We are in a new age of Stephen King adaptations, with dozens of novels and stories from the legendary author being developed for the screen as either movies, limited series or ongoing TV shows. One of the best to come out of the gate so far was director/co-writer Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of King’s mammoth It — or rather, half of King’s 1,100-page doorstop. The book deals with a group of misfit friends who confront an ancient, evil creature in the town of Derry, Maine, both as 12-year-old children and then, 27 years later, as adults, with King’s book relating the two stories parallel to each other.
Like the first half of the well-regarded two-part 1990 TV miniseries, the movie focused exclusively on the so-called Losers’ Club as kids, instead of flashing back and forth in time like King’s narrative. The result was not just an atmospheric and eerie horror movie, but a wonderful coming-of-age story, as a fantastic cast of teen actors brought all the heart, empathy, humor of King’s characters together with a genuine sense of adolescence on the cusp of adulthood — with Pennywise representing the end of innocence.
It Chapter One (which we’ll call Chapter One from this point on) was not just a magnificent King adaptation, but one of the best horror movies of that year. Which is why it pains me to report that It Chapter Two, in which the Losers’ Club return to Derry as adults to confront the malevolent monster one more time, is a disappointment on several levels. There are a number of individually effective sequences, and the movie is (mostly) well-acted by its new team of adult Losers, but even as Muschietti and co-writer Gary Dauberman aim for the kind of ambitious, “epic” horror that the first movie succeeded at, they get caught in a trap that may not be of their own making.
The source storyline remains, at its core, simple and direct: 27 years after the Losers badly injured It and sent the weakened entity prematurely to sleep, the thing awakens and begins feeding off the fear it generates from killing, with children almost always the victims (although the movie opens with a faithful but still-timely hate crime against an adult). The one Loser who remained in town, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) — now Derry’s librarian and unofficial historian — is the only one who remembers what their little band of friends did all those years ago. But a promise was made back then, and he contacts the other six members of the club to ask that they fulfill that promise — to come home and destroy It once and for all.
When we meet the Losers as adults, all have achieved a certain amount of success in their lives: Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), whose little brother Georgie was one of It’s first victims 27 years earlier, is now a best-selling horror novelist and screenwriter; Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is a successful architect; Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a renowned fashion designer; Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a famous radio personality and comic. Meanwhile, Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk assessor, and Stan Uris (Andy Bean) is a partner in a large accounting firm.
The Losers are scattered across the country, and when they each get the call from Mike, they react in different ways. The one thing they have in common is that none of them quite remember what happened 27 years earlier, although all but Stan promise to return to Derry immediately. Beverly has to escape from her abusive husband Tom Rogan (Will Beinbrink), while Bill leaves behind his troubled marriage to Audra (Jess Weixler). Stan, who lives perhaps the quietest life of them all, takes a more drastic and horrifying step rather than come back.
When the six remaining Losers first assemble back in Derry — in a famous dinner scene at the Jade Of The Orient restaurant — their memories begin to slowly come back, and this is where It Chapter Two also turns into a far less effective movie than its predecessor.
Unlike Chapter One, which spent time with the Losers as kids and gave the audience a chance to fully get to know and embrace them, Chapter Two doesn’t invest nearly as much effort in letting us know who they are as adults. Surprisingly, the new movie diverts a hell of a lot of time and energy into new scenes with the Losers as kids (all the young actors return), as the adults flash back to previously unseen confrontations with Pennywise (once again portrayed by Bill Skarsgard with cackling, corrupted glee). But these unearthed memories do little to move the plot forward and feel more like outtakes from the first movie than genuine new developments.
The flashbacks then set up new meetings with Pennywise — or other manifestations of It — for the adults, with the whole enterprise soon taking on a sensation of rinse-repeat-rinse-repeat. These interlocking sequences, one after the other, do little to drive the story and form the long middle section of a film that sadly feels every second of its 160-minute running time. It takes a while to get to the extended climax, which involves a revamped version of King’s Ritual of Chud that is less metaphysical than the final battle portrayed in the book.
Even more disconcerting is that several of the scenes involving Pennywise are so blatantly telegraphed and staged that at the screening I attended, they elicited more chuckles than anything else. While both films deploy humor (this one perhaps a little more than necessary), scenes involving the hideous Dancing Clown are probably not where the filmmakers intended it to surface.
Despite these problems, both casts — young and adult — are still almost uniformly likable and watchable. The standout is Bill Hader as Richie, who channels the younger version’s tendency to mask his fears and vulnerabilities with an endless string of quips and jokes. Hader — who’s having a banner stretch right now with this and his acclaimed HBO series Barry — subtly brings out the real pain behind Richie’s sarcastic demeanor and the true poignancy in the secret he still hides. This is Oscar-level work.
Chastain is dependable as Beverly, although one wishes that the parallels between her abuse at the hands of her father and at the hands of her husband were given a little more development. One mistake the film makes is excising both Bev’s vicious husband Tom and Bill’s wife Audra — who also end up in Derry in the book — while playing up the return of one-time school bully Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) only to have his storyline peter out rather pointlessly. Instead of Bill fighting to rescue Audra, the film rehashes his guilt over the death of Georgie — an arc that was resolved satisfactorily in the first film.
The adult actors and their younger counterparts all sync up pretty nicely, with the possible exception of Jay Ryan’s Ben, who is just too far removed from his younger self (Jeremy Ray Taylor) to connect the two. As for Skarsgard, he vanishes into the role of Pennywise as thoroughly as he did the first time, but we’ve seen so much of him by this point that he’s not quite as dread-inducing this time out.
Checco Varese takes over for Chung-hoon Chung behind the camera, but manages with Muschietti to create a seamless look for both films, capturing the seemingly bucolic small-town milieu of Derry and the festering rot that waits in its forgotten corners and under its streets. Benjamin Wallfisch returns to compose the music for Chapter Two, unfortunately overscoring this one even more than he did Chapter One (one of the first film’s few missteps). Some of It’s new manifestations are quite well-conceived, although a few shout-outs to both other King stories and even other horror classics are more distracting than amusing (a surprise cameo, however, was fun to watch).
Even while running through the ways in which It Chapter Two proves to be a letdown, I can’t help but give credit to Muschietti, Dauberman, and everyone involved in the movie. The trap I mentioned earlier may have been the decision by Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema to wait and see how Chapter One performed at the box office before greenlighting Chapter Two; had the two halves of the story been shot at the same time or back-to-back, the filmmakers might have been able to get a better perspective on how to structure them the most effectively.
Still, I always admire artists who take big swings, and the combined It represents the kind of ambitious storytelling and moviemaking that I would like to see more of in the horror genre, especially if based on the high quality literature that has been published in the field for decades (and which is going through its own sort of revival right now). It’s a genuine shame that It Chapter Two doesn’t quite connect in the same way Chapter One did, but perhaps half a masterpiece is better than none at all.
It Chapter Two is out in theaters this Friday (September 6).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye