There was a time not long ago when a movie like “It: Chapter Two” would never even have a chance of existing. Horror movies often seem to fill a utility role in the cinematic marketplace, with low budgets and high percentage returns both inside and out of the studio system. But even with their successes, it’s rare that a horror movie forces its way to the forefront in the way that Andy Muschietti’s “It” did in 2017, becoming the most successful horror movie in the history of the genre and a bonafide cultural moment. The design of the first installment, focusing only on the children and ending with a relatively tight conclusion, seemed to indicate that a film about the adult half of Stephen King’s novel wasn’t a guarantee. However, the runaway success of “It” made telling the second half of the story not only possible but inevitable – and with that inevitability comes a bigger budget, a longer runtime and a higher-profile cast. Now, two years later, Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman return to wrap up the story of Pennywise the clown once and for all.
Those who saw the 1990 TV miniseries (or have read the book) know what to expect here. Pennywise has returned after 27 years as is tradition, forcing the Losers Club to reunite once again. Though Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Richie (Bill Hader), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), Ben (Jay Ryan), Eddie (James Ransone) and Stan (Andy Bean) have all changed quite a bit in the intervening decades, they made a pact to return to Derry if Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) wasn’t gone for good. Their memories have faded, and they don’t know why they’re compelled back to Maine, but in the nostalgic haze of their youth, they soon remember the true horror of what they must face.
It’s fascinating how much “It: Chapter Two” feels like a horror take on the huge superhero team-ups we’ve become so accustomed to in the last half-decade. The first act is all about getting a reluctant group of individuals to come together as a team, the second act is about them proving their mettle, and the third act has them taking on the existential threat. While they didn’t have their own solo movies to establish their characters, the first film did all the legwork needed for Dauberman’s script to jump right in. The result is a movie that feels like it’s trying to be the “Avengers: Endgame” of horror – epic in scope and action, and full of all sorts of rousing moments designed to elicit cheers from the audience. There’s even a second-act fetch quest that feels similarly placed to pad out the runtime and thus make the film feel more substantial.
The memory conceit allows them to do some light recapping and flashbacks throughout (the young actors from the first film get plenty of play here), adding new context and wrinkles to what came before. The design of these characters is a tricky thing to pull off, with the adults required to channel the spirit and quirks of their child counterparts as well as dig into what’s made them into such different people. Hader comes off the best of the bunch, in part because his role fits comfortably in his wheelhouse as an abrasive, sarcastic stand-up comedian with all the best laugh lines. Ransone is also roundly excellent, utilizing that wiry, nervous energy from his days on “The Wire” to play the ultimate risk-averse germaphobe required to put his body and mind through all sorts of unseemly things. The rest of the cast is completely fine, if a little unremarkable at times – even the big names like McAvoy and Chastain. However, the main draw is arguably Skarsgård, the biggest crossover from the first to the second film.
One of the disappointments of the first movie was the way that Muschietti handled the central monster. Sure, Skarsgård has the perfect face for this and did a decent job of differentiating himself from Tim Curry’s iconic turn, but when the rubber hit the road, all he could do was bear his teeth and rush at the camera accompanied by some herky-jerky camera moves and cuts. It got repetitive fast, and the prospect of close to three hours of it could be daunting if “It: Chapter Two” didn’t mix up the formula. Unfortunately, it becomes clear that he only has that one trick, and over 169 minutes, we get to see it plenty of times – the same jerky movements and camera jostling, and the same overreliance on jump scares. There’s a place for that in horror, but when it’s the only card you’re willing to play, it can get tedious surprisingly quickly. Granted, that’s not the only level the movie’s playing at, but it does mute the stakes in some scenes, especially when Pennywise seems so toothless when going up against a main character.
There’s something to be said about the pop culture world we live in that Muschietti was able to direct a big budget, nearly three-hour horror film that doesn’t skimp on the gore and is perfectly happy to be the movie it wants to be seemingly without compromise or studio intervention. What “It: Chapter Two” does with that freedom is a decidedly mixed bag – one that still relies on the same tricks that grew old before the credits rolled on the first film. This is a long, slow and ponderous film that’s just as capable of providing impressive nightmare visions as it is weirdly cartoony, rubbery and ineffective ones. The big confrontation of the third act drags on and on, arriving at multiple climaxes before branching off into other splintered set pieces. It’s at these moments that you really feel its bloated length. It’s big, it’s messy and it’s ambitious as hell, and while that combination can often spell doom for franchise filmmaking, “It: Chapter Two” manages to entertain just a little bit more often than it doesn’t.
Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Olef, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Teach Grant
Director: Andy Muschietti