It Chapter 1 overcame my skepticism about Stephen King adaptations to become one of my favorite horror movies of recent memory. I went from dreading the idea of two movies based on a 1000-plus page Stephen King monstrosity to being excited to see which big name stars would be chosen to play the adult versions of these wonderful child characters. With the same creative team involved it seemed like everything was on track for another surprisingly great King adaptation.
I should know better than to get my hopes up regarding Stephen King and the movies. Movies based on Stephen King novels tend to succeed despite the author and the book. The Shining, for instance, is a classic horror movie not because of the brilliance of Stephen King but because Stanley Kubrick is masterful auteur and Jack Nicholson is an iconic performer. Other King adaptations that have attempted to remain true to King’s… unique… vision, have ranged from not bad to unwatchable.
It Chapter 2 falls squarely into the ‘not bad’ category. Not band, but also, not very good. There are some really good things about It Chapter 2. The characters are easy to invest in and Pennywise is a well conceived villain and as played by Bill Skarsgard he resonates as a figure of menace even when he’s not on the screen. Bill Hader plays Richie Tozier and as every other critic on the planet has told you, Hader is terrific, he delivers the best performance in the film, among the protagonists known as The Losers.
It’s 27 years after the action of It Chapter 1. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has never left Derry. Maine. Mike made it his mission to remember everything that happened in the summer of 1989 having discovered that if you leave Derry, such memories slip away. As the unofficial conscience of Derry, Mike has waited for the evil clown Pennywise to return and when he does, Mike will be ready to call the rest of the so-called ‘Loser’s Club’ to carry out their blood oath to kill Pennywise.
At a carnival in Derry a young, handsome, gay couple is lovingly enjoying each other’s company when they are menaced by a group of young thugs. The more outspoken of the couple is beaten severely and then tossed off a bridge into a raging river. As the thugs make their getaway, never to be heard from again in the movie, the young man’s boyfriend runs to the river bank to try to save his lover. On the opposite river bank he spots Pennywise who lifts the injured man from the water and... bad things happen. The living half of this couple is also never heard from in the movie again.
Mike hears of the grisly murder and while an adult victim is not typical of Pennywise, he tends to prey upon children, Mike's curiosity is piqued. The brutality of the murder, as described by careless exposition cop over a police band radio, tips Mike off, this is the return of the evil clown. Mike goes to the scene where a red balloon confirms his fears and he begins to call the Losers back to Derry where they will confront their past, regain their memories, and battle the evil clown once again.
Bill Denbrough (James MacAvoy) has grown out of his childhood stutter and narrow shoulders to become a handsome and henpecked author, screenwriter and husband. When Bill receives a call from Mike Hanlon he jumps at the idea of getting out of Hollywood, away from his demanding actress wife, and demandingly blunt director, Peter Bogdanovich, to head back to his childhood hometown, even as his memory of Derry has deteriorated.
Stanley Uris is a little more reluctant than Bill to jump back into the Derry fray. So reluctant is Stanley in fact that when he receives Mike’s call, he forgoes his vacation with his loving wife to take his own life so as not to have to go back to Derry and battle Pennywise. Richie (Bill Hader), Ben (Jay Ryan) and Beverly (Jessica Chastain) are only slightly more amenable. Richie is eager to see his childhood friends again even though returning to Derry makes him violently ill.
Ben is now a bored, super-rich architect who still pines for Beverly so of course he’s in. As for Beverly, she uses the trip to Derry as a good excuse to abandon her abusive husband. What about Eddie (James Ransone) you’re wondering? Honestly, I forgot about him. Eddie’s ‘arc’ in It Chapter is so forgettable that, well, I forgot to include him as I was setting the table in this plot description that has gone on far too long, not unlike the movie It Chapter 2 which also goes on far too long.
It Chapter 2 is an unnecessary 2 hours and 50 minutes long. The film is fat with scenes that could be cut from the movie to create a pace and story more amenable to the kind of pulse quickening, chest tightening horror that the movie is intended to inspire. The opening of the movie is a good example. I described the scene of the couple that is attacked and one of them is murdered by Pennywise, this scene does not need to exist.
None of the characters in this opening have any bearing on the rest of the story. I guess you could argue that what happens to them informs a part of another character’s arc but It’s a long way to go for a point that could be made any number of more efficient ways. The opening scene becomes doubly inessential when the movie includes the murder of a small child that serves the exact same purpose of underlining and highlighting the return of Pennywise.
The deathly inessential length of It Chapter 2 isn’t the film’s only problem. The performance of James McAvoy is a surprising and unexpected issue for the movie. From the moment he opens his mouth in It Chapter 2, something is off about McAvoy. The attempt that he is making at an American accent is one thing but the main issue appears to be an attempt on his part to evoke Jordan Lieberher’s characterization of young Bill. It’s genuinely cringe-inducing listening to McAvoy struggle to add an authentic stutter and slightly higher register to his voice and the strain is evident in his stilted performance.
Then there are issues with the special effects in It Chapter 2. A scene in the trailer for It Chapter 2 featuring Jessica Chastain’s Beverly being menaced by an elderly woman, plays, in the trailer, as terrifying and filled with creepy suspense. In the film, that same scene ends with an unintended laugh as the old woman morphs into a comically terrible special effect reminiscent of a low budget 80’s horror movie or the limits of special effects in the 80's as seen in, say, Ghostbusters, impressive in the 80's, silly looking in a modern movie.
Later, in a scene dedicated to how incredibly bland the Eddie character is, even when he’s being menaced by Pennywise’s terrors, we get another comically bad effect of a CGI zombie-leper character. I believe this monster was also featured in It Chapter 1 and I recall that visual being more effective than what we get here but I don’t recall completely. Anything featuring Eddie tended to leave my mind almost as soon as it arrived.
Eddie features prominently in yet another unnecessary bit of padding in It Chapter 2. Fans of the first movie recall the character of the bully, Henry Bowers. Henry is back here in a completely
inconsequential fashion. Forget the book, if you can, and consider Henry Bowers. His arc really finished when he was defeated in Chapter 1. Bringing him back for Chapter 2 is a choice that is made only as a sop to fans of the book. Bowers does not matter in this story at all as far as far as the narrative of the movie is concerned. The movie plays out exactly the same whether he has a subplot or not.
The fealty to the lengthy Stephen King novel appears to be a burden here that wasn’t part of It Chapter 1. That film relied heavily on the performance of Bill Sarsgard and the uniquely creepy images he helped create as Pennywise. Sarsgard is a wonder in the role. His vocal performance alone induces nightmares but it was his odd physicality that stood out in It Chapter 1 and is slightly lacking in Chapter 2. Pennywise is sidelined far too often in It Chapter 2 in favor of characters like Bowers or old lady CGI or Eddie’s leper-zombie thing. Sarsgard remains brilliant and effective but the movie could have used more of him.
I don’t hate It Chapter 2. The movie does have moments of genuinely chest tightening, heart jumping suspense. Unfortunately, the bad of It Chapter 2 outweighs the good. It Chapter 2 is overlong, overwrought and far too precious about mythology from a book that really should not matter in the making of the movie. The book is an inspiration, a jumping off point, but films and movies are different, they serve different masters and remaining faithful to what works on the page comes at the detriment to what works on the screen as demonstrated in It Chapter 2 and its many failings.