In many ways, it’s remarkable that you can make what is effectively a single story, told in two parts, with the same creative team throughout, and still come up with two films that are quite different in so many ways. Still based on Stephen King’s epic novel, It Chapter Two reunites the core group of characters from the first film 27 years later, pushing the ages of the self-described Losers Club well into their 30s (some probably pushing 40). When they last saw each other back home in Derry, Maine, they had defeated (at least temporarily) the evil clown Pennywise (the maniacal Bill Skarsgård), and the memories of those horrid days were beginning to fade. Lucky us, we only had to wait two years for director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (The Nun, the last two Annabelle movies) to complete the battle between a group of outcasts and a demon clown.
Part of the reason It Chapter Two is so different is that the cast has effectively doubled. We have an adult counterpart for each of the seven original kids, but through copious flashbacks (both of familiar moments and hidden moments we didn’t see in the first film), the filmmakers use the Losers Club OG quite a bit more than I was expecting, which is mostly a good thing, since most of them were quite good in Chapter 1. As you have probably heard by now, this film is also considerably longer—nearly three hours—and there’s no getting around that that is going to bug the hell out of some people on principle. But honestly, the running time isn’t the issue—not much of Chapter Two feels like padding.
The film begins with a series of phone calls from Mike Hanlon (now played by Isaiah Mustafa), who is the only one of the original gang that didn’t leave Derry, and as a result, his memories of their confrontations with Pennywise haven’t faded as much. But more importantly, the cycle of disappearing kids is beginning again in Derry, and Mike believes that the people who overcame the clown 27 years earlier are the only ones capable of destroying it forever. When Mike calls, he simply asks his old friends to return, and they do almost without question, even though their memories of their time together are largely erased.
An interesting similarity that each of the seven have is that they have led largely successful lives, as if that was their reward for defeating something so evil. James McAvoy plays group leader Bill Denbrough, who has become a best-selling author; Bill Hader is Richie, now a well-known stand-up comic; Jessica Chastain is Beverly, who seems to have married rich but is still drawn to men who abuse her, not unlike her father did; Jay Ryan is Ben Hanscom, the former fat kid who is now ridiculously handsome and fit; James Ransone is Eddie, the sickly kid who apparently has traded in a nagging mother for a nagging wife, but still runs his own business; and Andy Bean plays Stanley, who is perhaps the most unnerved by the initial phone call requesting a homecoming.
The group eventually convenes in a Chinese restaurant in Derry, and after a few hours of conversation, the memories start flooding back at a startling pace; it doesn’t take long for Pennywise to make his presence known to them, just as they’re starting to remember that final showdown with him. It’s a strong, impressive start, and it sets a tone that is very different than the first film. For as large a cast as Chapter 1 had, the entire piece felt more intimate, more of a personal, psychological attack on each child, and the results were a handful of genuinely terrifying sequences. But in this grown-up version of things, director Muschietti and his team seem more intent on something a little more playful and exciting, meaning it’s less about intimate scares and more about big set pieces, noticeably special effects, and imagery that has already imbedded itself into the pop culture to such a point that it has ceased being scary (sorry folks, but red balloons do nothing for me any more).
Don’t get me wrong: I love that an R-rated horror movie captured the imagination of the world and that this new, more sinister version of Pennywise has entered the lexicon of film history forever. Even still, becoming a cultural phenomenon has its price, and that price is that Pennywise just doesn’t seem as scary as he once did. That said, Skarsgård still has a great deal to offer. There’s a sequence in which Pennywise lures a little girl under the bleachers for murderous purposes, a simply executed moment without a lot of flash, and it’s that personal touch that makes it work so beautifully. But when the filmmakers turn him into a giant-sized monster, it looks really cool, but it doesn’t fill me with any amount of fear.
There are touches in the film where Muschietti seems to be invoking Evil Dead 2 and, in one particular scene, John Carpenter’s The Thing (if there’s any doubt of that, a well-timed line by Hader is absolute confirmation), and those are wonderful reference points from better and far more original horror films than It Chapter Two. The adult cast is solid all around, although Hader and Ransone stand out as actually adding some depth to their somewhat jaded characters while McAvoy and Chastain (reunited from Dark Phoenix, which makes me quake just thinking about it) just seem to be building upon what their younger counterparts began much more convincingly. There actually came a point where I started eagerly awaiting the new flashbacks to the sequences set in the 1980s.
It Chapter Two is clearly expertly made. The production design is extraordinary, and there are some nice touches with supporting cast members, including Joan Gregson as Mrs. Kersh, the elderly woman who now lives in Beverly’s old home and turns out to be more than she seems (and with fewer clothes). When the adults are forced to split up to find “tokens” of their childhood selves in order to defeat Pennywise, the film manages to feel like a game of picking up trinkets of no particular value, as well as a drawn-out exercise in getting everyone back together. Perhaps running the two films back to back will make it feel more whole, but as it stands, It Chapter Two feels lesser. Pennywise began by feeding on individual fears of young minds and ends things by becoming an all-purpose monster that doesn’t really feel special or scary. I think it’s worth finishing out the story, but this second chapter was largely a disappointment with a few worthy exceptions.
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