There’s a recurring gag running through It Chapter Two involving bad endings — grown up Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a horror writer known for bestselling novels with disappointing endings, an in-joke about criticisms of Stephen King‘s own novels — and while it delivers a few laughs along the way it becomes emblematic of the film’s missteps. The humor feels too present at times, the film’s tone wobbles and suffers as a result, and, perhaps not so ironically, it all leads to an ending that underwhelms. Happily, though, there’s still enough here that works for horror fans to make it an entertaining and worthwhile sequel experience as we get some big scares and laughs in an even bigger studio horror film.
It’s been twenty-seven years since the seven teenage members of the Losers Club defeated the evil that had been terrorizing the town of Derry, Maine, [my review of It Chapter One] and then swore a pact to return if and when Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) ever resurfaced. While Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) remained in town and still remembers the horror vividly, his friends — Bill, Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Richie (Bill Hader), Ben (Jay Ryan), Eddie (James Ransone), and Stanley (Andy Bean) — have moved on both physically and mentally with no recollections of their childhood horrors. Each of them has found career success, but Mike’s call shakes them loose as the terror seeps back into their souls, and while five of the six return to once again face the monstrous entity that feeds on fear they discover too late that what scared them as kids might just kill them as adults.
The sequel to 2017’s It Chapter One was always going to be a daunting endeavor. While King’s 1100 page novel shifts between the Losers as kids and adults, director Andy Muschetti‘s first film wisely focused strictly on the teenagers’ tale. That film as a whole works beautifully, and its young teen characters — not the typical horror movie “teens” but actual kids facing the horrors of the world — are a big part of its success. We see ourselves in them, and their struggles with various traumas are our own even as they square off against supernatural threats. Returning to focus on their experience as adults leaves this film facing an uphill battle, and it’s unfortunately one it only fights to a draw.
This time around it’s the adult Losers on center stage, but we’re still given time spent with their younger selves both through scenes lifted from the first film and new to us memories of events we weren’t made privy to previously. More time with them as kids helps to flesh out the characters — although one sequence involving a marauding Paul Bunyan feels like something we should have heard about in the first film — but it also highlights the disparity between the generations. Seeing the kids again immediately puts viewers back in their emotional corner, and it’s a feeling the adult scenes can’t recapture. Credit in part goes to the talented young actors who return for more here (including Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, and Jeremy Ray Taylor) as they easily slip back into these wounded but resilient characters.
Performances are fine (and occasionally highly entertaining), and instead the issue rests with Gary Dauberman‘s script (as filmed). We’re given less time with the adults, and while we know they’re the same characters the weight of their respective emotional horrors is woefully unbalanced. As kids they faced violent bullies, racism, the loss of a sibling, sexual assault at the hands of a father, and more that in turn fed into the ways in which Pennywise haunted them, but their adult counterparts — Beverly aside — have lesser frustrations that the film overcompensates for with larger than life monsters (which we’ll get to below). They show up, they get scared a few times, and they face down the threat. Their terror feels more perfunctory than palpable, and while the result is still a better-produced studio horror film than we’re used to it still can’t touch the immediate and lingering effects of the first.
As mentioned, a large part of the kids’ terror grew from the town itself and the people around them. Pennywise puts a face to evil, but the town’s indifference and disinterest in protecting its youth feeds the horror in powerful ways frighteningly reminiscent of the real world. A couple scenes aside, Chapter Two leaves Derry feeling almost like a ghost town in its lack of other people, and it’s telling that the three most compelling horror beats involve characters outside of the Losers. The one that opens the film — a gay couple is attacked by locals who brutally beat them before tossing one off a bridge and into the gaping, razor-sharp toothed maw of Pennywise — is the film’s horrifying high point and an intensely terrifying sequence that dwarfs the less human monsters that follow. It captures a cruel extreme of the bullying that was a focus of the first film, but then it fades away to be replaced by fictional creatures.
To that point, there are some fun and creepy scenes here delivering chills and thrills starting with the heavily advertised sequence featuring Bev in the old woman’s apartment. Muschetti does great work building atmosphere and tension before unleashing the scares, and while cinematographer Checco Varese doesn’t manage as many frame-worthy frames as Chapter One‘s Chung Chung-hoon did he still delivers an attractive and visually memorable horror movie. This is big, epic horror the likes of which we rarely get these days, and Warner Bros. deserves credit for affording the filmmakers a solid budget to bring this world to life. Where Muschetti and friends stumble, though, is in their repetitive use of the same horror gag. Build tension, tease a Pennywise appearance, then unleash some over-sized nightmare to come stomping towards the characters (and viewers). It’s fun at times, but it stops being creepy after that first encounter. Worse, more time spent on big CG monsters means less time spent with the more physical and personality-infused terrors of Skarsgård’s performance. He’s legit terrifying in the first film, but he’s somewhat short-changed here outside of a haunting sequence in his human form.
Still, between the scares and humor the film is never less than entertaining. Hader’s Richie is responsible for most of the laughs even as it becomes a double-edged sword of sorts. His delivery of humorous dialogue (both scripted and improvised) is rarely less than funny, but its frequency is often at odds with the film’s darker beats and themes. Rather than offer a counterpoint to the tension he instead snuffs it out. To be sure, Hader is fantastic here and earns some emotional beats towards the end, but this is a nearly three-hour movie. It’s a balancing act, one Wolfhard and Grazer nearly lose both here and in the first film as well, and it frequently leaves Chapter Two feeling more comedic than horrific.
And then there’s the ending. Don’t worry, no details will be given here, but while it was inevitable that the film would avoid the ending to King’s novel, the choice made here is troubling for different reasons. As mentioned, it underwhelms in its generic nature, but worse, it butts up against a theme from the novel and first film in a weirdly counter-intuitive way. At least you can’t say the film didn’t warn you throughout its running time.
At 169 minutes, It Chapter Two is a long film that thankfully never feels its length. It struggles to be as horrifying as it should be (and can’t match its predecessor), and the paucity of real emotional beats hurts its overall impact, but it remains an entertaining ride and a just satisfying enough end to the It saga. It’s a film that will probably benefit from an eventual re-edit together with the first film into a version that resembles the novel’s intertwined timelines, but for now it’s a reminder that studios can and should produce more big, R-rated genre features for audiences hungry for epic horrors. More, please.