Andy Muschietti’s 2017 film version of the first half of Stephen King’s massive, sprawling 1,100-page novel It isn’t perfect. But it does work pretty well at the most basic task of adapting a terrifying book: staging horror scenes that are decently creepy. Its sequel, It Chapter Two, seems as though it’s taking a similar approach, opening with a sinister carnival populated by a King signature, evil bullies — along, of course, with the clown that traumatized a generation, both in fiction and in real life. But before long into the film’s two-hour-forty-nine-minute runtime, the missteps become clear. While the film isn’t an abject failure by any means; it has some funny jokes, a couple of solid performances, impressive creature and production design. But it when it comes down to it, It Chapter Two drags more than it scares.
Possibly 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 pretty solid, 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 though the film. Picking up twenty-seven years after the events of the first film, It Chapter Two quickly sets up reuniting the core crew in Derry. Summoned by a phone call from Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the one member of the crew 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 in some ways, some more dramatically than others, but also not at all in others — feel strangely drawn to return to Derry, Maine, although they can barely remember anything that happened while they lived there.
Through and through, director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman have taken some narrative liberties with the source material, but they remain true to some of King’s major ideas: about how innocence can be corrupted and preserved by knowledge; about the hidden pathways between the unconscious and natural world; about the ethical power of friendship. But It Chapter Two is also built around an episodic, repeating structure that splits up the Losers and sends each of them into their personal nightmares twice over. Some of their personal journeys are better developed than others; the most psychologically compelling belongs to the unsinkable Beverly Marsh. From Bev’s return to her childhood apartment, where’s she confronted by her abusive past, to her entrapment in a bathroom stall rapidly filling up with blood, many of Chastain’s sequences bring the most evocative of the nightmare imagery.
But where Bev’s storyline is the most gripping, Hader’s performance as Richie 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 understate, and your 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-loaded dialogue makes sense. It’s as if Dauberman’s script was given a punch-up by Richie himself — which is clearly great for Hader, but terrible for any sort of sustained suspense that the film wants, while also putting a damper on some of the pathos. The delivery of these comedic quips 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 at times unnerving, that is until Muschietti drops in a brief blast of the cheesy “Angel Of The Morning” right when the terror is peaking, popping the balloon of dread instantly. It’s a creative choice that literally had my jaw on the ground for how tonally inept it was. Which, frankly, this film is full of; moments that hint at a somewhat interesting strange tone, but the film never commits to it in the slightest.
But to try to combat that weak sequence, Richie gets one of the better visions of Pennywise amongst the adult Losers, a vision of the evil clown floating down from a Paul Bunyan statue with a bouquet of red balloons. With the film being so spread out, it makes Pennywise not as palpable of a presence here as in Chapter One, although Bill Skarsgård does remain a firestorm, completely committed to the role in his wild eyes and dripping psychotic drool. He’s often hilarious and horrifying in a way distinctly all his own, an electric presence whose greatest fault is how infrequently he gets a chance to shine this time around (though he is also undercut at times by some of the film’s weak CGI work).
Everything is seemingly presented in a pretty package in Chapter Two: The film’s color palette has moments of richness, Muschietti skillfully blends past and present with sweeping camera movements transitioning us from past and present without a single cut. (Though he undermines it a bit by his jerky camera during some of the scare sequences.) The art direction and production design are both quite good, full of tactile detail and then there’s the inspired creature design nods both to King’s novel and other imaginative influences, including Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing. But through all that there’s also fumbled subplots, specifically the Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) one, and the film’s massively distracting CGI de-aging and vocal up-pitching on the young cast of the Losers Club, as many of them, especially Wolfhard, don’t look as they did two years ago. Then there’s the ultimate finale battle with Pennywise that soon permeates with a sense of deja vu; it’s a whole lot less scary or fun the second time around. Ultimately It Chapter Two becomes just like the Losers Club itself: Just a bit older, a bit bigger, and filled with all the fears we’ve faced and seen before. Bloated and dragged out by its repetitiveness, It Chapter Two has its highs but simply can’t stay afloat, ultimately sunken by its many lows.