As a massive Stephen King fan for most of my life, I understood Bill Skarsgård as Derry’s most infamous citizen when he lamented to the Loser’s Club that for 27 years, It dreamt of them; It missed them; It craved them. I get it. Ever since seeing the lackluster 1990 TV miniseries, I craved an adaption worthy of King’s magnum opus, something that captured the true weirdness of his prose and the cosmic scale of the novel. I dreamt of it.
In 2017, we received Andy Muschietti’s IT, and finally, I saw, on the big screen, the characters I’d known and loved since childhood done justice. Finally, we had a Pennywise who was the chaotic monster from the novel. We had a film that was crafted by a brother and sister filmmaking team with love for the source material, adding their own flourishes while keeping the story mostly rooted in the book. When the movie ended, and the title card floated up (get it?) and the words “Chapter One” appeared under the title, the countdown to Chapter Two began. And for two years, I dreamt of seeing the adult Losers go toe-to-toe with Bob Gray one last time. I missed the feeling of being terrified by something nearly as familiar to me as my own name and I craved seeing the conclusion to the Losers’ story.
On Thursday, September 5, it all wrapped up. The Losers came home, they had some good chucks over drinks, and then they relived the childhoods they hadn’t even realized they’d forgotten. Horror upon horror was thrown onto the screen, and for nearly three hours I watched the Muschiettis yet again bring King’s words to life. And when it was over, when it was finally over, I wiped my eyes and I was happy to have a small childhood dream of mine finally wrapped up. Also, spoilers ahead, I think.
I don’t mean to mislead you, whoever you are reading this. My tone so far may have you convinced I’m going to gush over this film much in the same way I did the first film, so let me be clear about one very important fact that I want to say up front and as bluntly as possible: while I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I did the first one. Parts of it were beautiful and breathtaking and nightmarish and horrific, but there was a lot I wasn’t at all sold on, and there was a lot I wish would have been differently — and in some cases, not at all. I really did like this film. A lot.
Let me begin with what I didn’t like, because I am a firm believer in bad news first. This film, at almost three hours, was way too long. This wasn’t Endgame, a film that flew by for me and kept me wanting more; rather, I was shamelessly more than a little relieved when this film finally ended. The paradox here is that despite being so long, the film felt quite rushed at times. The pacing was weirdly stumbling, riding along smoothly at times and then stumbling and clunking along elsewhere. I think there was probably enough embryonic, half-developed ideas that they very easily could have cut this movie in half and made a third film that was some of those ideas fully developed. The film is not lazy; if anything, it comes off as overzealous and too eager to accomplish its goals. It’s not for a lack of trying that it falls flat a lot of the time.
Unfortunately, a lot of the interesting ideas the film hinted at were pushed aside as soon as they started to develop, simply so the film could get us along to the next scene. By the 90 minute mark, this tendency started to feel frustrating and almost cruelly teasing. Exposition is something of a dirty word in filmmaking, and while this film keeps it relatively light overall on the exposition, the flashbacks to the first film are way too frequent and almost always unnecessary. And I don’t mean the scenes that were shot specifically for this movie with the actors from the first film; the digital de-aging was weird but not enough to knock me out of the film. I mean the flashbacks using the actual footage from the first movie. It’s done so much in this movie it feels like an episode of Family Guy. I almost felt insulted that the film felt the need to remind me that directly. There wasn’t a single flashback to the first movie that used footage from it that was needed. Not one. The film’s tendency to do so was at face value annoying and came off as a sign of uncertainty on the filmmakers part that they were doing enough to simply tell the story without relying on shoving scenes from the first film in our faces.
While the film is indeed very, very scary and absolutely accomplishes what it sets out to do in showering us with nightmare fuel, the problem with that nonstop parade of horror is that after a while, I became sort of numb to what I was seeing. The movie starts off with the tragic death of Adrian Mellon at the hands of Pennywise and gives us only mild reprieves from a whole cavalcade of horrific shit; at around the hour and three quarters mark I had gotten used to it. That’s not to say Muschietti fails at scaring us; this film is truly frightening and the scares are almost always on point. It’s just that there’s so many of them that after a while, even the sharpest of scares lose their edge.
