Taken at face value, It Chapter Two is a strange title for a film because it reads like a declaration. “Hey, look. It chapter two.” You understand that the movie’s a sequel to Andy Muschietti’s It, but the title’s grammatical oddness jumps out when you read it, and it makes you wonder why the studio decided to run with it when “It: Chapter Two” would have worked just fine.
But as you settle into It Chapter Two and give yourself over to the elaborate horror fairytale, the movie’s title begins to make a twisted, clever kind of sense. You can feel how writer Gary Dauberman is trying to channel as much of Stephen King’s essence (and the original novel) into the screenplay as humanly possible. Though the movie is undoubtedly a product of Muschietti’s own vision for the second half of the Losers’ story, because the film so closely cleaves to the themes and ideas in King’s work, you can’t help but sense the novelist’s presence lurking in nearly every scene the same way Pennywise lurks in Derry’s shadows. Once you realize how faithful to the novel the movie’s trying to be, you get the sense that “It Chapter Two” is meant to read strangely, the same way “Pet Sematary” does. It’s intentionally off, childlike, and the sort of thing one could imagine King having a soft chuckle at.
At times, like when It Chapter Two delves into the headier ideas about how hate and fear are intertwined, the movie’s overt King-ness works in its favour. But like King’s books, It Chapter Two is overlong. The film takes almost three hours to belaboured-ly come to a series of conclusions that are far less surprising than any of the film’s multitude of jump scares. That’s not to say that It Chapter Two isn’t a solid horror movie – it is, but it’s trying to do something more than just frighten you for a few hours with a story about a bunch of adults fighting a drooling clown. It really, really wants to make you laugh. And it will, sometimes unintentionally.
While you don’t absolutely need to have seen the first It or have any familiarity with the premise, it would be a lie to say that It Chapter Two isn’t made better by having the first half still somewhat fresh in your mind. Memory factors largely into how the now-adult Losers have gone about their lives as the movie opens, and we’re reintroduced to each member of the group in small slice of life moments that give you just enough information to understand what kind of people they’ve all become.
The physical distance they put between themselves and Derry has dulled the Losers’ memories of the thing that haunts the sewers and preys upon children when adults aren’t paying attention. Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is the shared trauma the Losers have all spent years trying to put behind them – except for Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who’s the only member of the group who’s never tried to forget because he stayed behind in Derry specifically to remember. The time and space the film gives its leads sell us on the idea of them being the grown-up versions of their younger counterparts (who all reprise their roles in the film) is good, but as there are seven of them, the movie often feels sluggish while making sure everybody has a turn.
It Chapter Two didn’t need to bring back its cast of younger actors to reprise their roles, but their inclusion in the film makes for a number of interesting scenes where the adult Losers relive their memories in a dynamic way. The CGI used to keep the kid actors looking the way they did back in 2017 is...fine. Fine in the sense that it works, but there are moments when you can tell that something’s up and a bit off. But by the time you pick up on the weird energy, the clown’s slithering out of the shadows again, and the film’s already directing your attention elsewhere.
Though Pennywise is very much the fear generator that powers It Chapter Two, the town of Derry itself is the film’s “villain” in that it’s the evil thing that the Losers have to contend with most directly. On its own, Derry’s a picturesque Maine town full of charming, simple people. But Pennywise, a rot festering in the secret heart of the city, brings out a darkness in the place that’s made all the more unnerving because the people who live there are unable or unwilling to acknowledge it.
It Chapter Two toys with the idea that the homophobia and racism that exist in Derry are – in part – a manifestation of Pennywise’s malevolent presence and things that the creature understands to be a form of evil that exists in humans. Aside from the moments when Pennywise is literally chasing after the Losers and poor, unsuspecting Derry children, It Chapter Two insinuates that nearly every awful part of the heroes’ lives in some way stems from the fact that they lived in Derry. Bev’s father was always a predator and Eddie’s mother was always overprotective to the point of unhealthiness, but the movie suggests that simply being in Derry amplified those things about them, creating the perfect environment for the Losers to all grow up insecure, unsettled, and vulnerable.
As interesting as that concept is, it also has the odd side effect of making It Chapter Two’s story feel small, because it really hammers home how Pennywise simply doesn’t have a life outside of the Maine town. The movie takes a few moments to explore the clown’s origins, but in making clear how long Pennywise has been a part of Derry, you can’t help but feel sad for the demon because the film illustrates how Pennywise is like that friend from your hometown who never managed to reach escape velocity, move, and do something with his life.
Like Pennywise, It Chapter Two wants to keep you in a constant state of distress because it heightens the overall intensity of the story. Many of the film’s hard turns into abject horror are disturbing and stomach-turning, but because the film’s so packed with scares (and again, long) you quickly come to a point where Pennywise stops being “scary” and starts being a nuisance. What’s interesting is that as you start to become comfortable and less directly frightened by Pennywise himself, the Losers similarly slip into an uneasy comfort with their predicament if only because they’re grown adults who clearly understand what the demon clown is trying to do.
Beverly not realising that Pennywise is literally right there. Like right there.
At multiple points in the movie, It Chapter Two stops to poke fun at the ridiculousness of its story, often through Bill Hader’s Richie, who points out how dumb Pennywise’s little jig is. He’s seen what the eldritch horror can to do people and the many monstrous forms it can take, but he also knows that if he’s going to die, he might as well crack a couple jokes while he’s got the time.
Hader’s Richie is one of the more surprising gems tucked into It Chapter Two whose brilliance draws attention to the ways in which the movie doesn’t really give all of its characters the best opportunities to shine. While there’s a depth and a breadth to Richie’s arc, characters like Beverly (Jessica Chastain) and Stanley (Andy Bean) come across as rather two-dimensional and like they’re just going through the motions.
It Chapter Two wants to do King’s novel justice, and in many ways it does, but there are a number of moments where you can’t help but feel how tired some of King themes come across in 2019. Old tropes about Native American rituals and an over-reliance on dense expository dumping stand out as two of the movie’s more glaring weaknesses, and there are more than a few occasions when it doesn’t make any sense why Pennywise doesn’t just get on with it and eat these people if he’s been dying to do it for so long.
It Chapter Two presumes that you, like Pennywise, are a patient creature who finds the idea of a fanged clown mauling children interesting enough to warrant sitting in a cinema for three hours. It’s a myth that leans heavily into the voice of its original author because you’re meant to be into this particular kind of nostalgic storytelling. It Chapter Two will make you wince, and groan, and look away, but it’ll also make you snort and appreciate children who have the common sense to stay the hell away from clowns.