Review: IT Chapter Two

There’s a moment in “IT Chapter Two” when, as a haze of magically lost memories begins to lift from the reunited Losers’ Club, a character suddenly recalls the twisted nightmare they bested twenty seven years earlier and softly whispers its name: Pennywise. The invocation understandably throws a wet blanket on the Losers’ collective mood but unexpectedly, I, from the relative comfort of Row F, suddenly shivered. What can I say but that “IT Chapter One” must have left a mark? In that foreboding moment, the path ahead looks a lot like the one these characters walked as children through the quaint but deeply sick hell of Derry to face the poisonous monster at its heart. For better or worse, it mostly is.

"Chapter Two" is a slightly darker take on the first film’s "Goonies"-for-Grown-ups style. It’s accessible horror, spooky but never quite scary, more interested in the characters’ journey than making the audience jump (though it does try, with varying success). Where "Chapter One" is about facing fears, "Chapter Two" is about overcoming trauma. Long after their battle with Pennywise, all but one of the Losers have moved away from Derry and on with their lives. But moving on doesn’t mean escaping and even though they gradually forget all about the murderous dancing clown, each of the Losers bear scars from Derry. Bev has traded an abusive father for an abusive husband, Bill is a horror writer incapable of satisfying endings (a reflection of the sinister unfinished business he left behind and an obvious poke at author Stephen King). Though they’ve forgotten, they all have vague, indistinct nightmares. Mike, the only survivor to remain in Derry, has devoted himself a watchman, waiting for the inevitable echo that signals Pennywise’s return. When it comes, he summons the Losers to fulfill their pact to return and face these repressed torments.

Thanks to the foundation laid by the cast of "IT Chapter One" and their effortless chemistry, "Chapter Two" benefits immediately from our affinity to these characters. Fortunately, the new adult cast - Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Jay Ryan, and Andy Bean as Bev, Bill, Richie, Mike, Eddie, Ben and Stanley, respectively - does them justice. As we’re gradually reintroduced to the Losers’ Club, it’s easy to imagine the paths each took to this moment and even more delightful to watch as they reconnect with each other, laughing over drinks and swapping stories, falling into the familiar friendly banter of dear old friends. "IT Chapter Two" is at its strongest when its cast is allowed to wield the lightning that made the first film crackle.

Curiously, they don’t get to do so much. You see, Mike has a plan to defeat Pennywise that involves sending each of the Losers on individual quests to recover an artifact from their forgotten lives in Derry, so after a few wonderful scenes together the cast split up and don’t reconvene until it’s time for our third act showdown. There’s a rough parallel with the broad structure of the first film, in which each Loser has encounters with Pennywise that help drive them together as a group and ultimately towards their stand against Pennywise. But separating the Losers for much of this second act doesn’t generate the same momentum, making for an odd use of a talented cast whose best scenes are together. This section plays out as a series of vignettes, flashing between the past and present as each character retraces their childhood steps. While I found each individual scene enjoyable, there are enough narrative cul-de-sacs that stacked together you’d be forgiven for starting to notice the nearly three hour run time.

Much of "IT Chapter Two" feels familiar; after all, these are familiar characters in a familiar town facing familiar demons in a familiar story, even culminating in a familiar “you have no power over me” ending. With so many of the same elements, there’s a risk that "Chapter Two" would be a glorified retread. The best parts of "Chapter Two" - mostly centering on Bev, Bill, and Richie - avoid this, diverging meaningfully from but still firmly informed by "Chapter One." Surprisingly, it is Richie, not Bill or Bev, who is most expanded on in this film, and Bill Hader gets to show a welcome range I would not have expected for the character. Not everyone has come quite so far. Ben is still in love with Bev. Eddie gets not one, but two scenes in a pharmacy. Mike…well, he unites the Losers and then vanishes until the third act. Henry Bowers returns to stalk the Losers through "Chapter Two" but is reduced from terrifying bully to generic slasher loon.

"IT Chapter Two" is not as scary as "Chapter One" so let’s talk about why. Enough praise cannot be written for Bill SkarsgĂ„rd, whose delirious performance as Pennywise across both films has created an iconic villain with every giggle, twitch, stutter, and shriek. He remains excellent in this film. But the character is used differently in "Chapter Two." In the first film, Pennywise (and scares generally) were calibrated to resonate thematically. By appearing as their greatest fears, Pennywise himself becomes more dangerous. He attacks them directly several times and through his malignant influence even Derry itself tries to drown them with various abuses. These characters are in real danger, and are truly afraid. So are we.

There are some genuinely disturbing moments in “IT Chapter Two” that recreate the uneasy dread of the first film. It opens with a brutal homophobic attack vaguely reminiscent of Georgie’s ill-fated sewer-side chat. A stomach turning fortune cookie sequence thrusts the Losers back into the reality of what awaits them. Bev’s visit to her old apartment (featured heavily in trailers) is unsettling. But for each of these, "Chapter Two" deploys two uninspired haunted house jump scares. Pennywise sometimes seems more motivated in "Chapter Two" to merely annoy the Losers than kill them, often harmlessly taunting them in new forms like “slightly distorted face” and “generic monster woman.” These aren’t thematically moored, feel much more perfunctory, and until the excellent third act there’s a missing sense of real peril.

And yet, despite lesser scares, "IT Chapter Two" is still a thoroughly entertaining conclusion to the Losers’ Club story. The draw to these films has always been the characters, anyway. The "IT" remakes are ultimately hopeful films disguised as horror. In "Chapter One" we met a ragtag group of misfits who were a joy to watch band together against impossible evil. "Chapter Two" offers us the unambiguous catharsis of making peace with a damaged past. "IT Chapter Two" had me shivering in the first few scenes and felt like a great, warm hug by the credits. In my book, that’s a fine day at the movies.

Score: 3.5/5

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