Lightning in a bottle success stories are extraordinarily rare in modern American cinema, and the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT is about as close as we get. A mid-budget cerebral horror movie that makes over $100 million in its opening weekend. Sounds great, but then everyone remembers – this film’s novel is over 1,000 pages long. It is cut into two very distinct chapters. And no one quits while they’re ahead in this town.
IT Chapter Two follows the Loser’s Club, 27 years after being terrorized as children by the demonic clown Pennywise. But the thing is, Pennywise is not really an evil clown, he’s a manifestation of each one’s darkest fear. At the end of the first film, the kids all make a pact that if Pennywise were to ever show up again, they would drop whatever they were doing and return to the sleepy hamlet of Derry, Maine to put an end to the terror once and for all.
This film is more interesting as a study of grief, childhood trauma, and PTSD than it ever is as a straight-up horror movie. I’m reminded of the way I feel watching a Marvel movie – it’s so enjoyable to spend time in the world of these characters and observing each one’s personality and the way they play off each other, but if we do that for too long, people will complain they didn’t get what they paid for. We eventually do get to CGI-heavy horror set pieces full of CGI that doesn’t look very good. Usually, a horror movie has to settle for nuance or action. However, because this film runs two hours and 50 minutes, there’s time for both.
The casting of the adult Loser’s Club is top-notch. Everyone looks like and has the mannerisms of their younger counterparts down, and it’s impossible to forget who’s who. Director Andy Muschietti had an existing professional relationship with Jessica Chastain, who turns out to be the perfect adult Beverly. James McAvoy is also good as Bill. We also have Bill Hader as Richie, who is the standout. He’s doing a comic relief bit at the beginning, but the character evolves into far more than that, which gives Hader a lot to work with.
Those are the only recognizable faces among the adult Losers, and it’s good that casting the most prominent names was not the goal of this project. We have James Ransone as adult Eddie, who bears a striking resemblance to his child counterpart and does a great job with that character’s tics and nervous mannerisms. We also have Jay Ryan as adult Ben and Isaiah Mustafa as adult Mike, and both are doing good work. And, of course, we have the return of Bill Skarsgård, who is finding new and unexpected ways to creep out the viewer instead of just repeating his work from the first movie. I’m convinced his version of Pennywise will prove to be the definitive portrayal.
As a horror movie, this doesn’t really work. Some of the CGI, especially a scene early on in a Chinese restaurant that gets super ridiculous super-fast, doesn’t look great now and most certainly will not hold up well. The film has many big expensive horror movie set pieces it doesn’t need, because again, what’s going on under the surface is far more interesting. Many viewers will complain that the running time of 169 minutes is excessively long for a movie like this. And yes – it is in theory, but once the film reaches its conclusion, you realize that there’s nothing here really that could have been left on the cutting room floor. The narrative is taut, and the story is extremely focused for a three-hour-long horror sequel.
IT Chapter Two will hopefully spark a broader discussion about the ramifications of trauma and how people deal with it. None of the Losers can quite remember what happened in their childhoods that bonded them together for life. The film is also trying to make a statement about intolerance in modern-day middle America, which is commendable until you realize this film takes place in the year 2016, and at the risk of offending any group of people politically, the film just decides not to go there. I can definitely applaud a horror movie with a lot on its mind, never mind a horror sequel. It’s going for a lot and does most of it right.
So, does IT Chapter Two prove that lightning can strike twice? Not entirely, but it mostly sticks the landing. The characters are so sharply written and observed, it almost feels like this would work better as a drama/psychological thriller than the over-the-top horror-movie showdown it inevitably becomes. There is a lot of genuinely creepy imagery and a tense, menacing tone that’s ultimately very effective, even if the end product isn’t all that scary. But, overall, IT Chapter Two is a mostly successful conclusion to the gargantuan 2017 hit film. But please, Hollywood, don’t turn IT into a cinematic universe.