IT CHAPTER TWO: Working Harder And Scaring Less

Last year’s half-adaptation of Stephen King’s It was a gamble on Warner Brothers’ part, covering only the childhood era of the novel and hoping the audience would be intrigued enough to return a year later for a second helping.  However, the risk was rewarded with a box office gross of over $300 million in the U.S. alone. The sequel has arrived and the filmmakers have rewarded the fans’ patience with a nearly three hour monolith of a sequel packed to the gills with shocks, shrieking apparitions and a cameo from King, to boot.

But does the investment and scope make It Chapter Two a good film? The verdict is a split decision at best, with some elements working well, others feeling drably conventional and a few others that will leave fans of the novel scratching their heads. The resulting film offers garish, showy jump-scares by the pound but is ultimately less satisfying.  

The plot of It Chapter Two focuses primarily on the “adult years” half of the novel. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of the Loser’s Club who stayed in the small town of Derry, sees mysterious deaths piling up and knows it is the work of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the ancient evil who often takes the form of a malevolent clown.

Mike puts out a call to his old friends to remind them of their decades-old promise to return and kill Pennywise if he rose again: author Bill (James McAvoy), comedian Richie (Bill Hader), fashion designer Beverly (Jessica Chastain), risk assessment expert Eddie (James Ransone) and architect Ben (Jay Ryan) all dutifully return.  Past collides with present as the heroes come to terms with their childhood and Pennywise puts them through another elaborate gauntlet of baroque-gothic waking nightmares.

It Chapter Two puts on an elaborate show of being a horror film. Checco Varese’s oft-colorful cinematography pops off the screen, working hand-in-glove with excellent production design and period detail in the frequent flashbacks to create an atmosphere of a haunted past. Director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman fill up the film’s epic length with plenty of drama, visual flash and loud, ostentatious shock setpieces that roll out at least once per reel.

Unfortunately, the bombast ultimately becomes numbing because the horrors here are performative in nature instead of coming from a place of conviction about what is horrifying.  This is a problem that that the first film had and that problem deepens here because its core strategy is to double-down on self-consciously showy and combative tactics that pander to a lowest common denominator vision of how a horror film is supposed to work.   

Muschietti’s direction must take the brunt of the blame for this. He’s obviously a fan of the genre and his work is informed by a certain glee in throwing as much spooky stuff as he can at the viewer. Unfortunately, he also favors every hackneyed device known to modern horror cinema: big blasts of music or screaming in Dolby Stereo, jump scares, shaky camerawork, fast cutting.  A new wrinkle in his trick bag, perhaps added by the script, is a habit of adding goofy moments of humor to the tag of setpieces, like a gruesome knife-fight ending with an insult about one character’s mullet hairstyle or a scene where a hands-on fight with an apparation ends with the monster puking in the protagonist’s face, accompanied by an ironic burst of pop music. Such moments are as eye-roll-inducing as their descriptions suggest.

The director also tends to repeat himself stylistically: there’s a recurring tactic of a shock cut to Pennywise in one of his guises, him shaking his head from side to side and running or scuttling towards his victim while roaring. After you’ve seen this a dozen times, it’s more grating than frightening.  He puts a lot of energy into working over the audience but that’s not the same thing as digging into their fears. As a result, the film often feels like a ride through a particularly obnoxious funhouse at a carnival.

Dauberman’s script does its best to make the film’s narrative its own but the results are a mixed bag. There are some effective bits, like a new coda that makes better use of a particular character than the novel did and new moment where Pennywise entices a little girl under the bleachers at a sporting event that is more suspenseful/chilling than most of the big scares. However, he also adds things that don’t help, like the addition of the hackneyed trope of Native American mysticism to explain Pennywise’s origins. He also makes tweaks to the characterizations that fans of the book will find annoying: Mike is portrayed as a sort of bumbling, absent-minded professor type rather than the insightful, grimly dutiful figure from the book. Another character also gets a “major reveal of a secret” bit at the end that rings hollow because the story never sets it up.

In the middle of all this, you have a grown-up cast that works hard but never connects the way the younger actors did in the first film.  For instance, McAvoy pours plenty of energy into the script’s rather emo take on Bill to middling results and Chastain gets little to do besides react. The actors who get the broadly comedic material fare better, with Hader being an obvious star attraction but Ransone also doing solid work. Everyone onscreen acquits themselves well but the script doesn’t offer them the emotional richness their child counterparts get.

In short, It Chapter Two is a muddle where the good parts and bad parts largely cancel each other out. The film is already a hit at the box office but it will be interesting how well it ages. The mixture of aggressive shock tactics and a curiously hollow approach to both the story and horror elements doesn’t bode well on that front. Ultimately, the faux-Stranger Things approach of the first film, derivative as it might be, gives it a narrative consistency that makes it the better half of this opus.

To read Schlockmania’s review of the first It film from 2017, click here.

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