by Andrew Wyatt on Sep 12, 2019

It would be folly to assert that Stephen King’s colossal 1986 horror novel It is effectively unfilmable, given that such absolutist declarations rarely endure. Director Michael Winterbottom, after all, found a way to translate the 18th-century satirical novel Tristram Shandy – a work that is almost puckishly hostile to adaptation – into cinematic form in 2006, which would seem to be the definitive demonstration that the “unfilmable” label is always provisional. Still, by the time the credits rolled on the first chapter of director Andy Muschietti’s two-feature It adaptation in 2017, it was evident that the filmmaker’s approach was so dramatically dissimilar from King’s novel that it might as well have been a different species of monster altogether.

This isn’t to say that Muschietti’s first It feature – retroactively titled It Chapter One – is a failure. The film winningly blends a tender coming-of-age tale to the nervous funhouse-horror energy of early Tim Burton and Sam Raimi. This is thanks in large part to a uniformly charming young cast, skin-crawling cinematography from Chung Chung-hoon, and an impish-yet-inhuman turn from Bill Skarsgård as the eldritch shapeshifter Pennywise the Dancing Clown. (If there was a singular surprise when It premiered in 2017, it was Skarsgård’s instantly indelible incarnation of Pennywise, which managed to be quite distinct from Tim Curry’s much-beloved performance as the grease-painted fiend in Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 ABC mini-series.)

However, for every endearing character beat, grotesquely bonkers scare, and neo-Rockwellian flourish (wholesome or perverse), It Chapter One failed to convey the psychological and historical depth of King’s book, as well as its galvanic mingling of warmth, melancholy, and elemental terror. It remains the author’s most monumental work, the closest King has ever come to successfully synthesizing American gothic-horror traditions, his flair for pop-lit showmanship, and the striking ambition and intricacy of a Great American Novel. The book’s enduring power stems chiefly from its slippery structure, the way that past and present mingle to enfold the seven adults from Derry, Maine, who once banded together as kids to confront Pennywise – and are obliged to return 27 years later to finish him off.

Much like Wallace’s mini-series, Muschietti’s theatrical features bifurcate the story into a “childhood half” and an “adult half,” a choice that is at once entirely reasonable and woefully misguided. Dividing up the plot in this way has the effect of undermining one of the novel’s crucial themes – the way that unresolved trauma can obliterate time and devolve even the strongest individuals into mere cowering children. The most immediately appealing aspect of It Chapter Two, then, is that the film at least has the good sense to sprinkle numerous flashbacks into its otherwise indefensible three-hour running time. This allows the viewer to spend more time with the delightful preteen iteration of the self-proclaimed “Loser’s Club”: “Stuttering” Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and Eddie Kasprak (Jack Dylan Grazer). These flashback sequences flesh out the events of summer 1989 that were breezed over in the first film – especially the late-summer weeks between the fight that briefly fractured and scattered the Losers and the group's eventual subterranean showdown with Pennywise.

The conventional wisdom about It – regardless of medium – is that the Losers are much less interesting as adults than they are as children. This claim is somewhat misleading when it comes to King’s original novel, in which the middle-aged Losers’ stunted emotional development and self-pitying haplessness is sort of the whole point. (The book is, among many things, a fittingly self-absorbed indictment of Boomers’ unwillingness to confront the rotten American evils they thought their generation had blithely overcome.) Muschietti’s new film, however, doesn’t do much to counteract the perception that the Losers are more engaging as middle-schoolers, despite generally spot-on casting when it comes to the adult actors – a couple of whom deliver ridiculously entertaining performances.

Former homeschooled farm boy Mike (Isiah Mustafa) is the only Loser who has remained in Derry, settling into the role of the eccentric librarian who keeps a weather eye on the local headlines (and an ear on the police scanner) for any sign of Pennywise’s resurgence. When the details of an apparent homophobic murder arouse Mike’s suspicions, he makes the phone calls that he had hoped would never be necessary, summoning the remaining Losers back to Derry: Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Bill (James McAvoy), Richie (Bill Hader), Ben (Jay Ryan), Eddie (James Ransone), and Stanley (Andy Bean). The six prodigals have all built superficially successful lives for themselves, but they’ve also blocked out their childhood memories of Derry – and of Pennywise.

Both the Losers’ easy, foul-mouthed camaraderie and their recollections of the town’s bogeyman begin to resurface when the group assembles for a reunion dinner at a strip-mall Chinese restaurant. However, the returning members are confounded by Mike’s urgent, fearful insistence that they must once again confront Pennywise – particularly when he starts ranting about a Native American ritual that can (maybe) vanquish the entity. No one really doubts the truth of Mike’s words, at least not after the fortune cookies on their table start vomiting forth shrieking vermin and boiling ooze. However, the notion of splitting up the group to wander the town, coax forth additional memories, and uncover personalized artifacts for the ritual – as Mike suggests they do – seems like an extraordinarily Bad Idea. Yet split up they must, thanks to some vague plot bootstrapping involving Beverley’s prophetic dreams, which have predicted the Losers’ deaths prior to Pennywise’s next cicada-like resurgence. There’s also the matter of the other Derry children threatened by the clown’s current killing spree, but no one other than the guilt-wracked Bill – who still blames himself for little brother Georgie’s gruesome death at Pennywise’s hands – seems all that concerned about them.

