The second half of Andy Muschietti’s Stephen King adaptation sinks under its mishmash of tones.
For better or for worse, IT Chapter Two wants to be way more than a horror movie. Granted, adapting a 1000-page novel across two films is an intriguing experiment; while the original Stephen King novel split its time between the Losers’ Club in both adolescence and late adulthood, director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman made the choice to follow the Losers in chronological order throughout their lives. But in both taking on this intriguing structure and squeezing the novel into a pair of late-summer horror blockbusters, a lot gets lost in translation. For Chapter One, it certainly worked, to the tune of a $700 million box office and critical acclaim. Chapter Two, on the other hand, gets too lost in its own excess and wobbles too much on its precarious tightrope of tones.
Following the events of Chapter One, in which a group of kids from Derry, Maine band together to stop the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) from feeding on them and the rest of the town’s citizens, Chapter Two sees the Losers’ Club return to Derry upon hearing about a new string of disappearances conceivably tied to Pennywise. Save for townie historian Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), all of the Losers have left Derry and followed their own paths — Bill (James McAvoy) is a screenwriter, Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) a standup comedian, Beverly (Jessica Chastain) a fashion designer, Ben (Jay Ryan) an architect, and so on — forgetting as much as they can of their childhood pact. But as Pennywise ramps up for another set of murders, Mike draws them all back to Derry to slay him once and for all.
The biggest key to zeroing in on the IT series’ wavelength is that they’re not horror movies per se — that is to say, they’re really not all that scary. Yeah, there’s the occasional jump scare, and Skarsgård is beautifully eerie as Pennywise, but Chapter One was far more Goonies than The Shining when it comes to genuine terror. That kind of attitude works great with child protagonists; a creature whose modus operandi is just to spook you until you give him that sweet fear juice works much better on scared, vulnerable kids than matured adults. CGI may have given us the technology to render untold eldritch horrors, but there’s a plasticity and predictability to Pennywise’s reign of terror that turns his signature blend of carnivalesque horror into comedy of the unintentional variety. (Mrs. Kersh’s ridiculous shambling during Beverly’s visit is already sure to become an in-joke among the Richie Toziers of many respective friend groups.)
That said, the grown-up Losers acquit themselves as nicely as they can, following the instincts and mannerisms of their child counterparts while growing them out in interesting ways. The obvious one is Hader, expertly channeling Finn Wolfhard‘s hammy, vulnerable Richie into a man running away from his childhood despite steadfastly refusing to grow up. Richie’s never supposed to be that genuinely funny, so the hit-or-miss nature of his jokes still work on that level; Hader himself is still operating in that beautiful sad-clown mode from Barry, and he’s the clear standout.
Still, Chastain brings movie-star gravitas to grown-up Beverly, and McAvoy’s intense physicality gets a real workout as adult Bill (even if that American accent could still use a little work). And despite not getting quite as much to do character-wise as the rest of the Losers, Mustafa brings a quiet dignity and pathos to Mike, the one Loser who never left town and took it upon himself to be the custodian of their memories. Not too bad for the Old Spice guy, frankly. Ryan and James Ransone‘s Stan, however, get lost in the shuffle, pushed to the margins while their more A-list counterparts get meatier stuff to do.
Thematically, there’s a lot to sink your rows of spinning evil-clown teeth into, though delivered with all the obviousness of a typical King joint. IT, after all, is a story about collective trauma and our relationship with memory and the past; when the film slows down to focus on these moments, it (and its cast, both child and adult) shine. As repetitive and pacing-killing as it is (it’s essentially the same sequence of scenes six times over), the middle act of the film — which sees each Loser going back to recover a relic from their childhood, granting us another flashback to the de-aged young actors from Chapter One along the way — at least offers the film its most direct window into the bittersweet nature of nostalgia.
Chapter Two… gets lost in its own excess and wobbles too much on its precarious tightrope of tones.
But that’s just one ingredient in the tonal gumbo that IT Chapter Two shoots for, presumably in a bid to justify its nearly three-hour runtime and to wrest the film more firmly into accessible four-quadrant blockbuster territory. And boy, do you feel it: scenes whiplash between horror and comedy with all the speed of a demonic Pomeranian. It gets to the point where, by the time something real and ridiculous happens (usually courtesy of a particularly ill-served Teach Grant as grown-up bully Henry Bowers) it takes you a second to buy that it’s actually happening.
After a fashion, almost all of the Losers adopt Richie’s gee-golly wit by the end, and it’s tough to tell what Muschietti and Dauberman are even going for. To his credit, Muschietti finds inventive ways to blend the past and the present — there are some truly jaw-dropping transitions in here — but at three hours the staging of the scares gets particularly repetitive.
In the end, IT Chapter Two feels of a piece with its endearingly charming predecessor, even if the split nature of the adaptation doesn’t work as cleanly as they intended. It’s hard to decide whether Chapter One feels like an extended prologue to this, or if Chapter Two feels like an unnecessary followup. It’s quintessentially King, though, flaws and all. It’s too long by half and struggles against King’s own excesses and some creaky Native American mystic tropes. But by keeping the story grounded in its characters, and affecting a relatably mythic tone regarding our often-shaky relationship to the past, it serves up just enough to stand apart from the pack.
IT Chapter Two floats into theaters September 6.