With a novel quite so extraordinarily overlong as is Stephen King doorstop bestseller It, it makes perfect sense to partition the story into two. The revelation that Andy Muschietti’s take on the classic would draw the line between child- and adulthood, likewise, struck as logical. In actuality, Muschietti’s result is a tale of two halves for the weaker. Chapter Two suffers from an affliction of repetition and of been there done that. A superior cast and high budget visuals help things float but never so high as it’s immediate predecessor.
Twenty-seven years split this second film from the first and yet frequent flashbacks tether things so thoroughly to the past that it better termed equal than sequel. Indeed, Gary Dauberman’s weighty, often maudlin, script opens and closes in 1989, in which we first loved the losers of Derry, Maine. Cut to the present – or, rather, 2016’s oddly dated past – and Jaeden Martell’s stuttering Bill has become a slick James McAvoy. Sophia Lillis is now Jessica Chastain – Amy Adams, a more exact fit, clearly unavailable – and Isiah Mustafa has grown from Chosen Jacobs’ Mike Hanlon. It is poor, maddened Mike who catalyses the action of Chapter Two; he who stayed behind and he who summons his old friends back to Derry on scouting the return of their old childhood foe. As in King’s novel, Mike is quickly sidelined by Muschietti’s film and proves a thankless role for Mustafa. Chastain and McAvoy have much more to play with and do so well. Surprisingly, it is Bill Hader and an exquisitely mannered James Ransone who impress most, as the elder Ritchie and Eddie, with their curious new subtext adding heightened emotional intensity.
Of course, as before, the show really belongs to breakout star Bill Skarsgård, who didn’t need a second outing to enter horror’s hall of fame. Childish and deadly in one, Skarsgård’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown remains every bit the stuff of nightmares here and gains a subtle extra layer of internal damage to his cracked patina. Perhaps the younger losers did inflict lasting wounds? Perhaps he does hesitate before the girl who emphasises with his pain? Perhaps not. It is he, after all, who later shrieks ‘I am the eater of worlds!’ Either way, while there is argument to be made that Pennywise is marginally less effective a villain opposite adults than against children – who brought with them innocence and nuances of maturity and a prepubescent dearth of cruelty – this is not by fault of performance.
Instead, it strikes that Chapter Two is a less thematically engaging offering than One. Too much of the film is devoted to whittling through dour remembrance and only rarely does it capitalise on the grand potential for nostalgia and trauma to collide. Highlights to that end include the sequence that finds Bill rediscovering his old bike in a local second-hand shop – run by a canoeing King – and riding it like he hadn’t aged a day, or the moment the group return to their old clubhouse for the first time in almost three decades. Such sparks chill far more than the jump scares that replace the first film’s fairground thrills. Chapter Two might scare in the moment but it is not the film to stay with you late into the night. The disembodied heads and baby-faced scorpions look superb but never really pose tangible threats. Whereas previously Pennywise drew his form from that murky dark space beneath the beds of children, here they are randomly constructed and lack connection to real world worries. Unlike King’s book, Muschietti’s film largely dispenses with the world’s his characters have built beyond Derry.
This is not to be too down on Chapter Two. Benjamin Wallfisch’s excellent score doesn’t place a note wrong and Checco Varese’s autumnal aesthetic warrants high commendation. If elsewhere the film misses layers, its seasonal virtues adroitly capture the spirit of the thing. Digital effects in the film astound by equal measure – by virtue, in part, of a doubled budget – with visual fact and fiction imperceptibly blurred. Furthermore, few films have so effectively nailed the menacing potentiality of a flotilla of red balloons, nor made grisly horror feel so much like a blockbuster. Tommy Lee Wallace’s nineties miniseries can but wilt agin so finely tuned a production. It is no longer just a couplet cinematic experience but a bonafide phenomenon.
The irreverence of Chapter One might now be tinged with irrelevance but there is still much to enjoy as It ends. Time spent in the company of Pennywise will always gift audiences ample sadistic pleasure, whilst there is no denying the pedigree of those cast around him. It: Chapter Two is that breed of accomplished film that presents itself as the best one could have hoped for from the story it was to tell. There was no need to return to Derry and Muschetti is forced to untie knots, and add new ribbon, to achieve the bow of finality. It’s too long and a bit too bare around the bones but hard not to like if the first film had you invested.