IT: Chapter Two
Pennywise is back — and the unhinged clown is the best thing about this bloated horror sequel.
It's possible to have too much of a good thing. An average thing as well. While Stephen King's horror maestro status is both undoubted and unparalleled, his books have frequently tested this idea, especially his 1138-page 1986 tome IT. A huge hit upon publication, the bestseller is the nerve-rattling cause of many clown phobias over the past three decades — but it's also as bloated as the bulging red balloons favoured by its flame-haired, make-up-clad antagonist. Bringing the novel's second timeline to the screen, IT: Chapter Two follows in its source material's meandering footsteps. Arriving hot on the heels of 2017's huge box office smash IT, yet proving painfully over-extended in its running time, this spooky sequel tasks audiences with pondering the same question as its characters: what if it never ends?
Twenty-seven years after their first traumatic run-in with the malevolent evil that's known as IT, but usually takes the form of unhinged clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), the Losers Club are all grown up and back home. Sparked into action by the obsessed Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who hasn't left the small Maine town of Derry since the gang's scary childhood encounters, Bill (James McAvoy), Richie (Bill Hader), Beverley (Jessica Chastain), Eddie (James Ransone) and Ben (Jay Ryan) return to vanquish the otherworldly monster once and for all. Although their memories are initially foggy, and getting everyone on board takes some convincing, the group has ample motivation. If they fail, IT will wreak havoc yet again in 27 more years. Given that their own lives were forever changed by the spine-chilling figure — and given that IT is doing a great job of creeping out and killing new kids this time around — that's a fate that no one wants.
When Mama director Andy Muschietti first brought IT back to the screen two years ago, he traded upon nostalgia, jumped on a trend and knew that, when all else fails, unsettling imagery works a charm. Popular culture's Stranger Things-inspired love of retro thrills hasn't subsided since, and nor has its fascination with King's oeuvre. If anything, they've both increased in the wake of the first flick's blockbuster success. Still, IT: Chapter Two feels like a case of stretching a concept to breaking point. It never escapes attention that Pennywise can evolve into a host of different shapes, each more unnerving than the last, however the film he's in doesn't dare contemplate anything similar. Instead, the movie is eager to prolong its formula for as long as possible. When that's not enough, it indulgently nods to everything from The Shining to The Thing, and even opts for the ultimate in fan service by giving King himself some screen-time.
Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home) may have a hefty amount of text to sort through, but there's not actually that much to IT: Chapter Two's story. The Losers Club heads home, trudges through difficult memories and confronts IT, as well as the impact it's had on their adult lives, working their way through a series of escalating funhouse-style set-pieces in the process. Indeed, the film's elongated mid-section encapsulates its troubles perfectly. Spending time with each of the gang as they scour Derry for tokens from their youth, the movie switches between the teen and current versions of every character, lets them each encounter Pennywise and sorts through their respective demons — and, while each vignette has more than a few standout moments, the cycle quickly becomes repetitive. The approach also sucks much of the tension out of the picture. Audiences have seen the first film, are aware that 1989's Bill (Jaeden Martell), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Beverley (Sophia Lillis) and company survive until the events of this movie, and know that a big group showdown pitting the 2017 gang against their nemesis is inevitable. As a result, as visually effective as these blasts from the past prove, they're the narrative equivalent of treading water.
IT circa 2017 was always at its strongest when it was inciting coulrophobia, as aided by Skarsgård's exceptionally demented performance, plus a clown car full of well-crafted special effects. For all the added star power that IT: Chapter Two boasts, the same remains true here. Individual images lodge themselves in the mind — Pennywise' deranged grin, fortune cookies morphing into attacking critters and a mirror maze altercation that's as disturbed as the one featured in Us earlier this year — more than anything else in the movie. Indeed, despite the big names joining the cast, this isn't an actor or character-driven picture. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby co-stars McAvoy and Chastain aren't given much room to unleash their talents, though they fare better than their last dismal pairing in X-Men: Dark Phoenix. In Ransome, Mustafa and Neighbours alumni Ryan's case, they're all tasked with sticking to a single type (neurotic, paranoid and, with the latter, sensitive and unexpectedly attractive). And while the ever-likeable Hader fares best, it's primarily because Richie is now a stand-up comic, so the actor is firmly in familiar territory.
Even when IT: Chapter Two overtly attempts to address its struggles and pre-empt any criticism, it can't convincingly hit the mark. Being stuck reliving history sits at the very core of the movie, yet the notion is undermined by Muschietti's willingness to let his adult actors largely ape their teen counterparts, rather than add flesh to their shared protagonists. With Bill specifically, the character is now a King surrogate who has a problem with endings, which'd be a solid joke if the film didn't tussle with wrapping things up just like the prolific author does. That misstep also points to something rather terrifying: in today's sequel and franchise-friendly world, this horror saga probably won't end here, even though it has expended its source material. Nightmares recur, of course, but they're rarely as routine as IT: Chapter Two whenever its unbalanced boogeyman is out of sight.