I’m not usually the type to critique CGI in horror films. For me, trumpeting the sins of CGI while praising the glory of (insert chorus of angels) practical effects comes off as a bastardized version of “kids these days don’t know real horror movies because everything has CGI in it! In my day we had blah blah Tom Savini blah blah whatever.” And honestly, a lot of the time, there is no practical way to bring a vision to life without using CGI. In both chapters of It, there were scenes that could not have worked without the use of CGI. Muschietti, for the most part, seems to understand that CGI is meant as garnish, not a main course. His use of the great Javier Botet in both It films and his debut film Mama is an example of this. CGI is used only to accent what’s already there, to add impossible touches that absolutely could not be recreated with practical effects to a physically real actor. Unfortunately, in Chapter Two there were moments when the CGI seemed very dated. Good CGI should be like good lighting: when it works, you don’t even notice it. The scenes in Chapter Two where CGI was utilized seemed overly saturated with it, making it too unbelievable and garish and too detached from reality. The fact that Muschietti clearly understands the limits of the technique made this even more frustrating.
In my review of the first film, one of the problems I mentioned having with it was the scant characterization of the Bowers gang. Not that we really needed some detailed backstory on the gang, but they’re barely there in the first movie and really only exist to provide a human foil to the Losers. Henry Bowers’ apparent demise had me hopeful that maybe he’d be omitted from this film; alas, he shows up and proves even more useless. You could remove literally every scene of his and the film would be no different. His apparent resurrection is never explained (although the scene in which he is dumped out of a sewer pipe into the Kenduskeag amidst a flood of blood and rotted body parts is visually striking) and he doesn’t do much in the rest of the movie until his mundane death. What makes this doubly unfortunate is that Teach Grant is really, really good as an adult Henry Bowers, but in a film that pushes three hours, this was fat that could’ve and should’ve been trimmed.
Much of the charm of Chapter One came not just from the surprisingly talented young cast, but also from the very real and charming chemistry the actors had with one another. Jaeden Martell did an excellent job as a young Bill Denbrough, embodying not just the selflessness and natural steadiness that made him the heart of the Losers, but also the very real heartache and guilt he felt over being, in some way, responsible for his brothers death. Every single scene and every single line he delivers is tinged with this sadness, and you almost hear thoughts of George clanging around in his head. Chapter Two, on the other hand, falls short of achieving that same natural ease and connection the Losers had. Only Bill Hader and James Ransone seemed to maintain the same bond, and while Jessica Chastain is quite good as Beverly Marsh, there doesn’t seem to exist any real chemistry between her and either James McAvoy’s adult Bill or Jay Ryan’s adult Ben. The narrative of a love triangle is pushed very heavy-handedly upon the audience, yet fails in action or even subtext. And while it was easy to see these actors as the adult versions of the characters from the first film, when that continuity was shaky it was gratingly apparent, particularly in the case of McAvoy’s Bill Denbrough. McAvoy is mostly fine, but there are times in the film when his acting is bizarrely over the top and that stood in stark contrast to Martell’s performance. Jeremy Ray Taylor, as a young Ben Hanscom, is absolutely phenomenal in portraying a shy and uncertain boy struggling to find his place in a town that seems inherently hostile; Jay Ryan as an adult Ben, on the other hand, seems unable to portray that same vulnerability. Instead of a quiet, shy bookworm, Ryan comes off as someone akin to Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That: a strategically nerdy “nice guy” who doesn’t realize how gorgeous they are and leans into the shy, awkward, hot nerd act.
I have a lot of good I want to say about this film, so I don’t to sound too negative; however, the thing that made me groan the loudest and roll my eyes the hardest wasn’t the length of the movie, or the pacing, or the CGI. It was, sadly, the inclusion of my most hated of horror tropes: The Wise Native American. I cannot stand in horror movies (or any movie really) when indigenous people are portrayed as somehow more in tune to something mystical and foreboding merely because they’re indigenous. “My people say…” or “my people have stories of…” or “our legends say…” is just a cheap way of revealing a weird and complicated backstory. And as any reader of the novel will tell you the backstory to It’s origin is indeed very weird and very complicated, and I sympathize with Muschietti for trying to tackle the subject. But the way the information is revealed to the characters (well…the rest of them) is so cheesy that it felt like something out of a SyFy Original movie or some shitty early 80s Bigfoot horror film. I wouldn’t even necessarily have been opposed to the inclusion of native lore into the story: since It has been on Earth long enough that encounters with native people would make sense. Similarly, the source material and the first film mention the fate of the original colonists of Derry, so it wouldn’t have been entirely unreasonable for some variation of “yeah the native tribes told the original colonists to GTFO of dodge because every thirty years or so horrific shit happens around here but they didn’t listen” to be included in the script. Instead we got some corny sequence where Mike tells Bill about his revelation via a drug-induced ritual with several shamans in a tent. I’m not trying to sound all SJW about this, but there’s better ways to tell a backstory about an ancient evil than falling back on hackneyed primitivist “magical negro” style plot devices.
Okay, so if you’re still reading this review, I implore you to finish reading it, and then go see this movie. Despite everything I said in the above paragraphs I actually enjoyed this film quite a bit, so let’s dive into the good bits.
At its heart, It is a story about the perils of adulthood. It’s about growing up and growing bitter and forgetting the wonder of your childhood and the friends you spent it with. For all its grotesque and gory imagery, this adaption of that story encapsulates those ideas perfectly. Much like the first film, Chapter Two is a bittersweet celebration of the good times we didn’t even realize we’d forgotten, the friends we lose touch with and unfortunately only realize too late that we did so. It’s about the simple fears of childhood vs. the complex fears of being an adult, how the monster under the bed becomes the doctor telling you he’d like to discuss the test results. Muschietti’s film is a tribute to that wonder and terror we all felt as a child. Both Andy and his sister (producer Barbara Muschietti) as well as Bill Hader have gone on record as saying reading It as teenagers had a profound effect on them, and that they wanted to create a film that wasn’t just non-stop hellish imagery but also the tenderness of realizing you’re in love with someone for the first time, the first pangs of puppy love that are, in the words of Stephen King, as sloppy as a used Kleenex. This film does all of that and more. Is it saccharine at times? Absolutely. As I said before though when it errors it’s not for a lack of trying and it never errors on the side of caution. There’s something to be said about being that fearless when it comes to telling a story, especially one as complex and beloved as It. The subtext of the Losers sticking around to kill Pennywise despite having no real stake in the game is laid out in how the film opens: an act of violence against a vulnerable demographic. By following through on their promise to kill It if it ever comes back, the Losers are standing up to defend the vulnerable and helpless. It’s a very endearing message in a movie that at face value is about an extra dimensional Lovecraftian monster devouring children.
