Directed by Andy Muschietti
Starring Bill Skarsgård, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain
IT: Chapter Two can’t help but mirror its predecessor, and that also goes for its opening: It is 27 years after the events of IT (now to be retroactively known as Chapter One), and we are back in Derry, Maine. It is the eve of a festival called Canal Days, and a gay couple (one-half of which is played by the Canadian director Xavier Dolan) are on their way home. A gang of thugs pounce on them, and one of them is thrown into the canal running through town… where a reawakened Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) fishes him out, then sinks his fangs into the hapless man’s heart.
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Like the opening murder in IT: Chapter One, this new killing is gruesome, but somehow even more disquieting. It plays straight into the current mood of intolerance and dread hanging like a miasma over the culture, and because of that, it also feels more adult.
Which is a fitting segue into where the Losers are now: Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa, played by Chosen Jacobs in the first movie) is the only member of the ragtag band of misfits that first battled Pennywise in 1989 to have stayed in the town—fittingly, he works as a librarian, a symbolic cataloguer and chronicler—and he proceeds to call on his friends to fulfill the blood oath they made at the end of the first film. Gang leader Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is now a novelist working on a Hollywood adaptation of one of his books; resident smart aleck Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is now a stand-up comic; hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Sinister’s James Ransone) is now a successful insurance agent working in risk assessment; querulous Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) also seems to be happy, although the movie doesn’t really explain where he’s getting the income to plan a trip to Buenos Aires with his wife (in the book he was an accountant with a gangbusters practice); Ben Hanscom (Beauty and the Beast’s Jay Ryan) has shed the extra pounds of his boyhood to become an architect and the group’s official ugly duckling-turned-hottie swan; and flame-haired Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) has married into wealth, trading her abusive father for an abusive husband (Will Beinbrink).
Like the first movie, each of these characters face a reckoning with Pennywise when they are alone—and this is where the bulk of this installment’s problems surface. (I won’t call it a sequel because the two chunks of chronology are intertwined in Stephen King’s hefty doorstop of a thousand-page-plus book, making them really just one story.) There are Lovecraftian monstrosities (impressively achieved through practical means on set) and jump scares galore, but where the gang’s individual horrific visions in the first movie accumulate because the narrative is leading them towards banding together, the scares in this installment feel random, delivering director Andy Muschietti’s punchline scares and then resetting back to zero. There is an anthology feel to the chills and thrills in this installment, and that’s why you feel every minute of Chapter Two’s 169-minute running time.
Of the adult cast, Bill Hader steals the show as Richie, deploying his zingers with all the aplomb of a natural-born comic, but it is James Ransone who uncannily captures his adolescent counterpart’s endearingly neurotic performance; he inhabits Jack Dylan Grazer’s phobia-beset Eddie almost at DNA level, drawing it into full adult bloom. It also helps that the adult cast is working from a literate adaptation by resident Conjuring Universe screenwriter Gary Dauberman:
Like its predecessor, Chapter Two contains nods to influential horror entries (most notably, John Carpenter’s The Thing), but now there is a self-reflexive quality to the winks. A running gag throughout the film has the gang ribbing Bill Denbrough about his inability to give his novels satisfying endings, and fans of the book will no doubt interpret this as good-natured ribbing from the filmmakers on King’s phantasmagorical climax in the book. (Something about the Losers traveling to Pennywise’s dimension and encountering the metaphysical turtle that birthed our universe from its vomit—don’t ask.)
It is the book’s unwieldy ending that gives Dauberman and Muschietti no choice but to rethink the ending of Chapter Two, and they provide a scaled-down, satisfying closure to the saga. They also give the Losers a less heartbreaking denouement, add an LGBT strand that symbolically ties in to the opening, and insert a sequence that retroactively transforms an act of cowardice into a fatalistic act of bravery. Chapter Two hews closely to the message of its source: that confronting our demons is the only way to vanquish them, and the best way to vanquish them is by vanquishing them together. And that makes IT, despite its gruesome deaths, the most life-affirming horror saga you will ever see.
Photographs by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.