Andy Muschietti’s 2017 film version of one half of Stephen King’s sprawling 1,100-page novel It isn’t perfect. But it does succeed at the most basic task of adapting a terrifying book: staging horror scenes that are genuinely creepy. Its sequel, It Chapter Two, seems as though it’s taking a similar approach, opening with a sinister carnival populated by King’s signature evil bullies—along, of course, with the clown that traumatized a generation, both in fiction and in real life. Then, suddenly, you’re three-quarters of the way through this 170-minute film, and you realize that, although the horror imagery has only accelerated, your heartbeat has been slow and your fists unclenched for a while now. The film isn’t an abject failure by any means; it has some funny jokes, a couple of really good performances, impressive creature and set design, and pleasing cinematography. But when it comes down to it, It Chapter Two just isn’t all that scary.
The biggest question going in to Chapter Two was who would play the grown-up versions of the Losers Club, the preteen outcasts who booted Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) into the screaming cosmic void at the end of the first movie. Happily, this aspect of the film is excellent, with casting that’s so spot on that Muschietti shows it off in a shot morphing together the faces of one young actor and his adult counterpart halfway through the film. Summoned by a phone call from Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the one member of the clique who never moved away from their hometown, the adult Losers—Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone), and Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), each of whom has changed dramatically in some ways, and not at all in others—feel strangely compelled to return to Derry, Maine, although they can barely remember anything that happened while they lived there.
Once reassembled, they slowly begin to remember the summer of 1989, and everything that they went through in the sewers underneath Derry. As Mike explains to them over a Chinese-food reunion dinner, their efforts that year weren’t entirely successful, and the 27-year cycle that’s seen centuries’ worth of children murdered by the immortal Pennywise has started up again. Would they be willing, Mike asks them, to try to kill It again, this time for good?
It Chapter Two is built around this return, in an episodic, repeating structure that splits up the Losers and sends each of them into their personal nightmares twice over—once to gather an artifact that will help them perform a Native American banishing ceremony known as the “Ritual of Chüd,” and once again when the ritual spins out of control. Some of these personal journeys are better developed than others; the most psychologically compelling belongs to the unsinkable Beverly Marsh. Bev’s return to her childhood apartment, where she’s confronted with memories of her abusive father in the guise of a demon disguised as a kindly old woman, is the most nightmarishly evocative sequence in the film, matched by an intense scene later on where Chastain tries to break out of a barricaded bathroom stall that’s rapidly filling up with blood. Compared to these, most of the film’s scare scenes, several of which are direct callbacks to more effective scenes in the previous It, seem, well, bloodless.
But where Bev’s storyline is the most compelling, Hader’s performance as Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier—who, in a contemporary update, has grown up to become a stand-up comic rather than a radio DJ—is by far the most magnetic. Even more so than Finn Wolfhard did as a young Richie in Chapter One, Hader picks up the whole movie, puts it in his pocket, and walks away with it. Although it’s not an overtly flashy performance, Hader’s charisma in the role is difficult to overstate, and the eye wanders naturally towards him every time he’s on screen. Hader is also the only member of the cast for whom the film’s quip-laden dialogue makes sense. (If you don’t get the meta joke about Bill’s inability to write a decent ending to one of his books the first time, the next half-dozen uses of the bit should suffice.) It’s as if the script, once again from screenwriter Gary Dauberman, was given a punch-up by Trashmouth himself—which is great for Hader, but terrible for any sort of sustained suspense. The deployment of these comedic asides is often spectacularly ill-timed, particularly in a callback scene where Eddie confronts “the leper” that’s been haunting him since childhood. The scene is grimy and unnerving—that is, until Muschietti drops in a brief blast of the cheesy AM Gold hit “Angel Of The Morning” right when the terror is peaking, popping the balloon of dread instantly.
Speaking of, Richie also gets one of the better visions of Pennywise amongst the adult Losers, a vision of the evil clown floating down from an animated Paul Bunyan statue with a bouquet of red balloons that will be familiar to readers of King’s novel. (What won’t be familiar is an additional subplot that implies, without making explicit, new information about Richie’s sexuality.) The film is so spread out, however, that Pennywise isn’t as palpable of a presence here as in Chapter One, although Skarsgård commits just as completely to the role, his eyes wild and his chin dribbling with psychotic drool. In fact, the best Pennywise scene in It Chapter Two is one that was invented for the film, where the clown lures a lonely little girl under the bleachers at a high school football game, then chows down on her head with its layers of deep-sea creature jaws.
King’s novel is, admittedly, also spread out and repetitive in its structure, so in this regard It Chapter Two is technically more faithful to the original than its predecessor. But in terms of adaptation, Chapter Two cuts out much of the connecting tissue that makes King’s Losers a single living, breathing organism, making them less bronchi in a lung and more isolated cells floating down the same bloodstream. To wit: Although he’s been restored to his rightful place as the Losers Club’s semi-official historian, Mike is nevertheless pushed to the margins of the story by the removal of a key historical interlude in King’s novel. This reframing, from the intergenerational trauma of the fire at the Black Spot to Mike’s personal guilt at being unable to save his drug-addicted parents, is part of a larger shift away from the theme of ancient evil shaping history and towards a theme of childhood trauma and how it carries into adulthood.
The pursuit of the Losers by their childhood bully Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), here freshly escaped from the mental institution where he’s been locked up for the past 27 years, is similarly underplayed, and the subplot that sees Beverly’s abusive husband chasing her to Derry is excised completely. The result is the defanging of one of the most interesting elements of King’s book: the massive, inescapable scope of Pennywise’s evil, replaced by a more rote internal, individualistic struggle. Perhaps predictably, then, those hoping to see the cosmic strangeness of King’s novel translated to the screen are going to be disappointed, as those elements are corralled into into a handful of fine, but not especially memorable, CGI sequences. And while we won’t delve into the details of the ending here, suffice to say the apocalyptic scale of Derry’s fate has been scaled back significantly, replaced with a sentimental farewell to the lifelong friends and their shared ordeal.
This is all presented in a beautiful package: The film’s color palette is rich, and Muschietti skillfully blends past and present with sweeping camera movements that take us from flashbacks to the present day without a single cut. The art direction and production design are both top notch and full of tactile detail, and the entomologically inspired creature design nods both to King’s novel and such imaginative influences as Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and Rob Bottin’s special effects work on John Carpenter’s The Thing. What a shame, then to build this beautiful stage, populate it with talented actors and high-level craftspeople, and then drop them all through the trap door of plodding humor and scattershot plotting. Spraying a balloon with buckshot is one way to take it down, we suppose.