Warning: This review contains spoilers for IT Chapter Two.
The thing about monsters is that they derive their power from the unknown. That shadow you can barely make out in the dark is a hundred times more terrifying than whatever banal object it turns out to be when you turn the lights on. The anxieties and unspoken phobias that live inside your own head are far worse than when they’re finally spoken aloud.
IT Chapter One understood that. In the film’s opening sequence, little Georgie goes down to the basement for some wax, and trembles with fear when he spots what look like burning devil eyes staring at him from the black abyss. When he shines his flashlight over the spot, it turns out to be just a mound of cleaning supplies. The original film applied that same attitude towards Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the physical manifestation of all the worst fears carried by the children of Derry, ME. Without knowing much about him, he’s a terrifying prism through which to view the traumas of childhood, and the indifference with which they’re often treated by adults.
In IT Chapter Two, also directed by Andy Muschietti, and adapted by Gary Dauberman from the second half of Stephen King’s novel, the children are now adults. It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club made a pact to return to their haunted hometown if that dreaded clown were ever to resurface, and guess what? He has. Taking advantage of a horrifying homophobic attack in the film’s opening moments, Pennywise uses the blood of his victim (Xavier Dolan), to spell out a message for his old nemeses: “Come home.” The only problem is, none of them, except for Mike Hanlon (played by Isaiah Mustafa as an adult, and Chosen Jacobs in flashbacks) remembers where that is. I’ve always been puzzled as to why the Losers Club wouldn’t just be lying in wait for 27 years, counting down to an eventual showdown. But as it turns out, leaving Derry means you lose your memories of the evil that lurks within.
Aside from poor Mike, who’s been standing guard this whole time, all of our heroes have led fairly successful lives, although tinged with a darkness they don’t quite understand: Bill Denborough (James McAvoy/Jaeden Martell) is a famous horror novelist turned screenwriter living in Hollywood; Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ranson/Jack Dylan Grazer) is a risk analyst in Manhattan who married a replica of his overbearing mother; Richie Tozier (Bill Hader/Finn Wolfhard) is a comedian who doesn’t write his own material; Stanley Uris (Andy Bean/Wyatt Olef) is happily married and planning a vacation; Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan/Jeremy Ray Taylor) is an architect with a sick bod; and Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain/Sophia Lilis) co-owns a chic closet company with her abusive and violent husband, mirroring the relationship she had with her father.
When Mike calls, they all react with visceral swiftness, in the grip of fears they can’t name. It’s only once they reunite once more that it all starts to come back, and they band together to rid Derry of Pennywise once and for all.
That’s also where the film goes steeply downhill. The idea behind IT Chapter Two is that to defeat Pennywise, they must understand where he comes from. But that also neuters the elements that make him such a potent villain.
At two hours and forty five minutes, it’s also an impossibly long quest towards a mostly unsatisfying conclusion, punctuated with flashbacks that feel disconnected from the original. The entire plot hinges on a falling out between the group that was a minor point in the first film, and now turns out lasted for several days, conveniently enabling each kid to have a revelatory encounter with IT that they now have to unpack as adults. And while those scenes are arguably the scariest, they also have little to no stakes. We know they survived — they made it to adulthood, after all.
But IT Chapter Two isn’t all that interested in developing these characters as adults. Their emotional growth seems to have been stunted three decades earlier. They’re still dealing with the same petty feuds, romantic dramas, and in Richie’s case, a secret that isn’t given the proper weight in his character arc for it to really hit home. And as a result, we care about them less. Thank god for Hader, who saves every scene he’s in as he walks a tightrope between superbly delivered one-liners anchored in real, messy emotions. Cast him in everything!
What’s more, some of the things lifted directly from King’s novel simply have not aged well. As with Pet Sematary, too much of the story relies on culturally appropriated Native American myths, and Mike, the only person of color, is sidelined to an uncomfortable degree. I could have done without the running fat jokes, and there’s a streak of homophobia running through the action that may have resonated strongly in the 1980s, but now seems unnecessarily cruel to depict. Same goes for the domestic violence Beverly is once more grappling with, which feels more exploitative this time around than in the original. Why show her husband’s abusive behavior if she’s not going to confront it later? Without her perspective, there’s no sense that it’s done in pursuit of some larger catharsis.
Muschetti is skilled at blocking out horror — one scene in particular, involving the uncanny form of a naked old woman twirling in the background of a shot, will haunt my nightmares. But though Skarsgard does some great work as Pennywise, it’s lost in all the grand special effects used to blow him up to the size of a large barn, or grant him enough legs to create a clown-spider hybrid.(That’s another thing about this movie: Too. Many. Spiders.) But while the result should be terrifying, it actually just comes off as, well, clownish.
IT is a sprawling epic, and the two films reflect that scope. But the second film meanders, sagging in the middle, and devoting far too much time to a final showdown between our protagonists and their foe. Meanwhile, the thing that actually takes him down is so laughably cheesy that it makes you wonder what the big deal was in the first place. When the theater lights come on, IT is nothing more than a mound of rags in the corner. What a shame.