Stephen King loves to depict the rot lurking beneath the surface of small-town life. Whether it’s a supernatural force causing the rot or a malicious presence simply feeding upon already-existing putrefaction, the towns in his novels (and the films they inspire) appear to be decaying from the inside out. Stephen King and David Lynch seem to view small towns with the same wariness, speculating as to the horror lurking beneath an idealized façade. Just as it was in its 1989 set precursor, the Derry, Maine of It: Chapter 2 appears to be bubbling over with cruelty and general awfulness. The film wastes no time bringing this to light, as it opens with a grueling hate crime that turns into a clown-related homicide. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) feels like the moldy cherry atop of Derry’s curdling sundae.
Chapter 2 takes place twenty-seven years after Chapter 1. Most of the original Losers’ Club has moved out of Derry and on to greener pastures. Only Mike (Isiah Mustafa) remains, waiting for Pennywise’s inevitable return and gaining helpful exposition from a Native American tribe as to how to stop It once and for all. Once children begin disappearing again, Mike has no alternative but to call his old friends back to finish what they started in 1989.
Unfortunately, the rest of the group has little memory of the events that transpired. Bill (James McAvoy) works as a novelist and screenwriter, Bev (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer, Ben (Jay Ryan) is an architect, the cowardly Eddie (James Ransome) is a risk analyst, Stan (Andy Bean) is successful. . .in an ill-defined way, and Richie (a scene-stealing Bill Hader) works as a rising comedian. All it takes is a series of unwelcome phone call from Mike and the majority of the group packs their belongings and returns to the town they haven’t seen in nearly thirty years.
From there, the film becomes a series of semi-repetitive scares leading to a climax that would feel more at home in an action-adventure spectacle that it does in a film about primal, universal fears. An attempt to close one’s eyes when faced with a debilitating light feels like a not so subtle nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing also doesn’t go unnoticed.
With director Andy Muschietti back at the helm, It: Chapter 2 is a good-looking film, loaded with inky, ominous shadows and an almost sepia-tinged color palette. However, the film relies a bit too much on CGI for its scares, rendering them slightly inert. The CGI creates just enough of a disconnect to keep them from being as unsettling as they should be. Like its predecessor, it should be scarier than it is, especially with they have Bill Skarsgård’s chillingly effective Boogieman.
Pennywise, who not only prays on childhood fears but also deep-resting insecurities remains one of King’s most horrifying creations, a clown that no doubt turned many an impressionable youngster into an unapologetic coulrophobic. Skarsgård keeps him as sinister as he needs to be, and distances himself from the long shadow Tim Curry cast in the 1990s. That 90s miniseries is deeply flawed, but it has a gleefully nasty turn from Tim Curry as Pennywise.
Bill Skarsgård deserves credit for not only choosing not replicate Curry’s performance but also imbuing his portrayal of Pennywise with its own unique creepiness. That singsong, almost childlike voice coming from an impossibly round, disproportionately large head makes for an effectively unsettling monster. Encounters under bleachers and in a carnival funhouse yield the film’s biggest chills. Unfortunately, he spends much of the film buried under computer-enhanced spectacle, neutering the character’s inherent creepiness.
It: Chapter 2 has major flaws. At nearly three hours, it’s far too long, especially when paired with the over two-hours Part 1, and it makes the odd choice to undercut much of the tension it attempts to build with sarcastic, quippy jokes. As a result, the script continually bursts its red balloons of tension for reasons I don’t fully understand. A moment involving “Angel of the Morning” stands out as the most clangingly ill judged.
However, the cast is so strong, the characters so likable, that these flaws don’t become the deal breakers they should be. I like the character so much that they rise above the film’s shortcomings. I recognize the film’s lack of scariness represents a major failing, but I kind of just don’t care, because I’m watching an A-list cast giving it their all in a film about an ancient shape-shifting entity that really likes posing as a clown. That’s a cinematic accomplishment I barely would have thought possible. The completely committed cast gives the film more emotional heft that it would otherwise carry.
Despite the fact their memories are foggy, the Losers’ club carries the psychological scars (and a physical scar on the palm, a reminder of their childhood oath) of that fateful summer, haunted by a past they can’t quite remember. Most traumatized is Bill, still hounded by guilt over his brother’s death and Bev, who left an abusive father and married an abusive husband. They serve as ever-present reminders that childhood traumas leave adult psychological scars. Scenes involving Part 1’s young cast, serving as little reminders of a past that continues to poke little, distressing holes into the present, show how spot-on the adult casting really is. If I’m honest, I miss the coming of age aspect that gave Part 1 its emotional weight, the trading of primal childhood fears for less tangible adult psychological baggage was always going to be a harder sell, which is why the casting becomes so critical to the film’s success.
McAvoy is especially good at creating a balance between steady decency and complete desperation, but everyone does fine work at making believable that a group of adults, and a scene involving him and a potential Pennywise target is especially effective. However, Bill Hader emerges as the film’s real breakout. His ability to oscillate between absolute terror, extreme grief, and detached joking makes Richie the film’s most engaging character. For anyone watching HBO’s phenomenal Barry, his ability to command the screen comes as no surprise, but he does great work here. Despite the cumbersome length, I don’t really mind how long the film is, because I’m engaged with the performances.
What we ultimately have is a film about an ancient destructive force that has wreaked havoc on a town for centuries, with themes addressing the way the past intrudes on the present and the way the past must be faced in order for it to no longer hold you prisoner. Writer Gary Dauberman and director Muschietti have taken some liberties with King’s unwieldy tome, but they’ve preserved the novel’s spirit, capturing King’s sympathy for his cadre of underdogs. They also lucked out by casting actors who elevate the material and keep the emotional engagement intact even when the film doesn’t quite earn it. As it is, It: Chapter 2 doesn’t quite float, but a few scares and a genuinely stellar cast keep it from sinking.