Released: 5th September
Seen: 4th September (Advance Screening)
In 2017, the film It came out in cinemas to wide praise. It was shocking, horrifying, a terrific adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most beloved novels. It was proof that this story could be done better than it had been with the 90s miniseries and it was one of the most terrifying films in recent memory. I loved that film so much that I put it at number five on my best-of list for 2017 and I sometimes wonder if maybe it should’ve been higher because it was just that great. The first film did one thing perfectly, it simply told the story of the main characters from when they were children and left the adult stuff for the sequel. It allowed the film to feel complete and gave it a fantastic tone, making it a story of childhood fears and the pain of adolescence. This movie had the impossible task of not only matching that terrifying tone but elevating it while also introducing the adult versions of the main cast. It had to carry on the story of the Losers’ Club and show us just how much more terrifying Pennywise the clown could be with the child safety taken off him… there’s a reason this sounds like an impossible task and it’s not one that this film managed to completely achieve, though it did do some pretty great things.
It: Chapter 2 picks up 27 years after the last movie, with the members of the Losers’ Club grown up and mostly living away from Derry. They’re generally happy living a clown-free life when strange murders start happening in Derry again and Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who has stayed in Derry waiting for this moment, calls everyone to get them to come back to a town they forgot growing up in so they can battle a clown they can’t remember. With the reformation of the Losers’ Club, they must work together to remember what happened in the summer of 1989 that made them friends in the first place. If they can do that, they can use that friendship to take down the demon clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) who has just one plan… kill them all, either with his teeth or kill them softly with his song, whichever works best.
While the first film in this series was focussed as hell, this film feels a little looser in a way that lets the tension seep out. The film deals a lot with memories, in particular, the idea of suppressing memories of past abuse and harm. This theme means that we get to spend a long time with characters basically having to run through the events of the last film, but then show us extra stuff we didn’t see. As an example, we remember seeing Eddie going into a pharmacy to get his medication but they then show us that after that he ended up going into secret room where Pennywise would torment him with the image of his mother being attacked by a zombie-like creature. This stuff happens a lot and that’s where It: Chapter 2 hits its first major snag. The bouncing around in time kind of makes this version feel more like the miniseries than a sequel to the first movie. I understand the need for flashbacks, especially since this film has to do a lot of filling in since a big portion of the plot revolves around what the main cast of characters have been doing in the period since the big fight in the original movie when they weren’t together. The problem is that means a large amount of the story involves our main characters looking off into the middle distance, letting the younger ones do the actual advancing of the plot, then cut back to the adults for a jump scare and some gross-out. This works on occasion, other times it just feels like there would have been a better way to do this but it was easier to do a flashback.
Speaking of “There was a better way to do this”, the film opens with a ‘Bury your gays’ moment that drove me up the wall. Look, the original novel had a few moments that rightfully got cut in adaptation (do you remember the first film’s teenage orgy scene? No, no you don’t, because the filmmakers understood that you can’t put that in a goddamn movie so they worked around it) and I’m not saying that the gay-bashing had to be cut, but it would’ve been lovely if it was used as something other than a jumping-off point for the main storyline which is never referenced again. Hell, in this opening scene there are two characters who get gay-bashed and only one of them is killed by Pennywise, so maybe the other gay character could’ve turned up later in the movie to give some information, maybe the people who killed them could’ve also been eaten by the clown, or maybe they could’ve taken the subtext about Richie (Bill Hader) and made it actual text. I say this because they play with Richie potentially being closeted a lot but never actually address it, even at the end when it could’ve been a nice moment to show the loss of his fear. Yes, I’m aware this is probably something that only bothers me and the LGBTQI+ community in general, but it’s still there and it’s pointless and I’m just generally tired of gay characters existing either to be killed for the narratives of straight characters AND gay characters only being gay in the subtext. Part of the problem is that this portion of the book was set in the 80s when it made sense that a gay character could be killed for no reason and another character would remain closeted out of fear but this adaptation changes dates. This section of the film takes place in 2016 so they could’ve updated it appropriately but they really dropped the ball on that one.