If nothing else, Muschietti achieves a baseline consistency between the two It features when it comes to the story’s overall tone and the arsenal of kitschy shocks he employs. It Chapter Two hews to a similar formula as Chapter One, striking the same zany Halloween-store vibe that is reliant on jump-scares, gross-out gags, and over-the-top, cartoonish violence. Except that Chapter Two serves up its childhood nightmares over 34 extra minutes of much lumpier, more herky-jerky storytelling. It doesn’t help that the “enchanted summer” sparkle that made its predecessor such a sunny, heady pleasure has been replaced by the prickly disillusionment of early middle age. That shift has always been baked into the story of It, of course, but the somewhat unexpected comedy-horror vibe that Muschietti brought to Chapter One feels like a bit of an awkward fit now that the Losers are dealing with spouses, careers, and the specter of mortality.

It’s not a coincidence that Chapter Two’s standout performances – other than Skarsgård, who continues his strangely upsetting “Lovecraftian abomination meets Little Lord Fauntleroy” take on Pennywise – are from Hader and Ransome. Reproducing the affectionately cantankerous bond between Wolfhard’s Richie and Grazer’s Eddie with uncanny precision, the adult actors marvelously portray how easily old friends slip into comfortably familiar patterns, even after decades of separation. Hader and returning screenwriter Gary Dauberman – the latter taking solo duties this outing – add a surprisingly effective, non-canonical dose of pathos to Richie’s arc by not-so-subtly implying his closeted gay identity and latent romantic love for Eddie. However, Hader and Ransome make a strong impression primarily because they seem to be on Muschietti’s wavelength, responding to every ludicrous haunted-carnival scare with deadpan wisecracks and anxious irritation, respectively. In comparison, normally reliable dramatic stalwarts like McAvoy and Chastain seem to have wandered in from a completely different film, so earnest are their attempts to slather the proceedings with affecting angst and deadly serious dread. (McAvoy’s dodgy New England accent doesn’t help in this respect.)

Even if all the members of the main cast had been on the same page, however, it’s hard to imagine a film as narratively messy as It Chapter Two being a total success. For better or worse, the film often resembles a succession of freaky haunted-house encounters where the Losers run headlong into their still-lingering childhood terrors (including a few that the audience is just now learning about). There are a few detours that unfold entirely outside the viewpoint of the Losers, such as an admittedly horrifying run-in between a little girl and Pennywise beneath the high-school football bleachers. Dauberman at least had the good sense to ruthlessly pare down the footprint of the novel’s secondary characters such as Bill’s actress wife and Beverly’s abusive husband. However, that still leaves seven Losers to juggle, plus their returning childhood bully, Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), who has recently stabbed and slashed his way out of a mental hospital with a helping hand from Pennywise.

In truth, Henry doesn’t end up being much of a long-term threat, so enamored is Muschietti with the mythical resonance of the film’s very episodic plot. Each of the Losers gets their own little set piece when they split up to retrieve their totems, and then again when they are shunted into private ordeals during their final, hellish confrontation with Pennywise. There’s a sense of rushed, dutiful, and often uninspired box-checking that saps these purportedly phantasmagorical sequences of their potency. While It Chapter Two can be frustratingly lumbering and long-winded, it also paradoxically feels like the sort of project that might have benefitted from a more lavish, complex, and contemplative treatment. (One can envision a much more successful adaptation as an 8- to 10-part mini-series, perhaps helmed by renowned King aficionado Mike Flanagan.)

These flaws aside, there are still plenty of elemental horror-movie pleasures to be found in Chapter Two, even with cinematography duties now falling to Checco Varese, who doesn’t have Chung’s flair for grime and gloom. Nothing in the new film quite matches the demonic Grimm Brothers majesty of Pennywise’s lair in Chapter One, with its floating child corpses and looming tower of lost toys. However, Chapter Two does have its share of raw nightmare fuel, including a howling she-demon, a malevolent Paul Bunyan statue (yes, really), and a couple of truly appalling, no-holds-barred child murders. There’s also some undeniably striking imagery late in the film that ranges from the poetic dream logic of a shared hallucination to the extravagant grotesquery of Pennywise’s final, inhuman form. Ultimately, viewers who are simply looking to soak up the same ghastly scream-park shocks that made Chapter One the highest-grossing horror film of all time will probably find It Chapter Two largely satisfying, if needlessly rambling. (Not to mention short on the original’s bittersweet Bildungsroman ache.) For stalwart fans of King’s novel, the definitive film adaptation of the Loser’s Club saga remains (for now) an elusive thing, perhaps never to be liberated from the printed page.

Rating: C+