know they made an oath to return…and return they do. To finally rid Derry of this 27-year cycle of horror that has plagued the town for untold ages.
There’s an appealing theme at the core of second helping of It, one that’s probably especially true for those who grew up in a small town like I did. That you can grow up and leave behind all the good and the bad, and put it completely out of your mind, as if it never existed in the first place, is something that bubbles under the surface here like a subtext. And as each Loser finds their way back and begins to relive those memories long cast-aside, there’s a point to which the material sings on screen. Or at least it does so the first few times Gary Dauberman‘s screenplay dives into these specific moments.
Equally effective is Muschietti’s ability to build eerie imagery and effective scares. In a few IT Chapter Two sequences, the on-camera tension is actually held to a greater degree than in its predecessor; there’s a particularly frightening scene at a Little League baseball game that has just enough dead space, so the jumpscare works exceptionally well. There’s a thin line between terror and cartoonishness in Pennywise’s grotesque transformations and the below the line crew skirt that line rather impressively. The elderly woman bit with Chastain that you may have caught in the first trailer is a great example.
And Pennywise’s final form, always a disappointment both in book and in the previous adaptation, is actually pulled off to a far better degree here. Some of that is an active attempt to rectify the biggest complaint about the source material; some of that is keeping Bill Skarsgård (the real MVP of these films) front and center as much as possible. But the third act, the The Ritual of Chüd was a surprisingly engaging moment in a film that was slowly losing me with every passing minute.
And there are a lot of minutes. 170 of them to be exact. And with each one passing by, it’s easy for viewer patience to begin to wear thin. Nowhere is this more true than when the audience is held subject to the aforementioned “revisiting of one’s past”, where the strong centralized notion is beaten into submission in a sea of flashbacks. Just about everyone gets in on the act, where they visit an old building of importance to them, flashback to their younger iteration, are chased down by Pennywise, and then it happens again as an adult…and this continues in rinse and repeat fashion until almost the entire gang is subject to this formula. More than anything, it just feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of the first film and get as much kids vs. Pennywise action as possible. But all it really does is pad the bloated running time long beyond the point of use.
And while Muschietti has great horror chops, he’s still a little tone deaf in places and not particularly great with actors that aren’t able to cut solid line readings in just a few takes. Much like in the previous outing, there’s a number of off-key supporting performances in IT Chapter Two. Even beyond that, there are small moments where its immediately recognizable that King dialogue really cannot be directly translated from page to screen without some allowance for both the actor and the moment to be considered. These are words that real people have to say, and that’s where the rubicon of the ridiculous perhaps is most crossed here.
On that note, the Ben and Beverly relationship particularly does not work here, which is a shame given the pedigree of one-half of that duo, but it’s a tough subplot to polish, having always been a piece of nice guy wish-fulfillment at its core.
There’s a joke throughout, where Bill’s struggling screenwriter is constantly dogged for his knack for bad endings by everyone he runs across, including a cameoing King himself. But some poor choices and an overly bloated running time aside, the film is able to dodge that self-critique just barely, as there is more to recommend with It Chapter Two than not. It’s a mostly fun ride, Hader and Ransone increase the humor quotient particularly and also get the film’s most affecting moments in a surprise twist. And Skargård’s take on the character has now reached the point of being definitive.
It’s hard to not wish IT Chapter Two was tighter and less reliant on trying to double down on what worked previously, but it wouldn’t be the second half of IT if there wasn’t something regrettable.