IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Roll up, roll up: it’s the event horror movie of the year, if not the decade. Pennywise is back for a rematch with the Losers’ Club that’s 27 years in the making. The late 80s are a thing of the past, now replaced by 2016, and the fresh-faced monster fighters are forty-somethings spread across the country. All but one lives far from their old haunt of Derry, with their time there almost entirely forgotten in a magic haze. Bill (McAvoy) has gone on to become a big name horror writer, who tends to muck up his endings (I wonder where that idea came from); Ben (Ryan) is now as well built as the premium apartments he plans; Richie (Hader) is a stand-up comic and walking dick joke; Beverly (Chastain) is a fashion designer; germaphobe Eddie (Ransone) is risk assessor, and Stan (Bean) is a lawyer. Then each gets the call from their one-time buddy Mike (Mustafa). Their old nemesis has returned from wherever he came from – which we’re sort of told here – and is clowning around again, leaving a fresh trail of bodies in his wake. Needless to say, it’s no laughing matter, and sticking to their pledge the gang hit the road to finish what they started. Hi-ho Silver!
I wasn’t huge on the first movie, though its success means the sequel has big floppy shoes to fill. It had a lot going for it, mostly an outstanding cast, but a set-piece driven narrative meant the arcs came second to the long, samey fright sequences that eventually made Pennywise look incompetent. Chapter 2 redresses this with shorter, nastier scares (the most brutal and uncomfortable isn’t even supernatural – you’ll know it when you see it). As per the first, the scenes are generally well crafted, despite fairly telegraphed punchlines. It’s the sort of ghost-train horror that plays off delayed reactions, swelling organs and teasing stillness for jumps. A highlight comes early on when a bored little girl sneaks away at a baseball game to follow a firefly. This bit, which doesn’t feature any of the Losers, is a perfect depiction of how a child’s wandering mind can be a thing of wonder and terror alike. Still, thematic depth isn’t enough to prevent the mid-section from getting repetitive – when, just like Chapter 1, the group go their own ways for separate shots in the funhouse. Here, they do so to find talismans for a youth they barely remember: the memories of which they have to recover. A small cast necessitates a relatively low body count, and, predictably, more often than not the bits build-up to a narrow escape before the next episode. If you have a basic understanding of stories work, I suspect you’ll likely be an act or so ahead of the action for around an hour in the middle. Yeah, it was like this in the source material. Though as part of a 1500-page book, the structure seemed less clearly streamlined.
Not that I think you’ll be bored during Chapter 2’s nearly three-hour run time. Like a rollercoaster, you know where it’s going, but it’s a heck of a ride anyway, with a good mixture of spookiness and spectacle. There’s also a surprisingly high amount of humour, which helps to make sure people are always interested. Plus, as is always most important for me, the character drama is solid. Each time we see Pennywise, the film plays on his victims’ childhood fears, be them rejection, contamination or bullying and we get an efficient insight into who they were and still are. It’s a well-judged through line, about dealing with trauma, that makes it all add up to an intelligent, adult horror about being young. Paired with the liberal use of flashbacks throughout, that tell us what happened after the kids headed home in Chapter 1, it does a pretty neat job of stitching the past and present together without sacrificing its pacing. The duel timelines are also excellent for establishing continuities in each of the Loser’s troubling transitions into adulthood. Core to Stephen King’s brilliant doorstopper is the notion that the things which scare us most as kids as those which birth the adults we go on to be. And sometimes, when we’re lost, we need to reconnect with these inner-children so they can help us cope. These fears are, therefore, never truly forgotten – but nor should they be. The wheel rolls on and on, like those on stuttering Bill’s trusty bike. It’s a cycle that’s also central to this film, with the second act exploring this premise in-depth, giving the now leaner scares a personal impact that I felt was missing last time around.
It’s all helped along by an excellent ensemble. If you’ve seen Chapter 1 you’ll know how enjoyable the youngsters are to watch, as they run from monsters between making jokes about each other’s mums. Their chemistry is not quite matched by the grown-ups – outside their initial meeting in a Chinese restaurant that’s warm and hilarious. They work well together though there’s less of a sense that they would do anything, even die, for each other. It is also, for obvious reasons, harder to make audiences feel a sense of threat for people in their forties than their teens which I suspect may pull people out if they aren’t loving the commentary on ageing. The casting is flawless though, with each new face being a convincing future incarnation for their youthful counterpart. Some of the likenesses are mannerisms are uncanny. Not all are given the opportunity to fully explore their part – for instance, it’d have been great if more were made of how Beverly’s abusive husband mimics her abusive dad. All do an ace job with the material they’ve got though, and even at this length sacrifices have to be made. Bill Hader is the clear standout, combining sardonic and puerile wit with very real vulnerability. James Ransone is also incredibly watchable as the perpetually neurotic Eddie. Then there’s Bill Skarsgård, who inhabits his part for another demented, dark-comic turn as Pennywise. Given how iconic Tim Curry had already made the part, it’s a testament to Skarsgård’s greatness that he makes the role his own without ever recalling his predecessor.
It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of him just being a creepy clown before the grand finale, instead of his various personas. Ironically, a movie that makes multiple meta-references to getting the ending right misses its mark. The beats are all there, with some well-judged and heartfelt moments (particularly with Bill). It’s too much of a mess though. On the plus side, I was genuinely delighted to see some of the book’s subtext about the power of imagination come back. I reckon it’ll be divisive, but the flights of fantasy were far more poignant for me than the first film’s slobber-knocker finale, in which some kids beat their tormentor to death with metal poles. Still, the loony lore, CG excess and invasive score mean that it becomes too ludicrous – at times almost resembling a sequel to The Mummy instead of the all-out horror it’d been before. People may remember the final form from the mini-series, and though this one looks far, far, far better it’s not good enough to command the screen-time it gets. And the longer the battle goes on the worse it gets, to the point I wanted to see the novel’s still omitted space turtle show up to squash everyone to smithereens. At least it doesn’t fizzle out, going with a collection of bangs before the rewarding epilogue. But it seems like Muschietti forgot that sometimes less is more. Or assumed that an epic length requires an epic conclusion.
On that point, there’s been a lot of talk of a big, fat master-cut coming up, which will presumably splice the flashbacks from this one with the first flick and have the adult bits come after. If this is the case, I suspect it will expose some of the wider short-comings. Warner Bros and New Line presumably wanted to see how the first one did, so didn’t write or shoot them back to back. This scheduling makes clear sense financially. Though the lack of foreshadowing in the first means a lot of it will be rendered inconsequential in the grander scheme of things. Especially as this one retcons most of the strongest parallels between the kids and adults. The time the Losers are apart will really add up too across both outings: for both incarnations, it’s just so much more enjoyable when they’re together. So combined, they’ll probably make for an imperfect, but nonetheless impressive, story. As for Pennywise, well you know what they say about King’s monsters: sometimes they come back. For now, as a pair of box-office hits, this telling of Stephen King’s opus will surely go down as one of the defining multiplex horror hits of this generation. It’s a cultural phenomenon in a way our genre rarely is these days. Now if we can only get the proper versions of The Stand or The Dark Tower next…