IT CHAPTER TWO. Bill Skarsgård, James McAvoy, Jay Ryan, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Andy Bean. Directed by Andy Muschietti. 169 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong horror themes, bloody violence and coarse language).
“If It ever comes back, we’ll come back too.” These fateful words, uttered by a group of pre-teen children making a blood oath after defeating a shape-shifting, inter-dimensional monster, drive ‘Chapter Two’. Because, of course, 27 years later, the titular terror does come back, as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) resumes his murderous reign of terror over the residents of Derry County, Maine. After the astonishing success of the first film (now the highest-grossing horror film of all time), director Andy Muschietti was evidently given free rein in adapting ‘Chapter Two’ from Steven King’s novel and it shows. This film manages to improve on its predecessor with a weightier, more entertaining narrative and an even better cast, though still suffers from the same shortcomings, namely a highly episodic structure and frustrating excess of unappealing CGI. Irrespectively, ‘It Chapter Two’ is a rare breed of Hollywood film: a properly scary and epic, almost operatic, big-budget movie made for mature audiences. This alone makes it worth celebrating and I can guarantee that doing so with a packed audience of horror fans will be nothing short of a blast.
In the years following their defeat of Pennywise, most of our heroes, affectionately self-christened the Losers Club, moved away from their small town, forgetting the horrific events that first forged their friendships. Only Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, convincing) stayed behind, becoming the town librarian to better study the origins of and cyclical terror inflicted by their otherworldly nemesis. When a dismembered body is found next to the local river and more children are soon missing, Mike calls the Losers Club back together to finish what they started almost three decades ago. Plucked from their vastly different grownup lives, returning to Derry starts to jog the Losers’ memories and the daunting task that they must face soon threatens to overwhelm them.
However, any notions of fleeing in the name of self-preservation are quickly disabused by Beverly (Jessica Chastain), who relays her visions of the Losers’ eventual deaths, driven to suicide by the buried trauma of facing Pennywise. It’s a curious twist to have their quest motivated by survival rather than more noble ideals like duty or revenge, but it admittedly works here given the evil that they will challenge. From his years of research, Mike has zeroed in on how to finally defeat It: a Native American ceremony called the Ritual of Chüd. To take part in this “battle of the wills”, each of the Losers must confront their childhood fears to retrieve a token to unlock the ritual.
This portion of the film, which consumes around an hour of its substantial runtime, splits our heroes apart, sending them off on separate adventures that intercut the present with flashbacks starring their young counterparts. Bill (James McAvoy, solid despite tackling a fairly blank character, and Jaeden Martell) grapples with his guilt over the death of his younger brother Georgie, deciding to protect a local kid (Luke Roessler) to make amends for his past failure. Beverly (the effortlessly compelling duo Jessica Chastain and Sophia Lillis) visits her childhood home to face the abuse wreaked upon her by her father. Richie (a scene-stealing Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard), now a renowned stand-up comedian, must come to terms with a secret that he harbours while facing off against a mythical American figure, Paul Bunyan, brought to life by Pennywise. Ben (Jay Ryan and Jeremy Ray Taylor) heads back to school to find his token, while Eddie (James Ransone and Jack Dylan Grazer, both very funny) tracks his down to his old stomping ground, the local pharmacy.
While it includes a handful of solid scares, this act is frustratingly episodic, following each Loser’s side quest to completion before moving to the next. Each episode is also structurally similar, blending Pennywise’s shape-shifting frights from 1989 and 2016, leading to a sense of predictability and thus diminishing returns by the third time that such a sequence begins (let alone the fifth time). These sequences also highlight the film’s other major shortcoming: its overreliance on ugly, slimy CGI. Whatever manifestation of their worst fears the Losers are facing, they never look particularly convincing, and Muschietti pushes most of the effects a few steps too far, melting creepy monster faces a little too much, playing with scale and proportion a little too loosely. It doesn’t help that Skarsgård’s strange, simpering Pennywise rarely feels like he’s sharing a space with the other actors, instead being added in to the scene in post or digitally augmented until he’s no longer recognisably there.
Despite these flaws, ‘It Chapter Two’ doesn’t lose points for its near-three-hour runtime. Muschietti and Co. never let the movie lag. With his constantly moving camera and fast-paced cutting, the Argentine director steers his audience towards the epic finale with wild conviction. He plays his viewers confidently, if a little clumsily, creating some great, tension-filled sequences that invoke groans, gasps and titters from the audience in equal measure (Beverly’s homecoming and interaction with the old woman that now resides in the apartment, a scene that featured heavily in early marketing materials, stands out as one such moment). Knowing how well ‘Chapter One’ did, everyone involved could have played it safe and still watched the box office dollars pile up. It’s pleasing to note that they didn’t, instead using this success to allow them to lean further into the madness of Steven King’s literary creation. Not everything works, but enough works for you to care about the characters (admitted some more than others) and invest in their big showdown. That much, at least, would make the Losers proud.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 5.