And while I’m on my box full of soap about things that only bug some people, strobe lights can go screw themselves… preferably screw themselves into the light socket so they don’t flicker as much. Now, this is nowhere near as bad as some previous films have been, this isn’t Incredibles 2 level of strobes which made me feel physically ill for the rest of the day (no I will never let that go, allow me to hold onto my petty vendetta!). This is an adult-oriented horror film where the phrase “Deadlights” is a key element to the lore, I get that there will be flickering lights at some point in this movie. That doesn’t change the fact that they were still there, still made my eyes hurt, still potentially seizure-inducing and still a pointless effect that I’m going to complain about every single time it pops up because I feel like it, especially when they don’t put any warnings in the promo materials or in the cinemas. Seriously, how hard is it to put “Contains strobe lights” in the same ratings box that warned me about the puppet sex in Team America?
Now, even with the myriad of problems, It: Chapter 2 still has a plenty of great things going for it. I was always impressed with how perfect the child cast was for the first film and was so worried that they weren’t going to be able to match it with the sequel but they did it spectacularly. Bill Hader is the easy standout, delivering the comedic and emotional highlights of the movie. Jessica Chastain manages to show Beverly slowly growing from the victimised teen we remember into a strong woman who is ready and more than willing to kick some ass. James McAvoy does great work as Bill, who has kind of turned into a Stephen King analogue (who they can use to make several jokes about how King’s endings tend to suck). James Ransone as Eddie is a delight, showing a serious amount of growth as a person and delivering some of the best lines of the film. Isaiah Mustafa is… well, his character Mike is actually horribly underwritten, to the point where he’s basically just there to explain how magic works and with his actual growth moments happening off-screen, but Isaiah still manages to get a lot of good out of the role. Lastly, Jay Ryan is pretty because Ben’s entire character has always been “Fat kid who got hot when he grew up” and we have no need to grow on that. Again, they’re all great, but some of them got short-changed with the writing, like their kid versions did in the original (tell me one scene with Mike from the original film that mattered… see, can’t do it can you?)
Huge praise to Bill Skarsgard who once again proves why his version of Pennywise is the best version. He doesn’t get as many scenes this time, and maybe only three of them where it’s actually Bill on camera instead of a CGI recreation of him, but when he’s on-screen it’s something special. The scene with the firefly, in particular, is a masterpiece of letting Bill be as creepy as hell while doing something that borders on being innocent. I genuinely wish they had given him more moments with the main cast though I suspect that they didn’t put him with them because, height-wise, it’s not as intimidating to see a clown that’s the same size as all the other adults. Still, I genuinely loved every bit of Bill’s performance and hope that someone is working on getting him to play a villain again because he is insanely good at it.
Where this film really succeeds is when it does a jump scare. While the tension isn’t anywhere near as tight and perfectly controlled as the original. In fact, several moments of ‘tension building’ resulted in the audience at my screening breaking out into loud laughter, but when they want to throw some horrific imagery on screen to mess with the audience then they will put the most shocking stuff they can think of. You might laugh on the way to the scare, but once that scare comes it makes up for the lack of good build-up. There were several moments when they threw out the scare at the exact right second to have the audience letting out collective screams and some of the most disturbing imagery that they can muster. There are a lot of really good practical effects that work in this, and some CGI stuff that’s not too bad. I will admit I enjoyed their little reference to The Thing (you’ll know it the second you see it) but their CGI is no match for the old-style practical effects. Still, when this film wants to make you jump it’s going to make damn sure it makes you jump and it doesn’t skimp on the visceral horror.
I know this review is a lot longer than normal, but that reflects the film itself. Longer than it probably needs to be, a mixed bag of issues and probably could use another few goes at the script. This film is definitely a lesser product than the first one, losing a considerable chunk of what made that first film so special and never seeming to properly get its footing. It makes up for those missteps by having a terrific cast who manage to make you push through the harder parts and make you want to see them defeat the evil clown and send it to the pits of hell. It’s certainly not a bad movie, it’s really quite good, but it’s also flawed in a way that the first film just wasn’t. It’s a fun ride, you’ll still jump on board and have a good time and scream and all that… but the first one was special, and this is just good which feels like a considerable drop. Enough of a drop that, come end of year, I doubt this will be on many people’s minds.