Andy Muschietti’s It was the rarest of things – a bona fide horror blockbuster. The Argentine director’s adaptation of the first half of Stephen King’s book earned more than $700m at the global box office in 2017, becoming the highest-grossing horror movie of all time. The sequel had a lot of pressure on its shoulders, tackling the less widely beloved portion of the King story and attempting to live up to one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of recent years. Thankfully, Muschietti is up to the challenge.
The Losers Club has scattered around the USA since defeating It (Bill Skarsgård) as children. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) is the only one who stayed in the small town of Derry, but he reunites the Losers when the Pennywise murders begin again, 27 years on. Each of the Losers is forced to revisit their past in the town so that they can complete a ritual that will vanquish It forever, saving the children of Derry in the process.
It Chapter Two opens with a statement of savage intent. Muschietti leans into real-life horror by depicting a homophobic hate crime – featured in King’s book and inspired by a true event – that segues into a supernatural assault by the returning Pennywise. It’s the creepiest scene in a film that often deals a little too heavily in goofy, effects-heavy scares rather than anything more subtle.
The casting of the adult Losers is perfect across the board. Particular praise must go to Bill Hader, who delivers a layered take on Richie Tozer – a stand-up comedian who retreats into frat-boy humour to escape the repressed parts of himself. James Ransone, too, finds real pathos in the hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak, who now works rather appropriately as a risk analyst. It’s Jessica Chastain as Beverly who holds the film together – much as Sophia Lillis did last time around – but James McAvoy suffers from the rather bland hero archetype Bill transpires to be. The young cast return, also, but their scenes have a pervasive uncanny valley effect thanks to some odd, and probably unnecessary, digital de-aging.
It’s worth noting at this point that It Chapter Two is almost three hours long, and suffers from a rather repetitive structure. To Muschietti’s credit, the film moves at enough of a pace to ensure that the runtime doesn’t feel as indulgent as it could’ve done, but the episodic storytelling often gets tiring, particularly as some of the episodes work a lot better than others. Beverley’s visit to her childhood home – previewed in the first teaser trailer – is deeply creepy, while Eddie’s encounter with a leper in a basement has the definite whiff of naffness.
Muschietti’s devotion to this rigid structure of episodic scares robs the movie of much of its surprise. By the time McAvoy’s Bill solemnly greets a terrifying event with the words “this is Derry, I’m kinda getting used to it”, it’s difficult for the audience not to agree with him. This strict adherence to formula serves to make the more visually adventurous moments even more of a treat, with a striking, colourful chase through a carnival funhouse really benefiting from the director’s undoubted flair. Often, the film is like a horror Jackson Pollock – myriad elements thrown hither and yon to create something that is undeniably exciting to look at, even if it doesn’t make much sense.
And sense is something with which It Chapter Two often struggles. Wisely the film’s script, penned by prolific horror scribe Gary Dauberman, sidelines much of the deep cosmic lore of the source material – though there’s a lengthy shot of an ornamental turtle that serves as a nice wink to King fans – in order to tell a more character-driven story, albeit one that seems to exist in a permanent register of operatic melodrama. The lack of mythology prevents the climax from becoming bogged down in nonsensical exposition, but also ensures that the final third of the movie never seems to make much sense, despite the parade of arresting images.
There’s no denying that Muschietti knows how to construct a scary sequence, and there are moments here that are up there with the most terrifying scenes from the first movie. It’s a cliché to call a horror movie a ghost train ride, but It Chapter Two is the epitome of that term – a parade of sheer variety that fires every arrow in its quiver in search of sustained terror. Skarsgård’s performance is a delight of unhinged physicality and he has really staked a claim to being the definitive Pennywise, despite the cultural potency of Tim Curry’s 1990 take on the character.
For all of its filmmaking flair, this often feels like a movie that is rather too aware of horror’s past, tossing in reference after reference to the history of the genre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining receives multiple references – a sewer of rushing water recalls the elevator of blood scene, before a less subtle nod to the same moment arrives later on – and there’s at least one creature effect that gestures clearly towards Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking work in The Thing. The first few cine-literate references are fun, but by the time there’s a clunky Die Hard gag in the third act, the law of diminishing returns is in full effect.
It Chapter Two is a solidly produced horror epic, and it will almost certainly prove to be every inch the success that the first film transpired to be. Muschietti has constructed something ambitious and theatrical, which channels the spirit of King – who even gets an on-screen cameo – into something that is truly cinematic. As much as the film suffers from repetitive construction and a finale that doesn’t really hold together, there’s enough depth and pathos in these characters that the nastiness hits hard.
If this is what blockbuster horror looks like, then I’m more than happy to float with Pennywise.
Dir: Andy Muschietti
Scr: Gary Dauberman
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Skarsgård, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor
Prd: Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Barbara Muschietti
DOP: Checco Varese
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Country: USA, Canada
Run time: 169 mins
It Chapter Two is in UK cinemas from 6th September.