Back in 2017, IT shocked horror audiences by being, well, pretty bloody great. The kids were cute rather than annoying, Bill Skarsgård put a terrifying new spin on a character already made iconic by the legendary Tim Curry, and it somehow managed to be scary, funny, and sweet in equal measure. The flick also scared up over $700 million at the box office so a sequel was inevitable. In reality, however, director Andy Muschietti (who infamously took over from Cary Fukunaga, which was enough to put certain fans off the project entirely) always planned to split Stephen King’s seminal doorstop novel into two parts. And that’s what’s immediately obvious about It Chapter Two; it feels simultaneously like a smooth transition back into Derry and a worthy closing chapter for this story. This isn’t a sequel in the traditional sense, rather it’s a part two worthy of actually being called that in the first place — this is the second half of the story, and it’s essential.
We start off back in Derry, where a gay couple is viciously bullied by the toothless locals until one of them falls victim to our old buddy Pennywise. The 27 years since the last movie have not been kind; his suit is tattered and torn, there are new wrinkles forming on his endless forehead, and he has less time to hang around in sewers waiting for kids to stroll past. This ruthless reintroduction to both the harshness of Derry and the horrifying, untold reach of Pennywise’s powers expertly establishes Chapter Two‘s tone. Although the super-cute kids will pop up now and again (the digital de-aging of the puberty-ridden actors didn’t bother me as much as others, though it did make their skin creepily Insta-smooth), somehow even cuter than before — it’s still not okay to fancy them, just to be clear — this is a much more adult It.
Related: IT: Chapter I: Holy S**t [Review]
The Losers’ Club, now scattered around the country far from the horrors of small-town Maine, is all grown up, seemingly successful, and completely miserable — so, typical adult life then. Mike, now played by a soulful and empathetic Isaiah Mustafa, was the only one who stuck around and, as a result, he cops on that Pennywise is back and rallies the others via a series of phone calls that vary between hilarious (Bill Hader, playing a grownup Richie, vomits upon realizing who’s ringing him) and downright sad (Jessica Chastain, as adult Beverly, is now being abused by her husband, instead of her father). Our hero Bill (James McAvoy, working his way around the American vowels better than he did ye olde Englishe in this year’s execrable X-Men: Dark Phoenix) is the requisite King transplant, who turns up to a movie set and sheepishly tells a clueless production assistant “I’m…the writer” before being schooled by a cameoing Peter Bogdanovich for his terrible, bleak endings.
Chapter Two shows its weaknesses most in this initial setup, where certain elements read clunkier than perhaps intended, such as Bill reacting as though the scar on his hand is physically hurting, or Eddie freaking out like Pennywise himself is on the phone. When the group converges on a local Chinese restaurant (“You all look great. What the f**k happened to me?” quips Richie), the dynamics slot much more comfortably into place, with these six great actors trading barbs and reminiscing about the good ol’ days before Mike drops the bomb that Himself is back in town and it’s their unfortunate duty to get rid of him once and for all. Naturally, a couple of their number immediately call bullshit and try to flee, but this wouldn’t be It without the Losers Club and it’s not too long before battle lines are drawn accordingly. To reveal any more would be to give away those all-important spoilers, but suffice to say the movie has plenty of tricks up its billowy, tattered sleeve.
As with the first movie, It Chapter Two excels at showing the brutality of abuse and the scars of trauma. Every character is dealing with some sort of deeply-buried issue and, although their return to Derry is predominantly spurred on by Pennywise, there’s a considerable amount of unfinished business to contend with, too. Well-placed flashbacks bleed into the narrative to provide more depth to the missing summer when the kids fought and the club broke ranks, at least for a while, fleshing out the story without the need for tension-sapping exposition dumps. Great care has been taken to match the adult actors with their younger counterparts and there isn’t a dud in the bunch. Every single performer is operating to the best of their ability, with special mention going to the criminally underrated James Ransone as Eddie, who vacillates between terrified, disgusted, and devastated often within the same moment. Ransone communicates a lifetime of being stepped on through his eyes, physically shrinking himself behind the likes of Hader and Chastain so he always seems on the cusp of legging it.