The flipside to that is of course the horror element of this film. For all the softness and tear inducing sweetness, this film is steeped in horror. Dripping with it even. From the moment we see Adrian Mellon fall prey to the homophobic scumbag teenagers of Derry and the infamous Bob Gray aka Pennywise The Dancing Clown, this film swings for the fences. Bill Skarsgard is, once again, a goddamn animal as Pennywise, while somehow even more vicious and cruel and violent. Within a minute of his introduction in this chapter, we’re treated to a man being bitten nearly in half by that gape mawed monstrosity. Scene after scene of surreal nightmarish imagery is thrown at us like a darkly jubilant drill sergeant screaming commands into the face of an exhausted and petrified recruit who just wants one goddamn second to catch their breath. Yes, it gets to be a bit much after a while. I won’t lie though and say that for the first hour or so of this movie, I wasn’t cowering behind my hoodie and preparing myself to witness some god-awful act of violence against one of the characters. If the death of Adrian Mellon wasn’t bad enough, our intro to the character is tied into something even more tragic and terrible and heartbreaking later on in the film. A benevolent gesture is used to segue into even greater horror. Skarsgard excels at bringing to life a character that, while wholly inhuman, has qualities that are all too human. If the zippers on the human suit his Pennywise wore in the first film were showing then, in this movie the zippers were mostly all the way down and the suit was barely hanging on. I discussed in my review of the first film that one of the things that made his interaction with Georgie in the beginning of the film so vile was not just the act of violence he perpetuates against Georgie, but the way he draws Georgie in, gets his defenses down, reassures him, earns his trust, and then finally drops the mask and it’s over. I was reminded of the way a pedophile would approach and isolate a child, drawing them away from safety and making them even more vulnerable. Skarsgard’s approach to Pennywise is that insidious. In Chapter Two there is a scene where he uses the exact same technique in showing just how cruel and manipulative Pennywise can be when it comes to getting it’s victims exactly where it wants them and keeping them there until it can go in for the kill. And the meanness of Pennywise, the petty sadism that it loves to spew, is on full display in this film. One of my favorite pieces of dialogue from Chapter One was when the Losers first encounter Pennywise as a crew, and Pennywise cruelly taunts Bill by telling him “it was real enough for Georgie!” True to form, in Chapter Two we are treated to Pennywise again getting in Bill’s head and taunting him and then delivering in a very, very vicious way. It’s sickening to watch and because the victims are usually children it makes the stomach turn and the heart break. It’s also powerfully effective horror filmmaking and it hits like a hammer in every scene Skarsgard is in.
The film turns on it’s head a basic principle behind It mostly preying on children: that the fears of adults are too complex to be distilled into a single face whereas the fears of children can be summed up as a mummy, or a werewolf, or a giant bird, or a giant Paul Bunyan statue. Instead, Pennywise uses these fears but also cruelly ridicules them: Bill is mocked for his lingering feelings of guilt over his brother’s death. Beverly is reminded not just of her father’s sexual abuse but also of accusations of promiscuity by her peers as a child. Ben is told no matter how many sit-ups he does he’s still a fat boy who’s going to die alone. Mike is shown newspaper clippings referring to his deceased parents as crackheads. And, in what is arguably the strongest element of the film, Richie is teased by Pennywise for having a “dirty little secret” that only it knows.
The casting and acting of the adult Losers as the physical extensions of the characters in the first film was, at worst acceptable and at best spot on. James Ransome and Jay Ryan as Eddie Kasprak and Ben Hanscom respectively were almost eerily perfect in the looks department for those characters, and Bill Hader and Isaiah Mustafah as Richie Tozier and Mike Hanlon are close enough to pass as at least related to their younger counterparts. While Jessica Chastain doesn’t have the overwhelming physical resemblance to Sophia Lillis, her performance nonetheless sells the viewer on her character being the adult version of Lillis’ character. The assimilation of the younger actors mannerisms, gestures, and in McAvoy’s case verbal tics was, almost across the board, near perfectly done. Mustafa portraying Mike Hanlon was the most interesting in this regard because he nailed the portrayal of the character that Chosen Jacobs delivered in the first film and also added a haunted and paranoid touch to his version. Of course Mike Hanlon is the one who keeps watch and lives in fear of It’s return while the others went off to live their happy little lives. His character’s staying behind to keep the home fires burning is delivered with a hint of sadness to everything he does, a resentment that he had to be the one who pressed pause on his life after that summer of 1989. It was a simple yet effective trait for a character that was widely agreed upon to have been almost anemically undeveloped in the first film. Bill Hader, as an adult Richie Tozier, brings to the film an element that is just beneath the surface of the character in all other versions of the story, the sad vulnerability of someone not quite sure who they are and struggling to find their place in a world that seems hell-bent on breaking them by maintaining a boisterous façade of jokes and sarcasm and overcompensation that he eventually turns into a career and personality. This quiet brand of exposed sensitivity pervades every scene Hader is in, and a revelation about halfway through the movie reveals an aspect of the character that would make perfect sense as to why the death of Adrian Mellon might have affected him so badly. Hader also brought to the movie a not entirely unwelcome comedic touch, and by and large the jokes land and don’t seem wholly out of place. I say “by and large” because there are moments in this film where it feels like the filmmakers are winking and nodding at the audience in an attempt to not be so earnest and grave. In doing so it begins to feel extremely forced and abrasive.
