The Losers are back: Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Bill (James McAvoy), Richie (Bill Hader), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), Ben (Jay Ryan), Eddie (James Ransone) and Stan (Andy Bean) are called to return to Derry and finish what they started 27 years before. Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the 2017 box-office hit It Chapter One (originally marketed as It) brings the band back together for a showdown with the ancient child-eating entity in all of its forms. One of the most hyped horror films of 2019, It Chapter Two fails to live up to the thrills and intimacy of its predecessor.
Following a brutal catalyst event, it becomes clear that “It,” most often in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), has awakened from its hibernation and has resurfaced in the town of Derry to resume the consumption of children. Mike Hanlon, the only member of The Losers’ Club to remain in Derry after the events of the first film, calls his childhood friends and reminds them of their blood oath to come back to town if It pops back up again. From the moment the group reassembles, their interactions are mildly funny, and the lack of chemistry between the adult Losers is to be expected, to a degree. It’s been 27 years, and some reunion awkwardness is par for the course. But two-thirds of It Chapter Two has every hug wooden, every gaze strained and every intimacy tolerated. The runtime feels heaviest during the one-on-ones between the adult Losers.
Individually, the actors put everything into their characters. Hader has received sound praise as comic-relief-cum-tender-teddy-bear Richie (and with good reason), but Ransone deserves as many accolades for the infinitely tortured turn as neurotic Eddie, a pitch-perfect continuation of Jack Dylan Grazer’s god-tier performance in It Chapter One. Chastain nails the feminine vulnerabilities of Beverly; a womanhood both overwhelming and empowering. While Bill Denbrough’s arc is blindfolded and nudged towards a cul-de-sac for half of It Chapter Two, McAvoy infuses a lifetime of frustrations into the character, one that consistently threatens to stay as flat as the pages he’s written on. Mustafa (as Ben) and Ryan (as Mike) do the best they can with what they’re given, as their roles have largely been caught in the Deadlights themselves: suspended and useless, stripped of all the power that their Author originally gave unto them. Stephen King’s small-town epic positions Mike Hanlon as the lynchpin for the group entire, so it’s disappointing to see his arc left on the backburner — halfway through, a triumphal moment should carry far greater weight than it does onscreen, but turns into another undercooked soggy spot in the narrative. Poor Mike’s entire identity is reduced to his parents’ death, a stack of books and a mystical Native artifact.
The uneven narrative extends to the peripheral; two entire subplots go nowhere. The big baddie Henry Bowers (he of the mullet) who looms over most of It Chapter One wanders into a plot cul-de-sac this time around. To be fair, the bully’s arc is largely true to the source material. But in the interest of being economical, his journey is stripped of all emotional context until he is simply a cobbled-together prison shank — one that doesn’t deliver any fatal blows, at that. Add to that another side route that “Stuttering” Bill takes with a random skateboarding child who pops up here and there, and the end result is 30 weightless minutes that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.
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One of the beauties of It Chapter One is the subverted jump scare. In the first film, scares are orchestrated like crescendos. Not only does Pennywise exponentially ratchet up the tension for maximum scare-power (and thus the tastiest morsels), but Muschietti constructs the most frightening moments without the “turn”: the comforting pull-back before a jump scare. A woman approaches a curtain from which she heard a noise; she pulls it back and no one is there. Wonderful. But oh, no! The killer was behind her the whole time! This structure undermines the sense of comfort, and it’s a time-honored formula within the horror genre. In It Chapter One, Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman recalibrated that scare structure to instead begin from a place of discomfort (a boy seeing a clown in a drain), and then slowly turn up the flame (he draws ever closer, falling for the clown’s tricks) until the film hits peak tension (clown eats child), and only then is the audience allowed to relax. In doing this, It Chapter One maintains ever-increasing dread for minutes at a time. Jump scares are peppered in, but they are well-timed, effective, and — most importantly — they are sparse.
Of the many spooky moments on screen, It Chapter 2 achieves the aforementioned end in only two sequences: one in which Beverly encounters an old woman, and another in which Richie goes for a walk in the town park. Those scenes are effective because they adhere to the subverted dread-filled formula of the first film. The rest of the scares are either recycled (a red balloon fills the frame and you can probably guess what’s behind it), or they are undercut with baffling insertions of humor. To a degree, it’s clear what Muschietti is going for: King’s novel emphasizes an intimate relationship between humor and horror. Laughter in the face of madness is a form of catharsis. In It Chapter Two, the execution has an undermining effect, not a reinforcing one. A character is stabbed in the face without preamble; he stabs his assailant, and comically shuffles out of the room like Charlie Chaplin trying to dine-and-dash. A few deadpan quips later, the moment is over and the theater is filled with scattered, confused giggles. It Chapter Two ends up as a self-conscious adolescent that nervously giggles any time it’s on the verge of doing something profound; a cringe-inducing “no homo” walk-back writ large to avoid accusations of nastiness or tenderness.
Despite the fumbled tone, the sequel nails the other essential scare component: atmosphere. Production designer Paul D. Austerberry and art director Nigel Churcher conjure up stellar set pieces, enclosed and overwhleming, both brightly-lit and traditionally dim. From a flooding bathroom stall to a revamped apartment to a cavernous underground lair, the set pieces are an extended arm of the beautiful thematic sandbox that the characters get to play in. It Chapter Two treats nostalgia as both sanctuary and prison cell; the third act in particular visualizes the theme in vivid, unsettling ways. A childhood clubhouse can be a hideaway or a burial ground, depending upon the emotional baggage being carried into it.
For all of its wayward storytelling, Muschietti corrects course in the final act. This is where the set pieces are allowed to shine, the characters finally connect with each other and Pennywise steps into the spotlight (albeit without Skarsgård’s fantastic physicality and with loads of distracting CGI). Emotional beats stick the landing and the humor enhances rather than competes with the horror. The final 30 minutes do everything that the first two hours should have consistently done.
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It Chapter Two does the opposite of what a proper sequel should do; it discards the best elements of the first film, and refuses to choose a tone and stick with it. Mike Hanlon concludes his journey with a realization: “Sometimes we are what we wish we could forget.” Let this film serve as a nearly three-hour example of the adage.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.