By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Gary Dauberman
New Line/Warner Bros.
Maybe it’s just that an evil clown terrorizing kids is intrinsically scarier than one going after adults. Or maybe it’s that the filmmakers, apparently believing this themselves, put the majority of their focus on a series of digitally created monstrosities. Whatever the case, IT: CHAPTER TWO, though ultimately satisfying, doesn’t get at the deep-seated creeps its predecessor did.
What the film has going for it is the power of Stephen King’s original tale and a well-chosen, talented cast as the grown-up Losers’ Club, the band of outcasts who, in the 1989-set first film, rid their hometown of Derry of the evil incarnated as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. They knew at the time that they might not have vanquished him permanently, and made a pact to return should Derry need their assistance again. As CHAPTER TWO opens, it’s 27 years later and Pennywise has resurfaced, first devouring a gay man who has just received a brutal beating. This incident is the film’s only significant expression of a key theme in the previous movie and King’s novel: That Pennywise is a symptom of a larger rot infecting Derry’s soul. (The aftermath of the bashing in the book has been excised here; mercifully, Hubert the Happy Homo goes unreferenced.)
Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of the Losers who has remained in Derry, summons the group back, and although they’ve blocked the horrible memories associated with the place, hearing from Mike causes Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) to lose his lunch and Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) to crash his car. Soon they’ve reunited and discovered that some things have changed and some have not: Loudmouth Richie is now a standup comedian, Eddie is still high-strung. Ben Hanscom, formerly an overweight loner, is now a fit, handsome architect (Jay Ryan)—though in a nice touch, he communicates remotely with his team from an expansive house he dwells in alone. Beverly Marsh, who suffered an abusive dad as a child, has gone on (as played by Jessica Chastain) to life with a brutal, controlling husband. And aspiring writer Bill Denbrough has become an author (James McAvoy) of horror novels who also adapts them for the screen (occasioning an odd, amusing cameo as his director).
The actors not only deliver fine interpretations of their roles (Hader has the showiest part, but the whole ensemble is strong, and their camaraderie is palpable), they also match up well in looks and temperament with their younger incarnations, who appear here in both recycled and new scenes. IT: CHAPTER TWO’s overarching theme is the way childhood distress carries over and influences, consciously and unconsciously, our adult lives, and the importance of memory. As such, there are moving moments when the characters come to terms with old traumas and reconcile with their pasts, and each other (and a certain generation of viewers will feel a bit of wistfulness at glimpses of a shuttered movie theater).
They are also individually confronted, as both adults and in flashbacks as kids, by assorted incarnations of Pennywise and, more often, other bizarre beasties and distorted humans. Bill Skarsgård continues to bring a mix of vicious glee and corrupted soul to the deadly clown, though he appears less frequently than, and occasionally as, more extravagant nasties generated by the visual effects departments. This is less Pennywise than pound foolish; the flailing computer-generated boogey monsters have been designed with maximum grotesque detail and some of them are briefly startling, but it’s telling that none of them are nearly as scary as an early scene (original to the film, and screenwriter Gary Dauberman’s best contribution) involving a little girl and Pennywise as his made-up human self. Director Andy Muschietti demonstrates, as he did in chapter one, solid skill at setting an eerie atmosphere—another highlight is Beverly’s visit with an old woman in her former home, which builds great, giggly tension—that dissipates when the CGI takes over. Even a few key bodily injuries that really should have been done practically are created via less visceral digital imagery.
IT: CHAPTER TWO also carries an unfortunate overreliance of humor to punctuate the horrific setpieces, as if to assure it never gets too scary. Considering that IT: CHAPTER TWO is based on an enduring best seller and the sequel the highest-grossing horror film (unadjusted for inflation) ever made, it’s surprising that it contains so much of this kind of capitulating to the mainstream. One of the first IT’s strong suits was its commitment to full-bore horror, even with kids as the targets, but here, wisecracks (largely from Richie and Eddie) come thick and fast, and one of the grossest moments is undercut by an unnecessary excerpt from Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning”—which was already used definitively in DEADPOOL’s opening credits. There’s also a running joke about Bill’s difficulty writing decent endings that’s peculiar in the way it seems aimed at King himself and criticisms in particular about his IT. And die-hard horror fans might groan as much as they appreciate the explicit, low-hanging-fruit callbacks to past horror classics like THE SHINING and THE THING.
By the time IT: CHAPTER TWO reaches the end of its 169 minutes, it has built sufficient goodwill through engagement with its principals that its missteps can’t fully tarnish. Its deviations from King’s text are both positive (the metaphysical noodling is toned down) and negative (the Losers’ Club are now motivated to take up the fight again out of self-preservation, instead of a sense of duty), though fans of the book as well as those who first experienced this story via the first feature should ultimately consider this a lengthy running time fairly well spent.