When Stephen King’s 1986 doorstop of a novel was turned into an ABC miniseries in 1990, viewers had to wait only a couple of days for the second installment; today’s audiences have needed greater patience, enduring a full two years’ break between the release of the first half of Anthony Muschietti’s 2017 remake and this sequel-completion.
So was the wait worth it? The answer is: not really. Though among horror movies “It: Chapter Two” is certainly classier than most from a technical perspective, it’s overlong, overstuffed with CGI effects, and terribly repetitive.
The picture begi8ns with a sequence based on the very beginning of the book—the gay-bashing of two young men, Adrian (Xavier Dolan) and Don (Taylor Frey), by a trio of homophobic thugs (Jake Weary, Erik Junnola and Connor Smith) whose brutal work is completed by malevolent clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard): apparently awakened by their combination of fear and mindless hatred, he kills Adrian as Don watches. In the book this incident is followed up in detail; here it’s simply left hanging, without a resolution, for the audience to assimilate as best they can into the larger story.
That, of course, derives from the pledge made by the member of the self-styled “Losers” club of teen misfits to return to Derry, Maine, should Pennywise, whom they had just defeated, reappear to resume his work of feeding off the fear of children. The only one of the bunch to remain in the town for the intervening twenty-seven years is Mike (again played as a youngster by Chosen Jacobs, and as an adult by Isaiah Mustafa), who has spent more than a quarter-century researching the history of the town’s periodic bouts of evil engineered by the shapeshifter that takes Pennywise’s form to lure kids to their doom.
Mike calls his six childhood friends—Bill (Jaeden Martell, and now James McAvoy), Bev (Sophia Lillis, now Jessica Chastain), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor, now Jay Ryan), Richie (Finn Wolfhard, now Bill Hader), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer, now James Ransone) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff, now Andy Bean)—and informs them of Pennywise’s return, and asks them to come quickly. Five of them do—one is simply too weak to face the prospect of reacquaintance with the clown—and the film settles into a rather predictable rhythm, alternating sequences in which the older versions of the gang are threatened by the shapeshifter and their younger selves must relive experiences they had as kids so traumatic that they’ve been repressing them since leaving Derry.
Some of these set-pieces are pretty effective—adult Bev’s encounter with a strange woman (Joan Gregson) living in the apartment she once shared with her abusive father (Stephen Bogaert) is certainly creepy, for example, though its impact will undoubtedly be lessened for anybody who’s already seen it in the trailer that’s been shown for months. But most of the others are so cluttered with ghoulish effects, usually ending with Pennywhistle transforming into a huge, ravenous creature who lurches for his intended victim (and directly at us) with ravenous teeth, that they grow more wearisome than frightening. And the final reveal about Ben and his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), whose disappearance into a sewer drain started the entire story, is awfully pat.
But that’s par for the course for King, who never was a master of depth in characterization. So when we learn, in a very nasty scene, that Bev, who was abused by her father, is now married to an abusive husband (Will Beinbrink), it comes off like dime-store psychology. And when the adult Eddie’s hyper-nervousness is explained by the fact that his mother (Molly Atkinson) told him he was sick when he really wasn’t—Munchausen’s in action—it comes across as equally simplistic.
But then the sad fact is that—partially as a result of the writing, but even more so because of the casting—the adult characters just aren’t as engaging as the younger versions, and you’ll probably find yourself preferring the flashbacks to the “present day” action. That’s not to say that McAvoy, Chastain and the others don’t throw themselves into their roles; they do. But none of them can escape the one-dimensionality of the characters. That’s even truer in the case of an old human nemesis who returns to torment the older “Losers” as a pawn of Pennywise—Henry Bowers (played as a teen by Nicholas Hamilton), who now, as played by Teach Grant, becomes a giggling, maniacal escapee from a mental institution intent on stabbing our heroes to death (he’s singularly inept at it).
One might also ask why, since Pennywise feeds on the fears of children, so little time is devoted in this twenty-seven-year cycle, on that aspect of his gruesome work. True, we are shown a little girl being seduced by the clown under the bleachers of a baseball diamond, and there’s a peculiar subplot about a young boy named Dean (Luke Roessler), toward whom Ben adopts a protective stance, seeing him as a modern-day Georgie. But to be honest that story thread comes close to being more about the kid being stalked by him that by Pennywise.
As some compensation, at least there’s one particularly good in-joke in “Chapter Two,” about how Ben, now a novelist and screenwriter, is constantly being criticized for his poor endings (a criticism frequently leveled at King, with respect to “It” among other books). The gag is involved in two cameos—the first by Peter Bogdanovich, playing (what else?) a movie director, and the second by King himself, who just barely gets by as the crusty proprietor of a second-hand shop.
But it’s an observation that applies to the movie as well, since setting up the final confrontation with Pennywise involves a good deal of mumbo-jumbo about Indian rituals (a King specialty) prior to the inevitable descent into the tunnels beneath the old haunted house (incongruously shown, at the end, situated, completely dilapidated and derelict, in the middle of what looks like a rows of spanking-clean middle-class homes). The big finale isn’t nearly as effective this time around, despite the avalanche of special effects added to the mix. And despite the apparent conclusiveness of the close third time around, one has to wonder whether, it this film is successful enough, the studio won’t find a way to continue the series past the original book. In Hollywood, nothing is more compelling than box office receipts.
For the moment, it’s enough to observe that while “Chapter Two” isn’t up to the standard of its predecessor, it will probably satisfy fans who have been waiting to years for it. Certainly it’s handsomely made, especially by comparison to other genre movies, with an exceptional production design (by Paul Denham Austerberry) and fine cinematography (by Checco Varese). And while Jason Ballantine might have been more energetic in the editing room—a 169-minute running-time is really excessive, though one can be thankful the makers didn’t decide to pad it out further (by adding other material from the book, for instance) and then splitting it in two, and the effects aren’t always impeccable, most viewers probably won’t mind overmuch. They’ll probably find Benjamin Wallfisch’s score pretty effective as well.
“It: Chapter Two” is close to critic-proof, but to this one it’s slightly disappointing, given how well the first film worked.