The ending of the film may put off some people who’re unfamiliar with either the source material or the 1990’s miniseries. In the novel, the story goes from a typical ghost story, albeit a rather scary one, into off the wall and profoundly weird Lovecraft territory in a jarring left turn. If you want to know just how weird it gets, ask someone whose read it about why turtles are awesome. Then you’ll understand how nuts It really is. To give credit where credit’s due, this film, despite using the aforementioned Wise Native American trope, at least had the sensibility to introduce the strange cosmic element early on in the film, so it probably wouldn’t come as much of a shock as it would to say a first time reader of the novel back in the mid 90s. It’s a loose interpretation of the novels ending, but still easy enough to digest for people who aren’t familiar with the novel. At the same time it was just faithful enough to not piss off any King loyalists. The visuals of Pennywise’s lair are grotesquely organic and reminiscent of German Expressionist set design (think Dr. Seuss on a very bad day). While I understand how casual viewers could be put off by simplicity of It’s actual true form, I think it does a good enough job of depicting It as a truly alien being rather than just another monster. It’s a classic Lovecraftian device and it’s a safe bet, and in a film this full of balls to wall decisions on plot points I appreciated that safety. While it was definitely a creature design original to the movie there were still elements that hearkened back to the novel in some interesting ways, and I found myself seeing some of the features of said creature design and thinking, ‘oh okay that’s how it would do that’. Pennywise’s legit final form right before the Losers deliver the coup de grace is almost sympathetic in how pitiful it is, and somehow that was one of the most unsettling things about this film for me.
I always feel that finishing the novel is like saying goodbye to a close friend you rarely see and aren’t certain of when you’ll see them again. Oftentimes I’m left with a deep melancholic ache after I’m done. The actual final scene of this movie, with the Losers again moving on, was absolutely perfect in how well executed it was. You could almost hear the opening notes of “The Boys Of Summer” playing as they all said goodbye once again, and Bill Hader’s final scene I think will legitimately go down as one of my favorite moments in a film. It’s that tender and sweet and adorable. But it’s the scene of Mike Hanlon driving out of Derry, finally free of his unwanted responsibilities as the watchman and finally able to live his life the way he wants to, that resonated with me the most. Seeing Mike leave town struck a chord that reminded me of going off to college and seeing my bedroom at my parents house all packed up, of being sad to leave the comfortable and familiar while being thrilled at what lies ahead.
It: Chapter Two is undeniably a very polarizing film, and is certain to disappoint some fans of the first one. I’m sure it will only provide more ammunition to the “Tim Curry is the real Pennywise!” crowd. Truthfully, I think the story could benefit from some kind of “Whole Bloody Affair” style supercut sanctioned by King and the Muschiettis the maybe cuts certain scenes out and changes the order of some of them and just maybe we finally get the fabled “Pennywise Eats A Baby” scene that was cut from the first film. But overall it encapsulated everything I love about the book and provides a solid ending to the story Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman set out to tell. It’s not just a horror film about an extra dimensional monster coming to earth and eating children the way I eat Clif bars. Instead, it’s a deft examination on the concept of growing up as a little death, on the transient nature of memory, on the concept of sticking up for the little guy and the underprivileged when you yourself are the privileged big guy. It’s about leaving home and coming back, and how not everything from the idealized concept of childhood is necessarily as great or as terrible as we remember it. It’s about having each other’s back when the chips are down, and making the sacrifice for the good of others. It’s also about friendship, and love, and how the two are just different pages in the same beautiful book. Go see this movie, preferably with some good friends.