How do you follow up a sensation like 2017’s IT? The long-developed adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic horror novel of the same name was a critical and commercial hit, shattering records and delighting audiences (both diehard fans and a new generation alike) with the coming of age tale of the Losers Club and the corrupted history of Derry, Maine; home to the child-eating shape-shifting creature best known as Pennywise the Clown. With New Line Cinema’s IT Chapter Two, in theaters this week, the answer is you follow it up with a wild, enthusiastic swing that, for all its strengths, can’t quite escape the shadow of its own legacy and expectation.
Director Andy Muschietti returns for Chapter Two with a vision that is bigger and more ambitious in just about every way. The runtime is epic, the spectacle is more spectacular, the CGI is on full blast, the film bounces between timelines (meaning the cast is twice as big with both the adult and younger versions at play,) and the content is more mythological. The bold strides are admirable and some of them work like a charm, but often the massive scope makes Chapter Two feel too sprawling and, sometimes, disjointed and buckling under the weight of those ambitions.
In fairness, many of those problems stem from the source material itself; it’s all but a universally accepted truth that the adult half of King’s story is inferior to the intoxicating coming-of-age teen years. It works in King’s book because of how he lets the timelines bleed together, and if there’s one medium that’s often best when it’s sprawling, it’s the novel. Where the first film was solely focused on the childhood half of the Losers’ story, here, Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman pull from King’s playbook with flashbacks of their own. While there’s no denying that those young characters and the returning original cast are a powerhouse of charm, the flashbacks themselves too often re-tread what we already know from the first film and pull the sense of action out of the present.
Much of the film’s near three-hour runtime is spent in the past, where we glimpse the Losers’ forgotten memories of the horrifying summer they spent battling It. It’s a thrill to see the original gang again – Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, and Wyatt Oleff still have that crackling chemistry, though yes, the digital de-aging is distracting – but, with few exceptions, those feel like trips down memory lane rather than vital information for the characters’ present-day arcs.
As for the adult Losers, the cast is every bit the homerun you could have hoped for. As the film’s biggest “Hollywood Stars,” James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are reliably outstanding as grown-up Bill and Beverly, respectively. McAvoy gives Bill a heartbreaking pathos and Chastain’s performance is so quietly excellent and nuanced, I expect it will be largely overlooked in favor of the film’s flashier characters. Fortunately, they’re matched by equally strong work from the lesser know/wildcard casting, especially Jay Ryan as Ben and Isaiah Mustafa as Mike, both of whom are staggeringly good at conjuring their younger counterparts. But the adult Losers have any clear winners, they’re James Ransone as Eddie and Bill Hader as Richie, both of whom seem to have grown as characters only in the sense that their bodies are bigger.
While all the Losers are stuck in their pre-teen trauma to some extent (Beverly married a man even more abusive than her father, Bill can’t stop writing horror stories without a proper ending, and Mike is literally stuck in Derry,) it’s most obvious in Eddie and Richie, whose fears and anxieties have trapped them in their adolescence (Eddie’s a risk analyst who married a dead-ringer for his mother and Richie is ever the Trashmouth, still telling masturbation jokes full-time in his mid-30s.) Both actors make the most of their film-stealing material, maintaining the zinging banter that defines Richie and Eddie’s fan-favorite friendship while digging deep on the emotional moments when it counts. Expect Hader, in particular, to walk away with heaps of acclaim as he heads into Emmy season for his equally excellent work on Barry.
But enough about the Losers, let’s talk about the king of creepy clowns himself, Pennywise. Bill Skarsgård remains a firestorm in the villainous role, reminding once again how extraordinary it is he managed to redefine such an iconic role. He’s hilarious and horrifying in a way distinctly all his own, an electric presence whose greatest fault is how infrequently he gets a chance to shine this time around. It’s obvious that Chapter Two has a significantly bigger budget than the first film (and as well it should after IT‘s staggering success,) which gives Muschietti room to indulge in the full scope of weirdness in It’s horrid bag of shape-shifting tricks.
In Chapter Two, Muschietti relies less on the strength of his actor in simple, tightly constructed scare scenes, leaning into the weird and hallucinatory at full-blast. Some of this is stunning and immersive, some of it inarguably plays better on the page, but to Muschietti’s credit, it’s obvious he did not want to rest on his laurels and make the same film twice. He opts for stranger and more surreal, which also means that there’s less of Skarsgård, and despite the grandeur of It’s alternate forms here, there’s nothing that’s quite as chilling or full of dread as the simplicity of his sing-songy storybook voice, jolting contortions, and ghoulish grin.
Pennywise is also more playful. It spent eons in a blissful cycle of feasting and sleeping until his first run-in with the Losers. They fucked with him and now he wants to fuck with them back, which means feeding isn’t his first priority. Oddly, his mind games make him less viscerally terrifying and more playful in a way that calls to mind a later-Elm Street Freddy Kruger. He’s not dropping one-liners all the time, but he does enjoy committing to his bloody bits.
It’s not just Pennywise either. In general, Chapter Two is a more playful film. There’s a pervasive cheekiness to it in the form of regular self-reference that occasionally veers into self-indulgence. There are cameos and references a-plenty (King fans, bring your book copy, and keep your eyes and ears open because there are too many Easter Eggs to count) making the movie meta in a way that can be distracting on first-go. It’s clearly a love letter to King and the legacy of IT, but the meta aspects threaten to take away from the action at times, too often reminding you that you’re watching a film. That said, some of those moments are a damned delight.
In general, that’s the gist of IT Chapter Two; big, heartfelt swings that don’t always land. In particular, there are some third act changes that are so thematically challenging I’m still struggling to reconcile them and you’re mileage may vary on how much of a deal-breaker those are. Not everything works, but what does, works incredibly well. We learned early on that Chapter Two would include the Adrian Melon sequence, one of the book’s most horrific passages, and Muschietti doesn’t hold back, delivering a gut-punch that’s as haunting as it was on the page. The film is also gorgeous, with next-level transitions and attention to detail, paired with stunning framing and cinematography. There are countless shots I can already see inspiring artists, and have no doubt those images will grace horror fans walls for years to come (the Paul Bunyan scene and final battle have some especially inspired shot construction.) I hope there’s an “Art of IT Chapter Two” book in the works, because the imagery is really something.
There’s no denying IT Chapter Two is uneven. It attempts to take on an extraordinary amount of challenging material with it’s near-three-hour runtime, but doesn’t always use that time to its best advantage. Muschietti has been open about his plans for an extended cut of the film, and this is one of the rare times where I think a longer version might tell the story better. But the parts of the film that fly — the performances, the imagery, the obvious love for the character and materials — truly soar, delivering the emotional catharsis King’s epic horror tale deserves.