IT: Chapter Two feels like going back home
In 2017, IT caused a pretty big splash. Half of Stephen King’s weighty tome had been adapted for the screen in hopes of being enough of a success to merit a sequel. Since success was not guaranteed, the film was required to stand alone as a complete story, which it certainly does. After the first film dominated the box office, IT: Chapter Two was immediately given the green light. Along with it, the filmmakers were given many more resources to tell the story in as complete a manner as possible. On the one hand, a lot of very cool things that felt absent from the first film finally made their way to the big screen. On the other hand, IT: Chapter Two is really, really long, and since the film is not required to exist in a vacuum, the pacing can get a bit wonky. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the sheer ambition on display.
Adapting King’s novel directly is an impossibility given its size and the way in which it presents the terror brought forth by the titular monster. Those of us who grew up on the miniseries or who have only recently been introduced to the tale via Andy Mushcietti’s first film know it as the “killer clown movie.” Those of us who have read the book know that Pennywise the Dancing Clown is just one of many iterations that It takes while attempting to satiate its violent desires. What makes the book so scary is not any of the individual fright sequences contained within, but rather the persisting dread evoked by the indelible presence of It on the sleepy town of Derry. You see, every 27 years, It returns to feast on the human fear response, but even during periods of dormancy, this ancient dark force holds sway over the town and everyone in it. Those who escape Derry are inexplicably drawn back. Those who remain have their own evil proclivities exacerbated by It’s presence. With King being a writer whose value comes more from character than plot, it’s tough to bring such baked-in fears to the big screen. Sure, confronting a zombified junkie in the spooky house on Neibolt Street is chilling, but the true horror comes from the notion that this beastie is but a symptom of a much larger evil - an evil that can only be defeated by those who are simultaneously most affected by it, and least willing to yield to its fear-mongering. Unfortunately, there’s really no way to economically show this on screen, which means that all IT movies have to be pretty plot-heavy.
IT: Chapter Two picks up 27 years after the end of the first film, in which the members of the Losers Club vowed to return to Derry if the evil force ever returned. Five of the six Losers have long since left town, but Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has remained. He’s still the outcast he always was, but in the modern day his status as an outsider is less about his race and more about the fact that he’s become the town weirdo. He’s obsessed with Derry’s history (for valid reasons he wouldn’t dare share with locals), and as such, has not really moved on from childhood. No wife, no kids, no dreams, just a desire to understand It before it’s too late. Well guess what, It is back, and Mike has corralled his childhood buddies back to Derry to put an end to the evil once and for all.
After a brutal, masterfully constructed opening (and some clumsy exposition) is out of the way, the Losers Club is back together. Bill (James McAvoy), the de facto leader, is now a successful writer (who needs a little work on his endings — HA!). Beverly (Jessica Chastain) has taken a husband who is just as abusive and dangerous as her father. Eddie (James Ransome) is still the same old worrywart, puffing on his inhaler and taking orders from his aggressively maternal wife. Ben (Jay Ryan) is now a svelte, hunky architect whose financial success hasn’t dulled his penchant for kindness and romance. Richie (Bill Hader) is a successful comedian with emotional demons hiding behind his jokes. And finally, there’s Stanley (Andy Bean) who, at least according to Richie, is a pussy.
The casting is top notch in every way. Not only do the performers look uncannily like adult versions of their child counterparts, but they act the part too. There’s no separation between them. The main strength of the first film was in the characterizations of the Losers Club, and the filmmakers clearly knew it. When the gang gets back together, their chemistry is absolutely electric. It has to be. Sure some of them get more to do than others, but it’s no surprise that the actors have all been buddy buddy with one another during the press tour. They feel like a real group of friends, and the Constant Reader in my heart happily accepts them as the Losers Club. This makes it quite a shame that the bulk of the movie is spent keeping them apart.
The middle chunk of the film (this is a film of chunks, not acts) involves each character wandering Derry in search of important items from their past. Each has their own confrontation with Pennywise in some shape or form, and each flashes back to a memory from childhood where they did the same. The individual segments are all pretty excellent, with the flashbacks serving to cleverly retcon sequences from the book that felt sorely missing from the previous film back in, but on the whole it’s pretty clunky. The plot unfolds like a checklist which saps the narrative of energy.
Regardless, the characters press through the pacing issues in a big way. Richie is the standout, however. This has a lot to do with Hader’s talent for both humor and pathos, and a lot to do with the shape of the source material. In the book we get the internal monologues of each and every character, but in adapting each of them to the screen, some get better served than others. Richie was just the comic relief in the first film, and here his part is beefed up to compensate (there’s a newly added aspect to his arc that works wonderfully and is much appreciated). Conversely, Bill and Beverly were the centerpieces of the first film, but here they feel more like placeholders. It’s a bit of a waste of the talents of McAvoy and Chastain, but both acquit themselves wonderfully. Mike, whose sidelining in IT couldn’t help but draw groans given that he was the only character of color, gets a bit more to do here, but once again he falls victim to the adaptation. In the book, large portions of the narrative are told by Mike via his running chronicle of the history of Derry, but that just isn’t very cinematic now is it? As such, the character never gets a chance to fully blossom.
These are the aches and pains inherent to adapting a beloved, insanely long novel that eschews typical narrative to instead give a thorough, multigenerational history of the town in which it is set. In turning such a sprawling book into a more typical monster movie, certain darlings simply must be killed.
So how does it function as a monster movie?
Quite well, actually. The many iterations of Pennywise are scary (unlike Pennywise himself, who consistently fails to feel like the horror icon the filmmakers so desperately want him to be), and for the most part they look great. There’s a bit of rubbery CGI here and there, but most of it is appropriately unsettling and gruesome. The jump scares are a mixed bag, since many are telegraphed and a few feel like carbon copies of each other, but in a crowded theater they all do the trick. While there’s no new ground being broken here relative to the previous film, there’s a step up in style for sure. The horror sequences are leaner, meaner, and considerably darker. I would imagine that the budget for this assured box office success was probably bigger too, and it shows. Heck, they even used de-aging software on kids. Yes, since the child stars of the first film now have a few years of puberty under their belts, the flashbacks have employed de-aging effects to their faces and voices. Most of the time it works well, other times it’s scarier than any of the monsters.
For better or for worse, this is likely the best and most complete film adaptation of It that someone could reasonably hope for. I’m sure one day it will be made into a longform TV series which will probably suit the material best, but for now, a collective 5-plus hours on the big screen will do just fine. While a lot of the sheer density of the story is lost, IT: Chapter Two taps into the most important aspect of what makes King’s work so lasting: The characters. For any on-screen iteration of IT to work, the Losers Club is key. If you can get their friendship right, the rest is irrelevant. In that, the most important regard, IT: Chapter Two nails it. The humor is there, the love is there, and the group chemistry is impossibly good. Even if some of the material is a bit shaky in execution, the horror works because I don’t want anything bad to happen to my friends. Yes, the Losers Club are my friends. Yours too.
Note: One day there will be a supercut of both films, edited to a perfect pace, complete with deleted scenes, and it will be the definitive film version of IT.
IT: Chapter Two opens in Philly theaters today.