Before I get into grading It: Chapter Two, I’ll admit to being a bit baffled by the runaway success (commercially, but also critically) of its predecessor. At this point, 2017’s It (not to be confused with the 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel) has become the highest-grossing horror film of all time, which might lead you to believe director Andy Muschietti’s film is on the same tier as the genre greats we celebrate this time of year. There are several reasons I can think of for Chapter One’s acclaim — the admittedly freaky killer clown imagery, our undying nostalgia for the ’80s, justifiable love for King’s body of work, some genuinely winning performances by the film’s young actors — but structurally, the thing is a complete mess.
In attempting to cleave King’s time-hopping 1,138-page best-seller into two temporally distinct halves, screenwriter Gary Dauberman (the man behind the Conjuring-universe films, as well as the truly abysmal and forgotten Wolves at the Door) effectively strips the entire story of the Losers’ Club — a group of preteen misfits from the small town of Derry, Maine — of most of its resonance. The first film in particular, which follows the kids as they seek to destroy the ancient evil that has taken on the form of Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), felt constrained by the straightforward linear storytelling approach. In Chapter Two, we mostly follow the grown-up versions of the Losers as they’re summoned back to Derry 27 years after the events of Chapter One, but plentiful flashbacks to those earlier years do help pull the new film’s plot together.
Why does it take nearly three hours to defeat Pennywise this time around? Well, it’s mostly because the film dedicates so much of its running time to visually elaborate but narratively unnecessary sequences in which each Loser is separately haunted by their old clown friend as they revisit their old stomping grounds — aside from the sole black character, Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who is more or less sidelined for the duration. It’s enough to make you wish King had written fewer Losers into his book, as these long scare scenes become incredibly repetitive. The filmmakers have also picked up the weak romantic subplot(s) from Chapter One here, weirdly placing the adult Beverly (Jessica Chastain) into an odd and underdeveloped triangle with Bill (James McAvoy), now a horror writer who can’t write a good ending to save his life (get it?), and Ben (Jay Ryan), the formerly pudgy new kid who has turned into a generically hot architect with abs since his friends last saw him.
Not that the structure and pacing are the film’s only problems. Dauberman and Muschietti’s decision to kick off their summer popcorn movie with a brutal gay-bashing scene — one that exploits a real-life tragedy, no less — that the camera can’t seem to cut away from feels indefensible. This staggering act of violence carried out by a group of cruel teenagers is never really reckoned with; instead, it’s made into a gruesome and almost cartoonish reintroduction to Pennywise, who is waiting beneath the bridge to finish off the job. It also diminishes the nice work the filmmakers do of tentatively exploring the relationship between Eddie (James Ransone) and Richie (Bill Hader), something that was hinted at in King’s book but never mentioned in Chapter One. (I will say that I continue to be amazed by Hader’s work — he continues to turn in very good performances in very bad films.)
If anything, the film serves as a compelling reminder to get to therapy ASAP and work through that early childhood trauma. If not, you just might wake up 27 years later living through the same old tedious nightmare (pining after your old middle school crushes — the absolute horror), doomed to spend the rest of eternity being frightened pestered by one seriously toothy circus reject.