A gut punch early on establishes that any one of the Losers Club could be Pennywise food this time around, which imbues Chapter Two with higher stakes than before. This, coupled with the fact that we’ve got to know and really love these characters, makes it a surprisingly emotional watch, particularly as the film builds towards its massive, sewer-set (naturally) finale. As with It, this second part is handsomely shot and beautifully scored, each moment swelling and easing off accordingly. The scares, and there are plenty of them, are expertly timed too, with more than a few jumps calculated to catch even seasoned horror fans off guard. The nightmare imagery is genuinely stomach-churning at times, even if the CGI still isn’t as convincing as good ol’ practical FX (some fortune cookie mini-monsters, for instance, could’ve benefited from being more rickety). At least esteemed creature performer Javier Botet is given plenty to do once again, as Eddie’s junkie nightmare as well as a decrepit, Baba Yaga-esque old lady.
The emphasis is still on childlike fears, but everything is more intense because adults are in the firing line and, presumably, the audience. There are, happily, also some gnarly kid kills this time around that are delightfully nasty and shocking. One sees a little girl lured under some bleachers by a drooling, emotionally manipulative Pennywise while an excursion to a hall of mirrors proves once and for all that funhouses are inescapably scary. Everybody is fair game (I guess Pennywise is starving after being asleep for so long), which makes these rational, grown-up characters scared, just as we are watching them. It’s a delicate balancing act, particularly to sustain for almost three hours (Chapter Two is a bum-numbing 2hrs 49mins but it genuinely doesn’t feel like it at all — if you sat through Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, this will be a breeze) and on top of being consistently thrilling, tense, and frequently downright terrifying, It Chapter Two is also very funny. Most of the humor comes from Hader’s Richie, with an embarrassing fan encounter a standout, but he rattles off killer lines like a champ, quipping Mike should’ve called and said, “Hey man, wanna come to Derry and get murdered?” rather than lying and needling the others for being wimps. Underneath it all, though, Richie, like the rest of the crew is broken.
The film is, at times, overwrought and dramatically convenient, but this fits with the classic King tone. Defeating Pennywise won’t work unless the whole gang bands together so much of the film is spent re-establishing why the Losers Club formed in the first place all those years ago. Everybody is given their own moment to shine (Mike gets his due this time around as the de facto leader, which is wonderful to see) and be tortured by Pennywise, but together the group really is something special and it’s impossible not to root for all of them to make it to the end. As for the killer clown himself, let’s just say Skarsgård is making a serious play for being the definitive Pennywise. I realize that’s blasphemy to some, but the reason we all love Tim Curry as Pennywise is because his performance was the only decent thing about that plodding, dull little miniseries. This Pennywise is a real force to be reckoned with; ruthless, violently cruel, and quite horrifying to look at. Even when he’s nowhere onscreen, you can feel him lurking on the edges and it makes your skin crawl.
This is, above all else, a story about repressed trauma and it’s refreshing to see a mainstream horror that is unafraid to fully go dark. From that very first, vicious murder, it’s clear we’re in adult territory and even if that means tweens won’t be able to watch this in theaters, it’s worth it to enjoy the concluding chapter in its purest form (Chapter Two gets everything right that Scary Stories got woefully wrong). Truly, perfume hasn’t been this scary since, well, Perfume. There are also gallons of blood flowing, and a real sense of impending danger throughout even when references to The Lost Boys or You’ve Got Mail (surely this is the first movie to feature both?) abound. It Chapter Two is never cutesy or self-congratulatory; its relentless pace gives way to a surprisingly moving finale and a real sense of loss. These are characters we care about, fighting a villain whose fate is never predictably sealed, in a world alarmingly close to our own. Rather than a sequel in a traditional sense, this is a fitting closing chapter to a story most of us wish we could spend a little longer with.
Much like the transition from childhood to adulthood, however, the end is unavoidable, and if this is the way we say goodbye to It, there’s scarcely anything to change.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Andy Muschietti
Writer(s): Gary Dauberman, Stephen King
Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, James Ransone, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis
Release date: September 13, 2019
Studio/Production Company: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 149 minutes