If ever there was a horror film tailor-made for a sequel, IT was, well, it, as the source material book by Stephen King is bisected into two parts. The first half of the story tells of seven children in the small town of Derry, Maine battling an evil entity in 1957 that not only kills children but preys upon their fears as well, creating hallucinatory nightmares that lure them to their deaths. The second half of the story moves the period forward to 1984, where the same seven, now grown adults, must return to their hometown to battle the same entity that has returned. In 2017, the adaptation of the children’s story became a runaway box office hit.
Now, in 2019, comes this obvious sequel entitled IT: CHAPTER TWO. This new film improves upon some of the shortcomings of the first one, eliminating narrative confusion and raising the performances of the younger actors who perform here in new scenes filmed as flashbacks. It also doesn’t let Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) overstay his welcome this time. He’s a good villain, but there was too much of him in the first film. This one also delivers much bigger scares, and the adult leads make a real difference in grounding the stakes and making it all play believably.
Still, there is an issue with the consistency of tone throughout, and indeed, that is always the issue in adapting Stephen King for the big or small screen. King writes earnestly, no matter how outlandish the scenario is, and some films and miniseries have been better at conveying that than others. John Carpenter ensured that a killer ‘58 Plymouth Fury seemed all too real in 1983’s CHRISTINE, whereas Stephen King himself failed to make trucks feel the same when he directed MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE just three years later. When this film remains earnest, it works well, treating all of the visions coming to life as legitimate and lethal. The film loses its grip on some of the seriousness in the last 30 minutes, which is shocking considering the previous two hours did a credible and sincere job of addressing King’s themes of sexism, racism, homophobia, and small-town isolationism.
Things start off promisingly at the start; however, with an intense scene that would devastate in any drama, let alone a horror/fantasy like this one. The second chapter starts with a hate crime, just like King did in the novel. Two gay men are beaten up outside the Derry town carnival by three bigoted, bullying teens. Watching these innocent men get pummeled in the streets is absolutely horrifying. Then, one of the gay men gets tossed off the bridge into the river by the thugs, and as they race away, the evil clown Pennywise shows up to retrieve their victim. The evil entity ends up feasting on the gay man’s midsection, killing him, and it is an all-too painful reminder of how the first film began with six-year-old Georgie dying from Pennywise’s similar attack in the storm drain.
For a while, this second chapter embraces such darkness full throttle. Its psychological terror continues too with the “loser’s club” members now all struggling with being adults. Their traumas from the past have not been erased, even if they’ve tried to put Pennywise, the entity, and the vicious murders in Derry out of their mind. Bill (James McAvoy) may be a successful novelist, but he’s fighting for the artistic integrity of his work as his books get made into movies. Jokester Richie (Bill Hader) has turned into a bitter and selfish asshole of a stand-up, one who loathes himself even more than the audiences he performs for. Ben (Jay Ryan) may be a successful architect, but he still harbors a lot of the insecurities he carried as an overweight child. Eddie (James Ransmore) is a successful financier, but you’d never know it from his ‘woe is me’ persona. And Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is married to a rich man who beats her routinely.
Mike (Isiah Mustafa), the narrator of the story, stayed in Derry, but he’s still haunted by small-town myopia and the history of Pennywise. He gets by, managing the library, and living in the ramshackle apartment in the attic atop the building. Mike knows it’s Pennywise’s handiwork when that gay man is murdered, so he summons the others back to honor their vow to fight the entity should “It” ever return. Only one of the seven fails to show up in Derry a few days later. The cowardly Stanley (Andy Bean) was so freaked out by Mike’s call, he slits his wrists to bleed out in the bathtub.
So now, the remaining six must wrestle with not only the murdering supernatural forces coursing through Derry once again but with their own damaged lives as well. It makes for a psychological thriller with a lot at stake, and the filmmakers give the material their all. Occasionally, screenwriter Gary Dauberman and director Any Muschietti over-emphasize points that are clear as a bell, but their earnestness is admirable, as well as all the detail they put into almost every scene. The adult cast is terrific and never condescend to the pulpy parts of the material. Special kudos should go to Hader for ensuring we buy all the silliness of the scene where he’s chased by a giant Paul Bunyan statue run amuck. He makes it believable and exciting, not to mention wholly terrifying.
Even better is the scene where Beverly revisits her apartment and has a run-in with the entity masquerading as a kindly old lady living there. When Beverly is distracted, Muschietti shows the old woman shaking uncontrollably in the background, and at one point, crossing into another room stark naked. It’s cheekily humorous and eerie as hell. And then when the entity suddenly emerges from the kitchen as a 10-foot graying monster grabbing for Beverly, it provides one of the very best jump-scares in a film in years.
All of the actors, particularly Chastain, Mustafa, and McAvoy play it perfectly. Their commitment to the melodrama works keeps us invested even when the CGI goes over the top. Unfortunately, everything pretty much does during the last 30 minutes. It becomes bigger, sillier, and loses a lot of the earnest goodwill it’s built up till then. Richie and Eddie start quipping back and forth, spitting out bad lines like they’re in an Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner. Blood, sand, and comic cameos overwhelm the emotions at play. Even one character vamps Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” line from THE SHINING.
When one major character gets stabbed in the face, and another in the chest, and yet they act like they are mere flesh wounds, the credibility of it all starts to seriously wane. Worse yet, the climax goes on and on and on, overstaying its welcome and going off in too many tangents including having too many characters have run-ins with their childhood counterparts.
There are other missteps too. While all the characters are developed well, the town itself is mostly inert. It played a much more significant part in the book and the first film, but here it’s relegated to the background. Would a run-down movie theater still be standing? And why is the dilapidated old house still standing when it was already a real estate eyesore 27 years ago? There never seem to be any other townsfolk around, or police nearby, even with a mental patient on the loose. Indeed, some judicious editing should have been supplied to the adaptation starting with the elimination of the Henry Bowers B-storyline from the book.
IT: CHAPTER 2 looks like money and will probably make a fortune. It has more genuine scares than most horror entries these days, and the serious themes kept intact from the book make for something deeper and richer compared to most frighteners. If only the earnest approach, and some genuine discipline, remained present in the third act. It would’ve been better if it had.