Detrimentally messy but mostly satisfying horror epic completes King’s diptych
Director: Andrés Muschietti
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Bill Skarsgård, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa
The qualitative success of 2017’s It was, by most accounts, a big surprise. Lensed terrifically by Chung-hoon Chung, and under Andrés Muschietti’s steady directing hand, the film’s great success was the terribly likeable central group relationship, with the picture’s horror elements and narrative serving as the backdrop or initiator for this crucial element to flourish. While not explicitly scary, and disappointedly reliant on played-out modern tropes, this constituent was forgivable – there were principally chilling moments, and a strong sense of dread that ran throughout, led by Bill Skarsgård’s reinvention of Pennywise. It was an exciting, quaint, and largely convincing riff on modern horror — one that I really enjoyed. Twenty-seven years have passed in this year’s sequel, with the first film’s characters reuniting to defeat a returned evil in their hometown. The set-up is similar to its predecessor – in short: team up, deal with personal trauma, kill clown. Whatever works, right?
By and large, the film functions respectably. The performances are thoroughly entertaining – Bill Hader and James Ransone as Richie and Eddie (respectively) the standouts – with most of the main actors doing a convincing job of imitating their young counterparts. The first act’s focus on introducing their personal lives and careers as the characters are reestablished is enjoyable: the film portrays an entertaining regrouping, with the performances playing off of solid scriptwork from Gary Dauberman that mirrors the bickering and humour of the first installment’s child actors, working to comfort the audience with the presence of the pivotal chemistry that bolstered Chapter One so strongly. The film is also quite funny, especially in this first act, led by Hader and Ransone’s childlike squabbling and deepened by the juxtaposition between the horror-filled excursion that is surely anticipated by the audience to come later, and the characters’ preliminary ignorance towards what waits; the party joking together as though still young (having initially forgotten most of the events from childhood) adds a dry sense of dread underneath the surface humour that works successfully to cultivate an almost-smug, dour atmosphere. Additionally, the re-use of Henry Bowers’ character was, at first, a successful vessel for creative experimentation. While Teach Grant plays a typical psychopath stereotype (although well enough), Bowers’ guidance from the zombified corpse of an old member of his gang Victor Criss positively brought up memories of An American Werewolf in London, with some uses of this near-gag reflecting Sam Raimi-style horror-comedy; this really worked to convincingly pastiche some of Muschietti’s inspirations, as well as to flesh out the mood and humour of the piece. This first section, all being told, lays a promising basis for the extension of Chapter One’s strongest qualities.
This being said, the film has two major downfalls: its structure and its attitude to character. While the sweeping sense of cosmic theatrics cultivated by Muscietti and co. is generally convincing, the epic melodrama is injured by messy pacing and orchestration, most crucially in a goofy second act. Here, the group splits up to each find an artefact from their past — as such, the critical multi-character bond that runs central to the It duology and that was established so knowingly in the first forty-five minutes is shirked in favour of wall-to-wall, character-specific horror setpieces. This might have been an entertaining riff on formula, and an interesting way to explore each of the group individually if the scares were shocking enough, or if they related to the Loser in question beyond just a tangential, surface-level flashback; unfortunately, in this case, I felt as though I had no reason to invest in these isolated segments without the characterial cornerstone of the central group’s relationship. The flow of structure that was executed so brilliantly in the first installment is also lost come this second act, the episodic mini-gauntlet of scares acting as predictably paced and detrimental to the piece’s sense of movement. While Beverly’s segment is initially genuinely creepy, and Bill’s eventually tense, these foundations are wasted by visually over-blown climaxes that feel like a mess of typical horror stimuli. An overabundance of flashbacks to the child versions of the characters additionally aids this section of the film in avoiding a sense of development by lingering too greatly on a world that the audience has already seen, rehashing thematic beats from film 1. I wanted to spend time with these adult iterations to advance the foundations of Chapter Two’s predecessor, understand motivation, and once again be a part of the Losers’ group dynamic, captured seamlessly in 2017: from my perspective, the middle hour of the film worked against evolving this crucial strength beyond what the first film had already accomplished.
The third act significantly betters the movie’s standing, though, with setpieces that are much more resonant, chilling and entertaining. I felt the stakes here, thanks to time finally spent with the piece’s characters – the tone shifts from plodding to urgent, with narrative devices remaining somewhat predictable but executed effectively (it’s not what a film does but how it does it!) and with a sense of gravity that culminates the first act’s overt feeling of dread with frankness. In addition, locale harkens back to the events of the first film in a motif-rewarding way (especially more so than earlier’s insistence on flashbacks), and a moderate sense of danger is cultured at the hands of efficiently implemented genre tropes as well as once-again solid script-work that lends nicely to the actors’ interchange. A thematically standout ending (loved it) seals the diptych as a meditation on youth and adulthood — one that just happens to feature a Killer Clown. While there are a few things that conclude here at the end of the film that I wasn’t crazy about (one subplot in particular, whose unsatisfying development can again be pinned on the lack of meaningful time spent with the characters as an assemblance), the third act goes some way in atoning for a disappointingly thin middle section and mostly earns the emotional beats that round-out its conclusion (especially Richie’s arc). I like this final chunk a lot.
All being told, It Chapter Two is successful. While the removal of crucial character dynamic in the middlemost sections of the film was frustrating and generally damaging to my enjoyment, the portions next to and around the second act were compelling, and flirted with interesting and resonant ideas. It’s a shame that the picture is as messy as it is – it feels as though the film’s vision is never quite united – with scares that far from land and the focus mainly moving away from what made its foundational first installment so loveable (despite that film’s also-mixed horror elements, and this one’s insistent inclusion of Chapter One’s child actors). Indeed, the time spent with Chapter Two‘s group was simply not substantial enough, and so some of the less successful subplots feel stubbed and under-explored; the film’s best moments (the finale) might suffer for some viewers for this reason. However, the feature culminates well, and the characters remain endearing despite the narrative’s direction – it acts, overall, as a relatively satisfying second part. In some extended moments, it is perhaps something of a missed opportunity, but, considering the ambition and scope of King’s source material, it plays a decent imitation game, and remains a sweet (sometimes bittersweet) ride about friendship and memory. Catch it if you saw the first.