When Andy Muschietti’s It hit theaters two years ago, whispers of a horror resurgence were growing into a shout. Get Out was preparing for an Oscar run, indie gems like Raw and It Comes At Night were pushing themselves into best-of-the-year lists and It was positioning itself as the first film outside of the Conjuring universe to become a major new horror blockbuster. But it wasn’t just the sizable budget that made It so attractive to audiences; what made Muschietti’s adaptation so refreshing was how it brought Stephen King’s novel to life through the conventions of a shifting genre without sacrificing the themes that made it a mainstay on bookshelves around the world. Muschietti understood what King always has: what sends shivers down the spines of horror fans isn’t just well-crafted scares. It’s putting a face to the anxieties that have permeated our minds since the days of youth, turning our fear of isolation and irrelevance into a tangible, terrifying creation.
A lot has changed in those two years, and few films reflect that more than Muschietti’s gargantuan sequel It: Chapter Two. Movies have continued to grow in scope to the point that it seems studios can’t resist defining every blockbuster release as the cinematic event of the year, and the Loser’s Club’s return to Derry is no exception. Outside of the uncannily well-cast group of adult actors, there’s little resemblance to its much better predecessor. It appears the first It’s status as the highest-grossing horror film of all time has pushed Warner Bros. and Muschietti to make Chapter Two as a big and as loud as possible, producing a fitfully entertaining but overstuffed sequel that trades in the heart and humor of the first chapter for nearly three hours of impressive but relatively meaningless CGI set-pieces.
Picking up 27 years after the first film, Chapter Two is largely faithful to the back half of King’s novel, following the grown-up versions of the Losers Club as they once again battle It, aka Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), a celestial, shape-shifting being that feeds on children. The selling point of the film is in the casting of the adult Losers, who resemble their teen counterparts to an almost creepy degree: James McAvoy leads the crew as the stuttering Bill, Jessica Chastain is an under-defined Bev, Bill Hader plays an embittered but still wisecracking Richie, James Ransone is a twitchy-as-ever Eddie, Jay Ryan is a handsome but still sweet Ben, and Isaiah Mustafa is the tortured Mike that brings the group back together. The ensemble is a feat that will send the small but vocal community begging for an Oscar for Best Casting into a fervor, but the marvel is wasted by a film more interested in running these actors through visuals effects extravaganzas than scenes that show off their formidable skills as performers.
Chapter Two is by no means an outright bad film, but it’s easy to pinpoint all the ways it’s been prevented from reaching the heights of the first. It seems It’s mammoth success has rendered Muschietti incapable of killing his darlings; this thing is overloaded to the point of near collapse. From countless flashbacks (CGI zombie child actors included) to deep dives into the lore of the titular monster’s origins, it’s clear that Muschietti feels free to do whatever he pleases in the sequel. He messily inserts the stranger elements of the novel he was clearly instructed to scrap from the first chapter, resulting in an exposition-heavy film that does a disservice to the character work that made the previous film so charming. It’s admittedly exciting to see a horror film allowed to get this grand in scale without erasing its riskier, weirder elements, but the execution is so poorly edited and paced that it often distracts you from the film’s strengths.
Chapter Two is much messier than the first film, but some of Muschietti’s strengths as a director do carry over into the sequel. While the film perhaps relies on them too heavily, the set pieces of Chapter Two do admittedly look and feel fantastic, one-upping the already solid scares of the original with a budget that seems well worth the cost. Little of the movie is all that frightening, but the action found within Pennywise’s various attempts to murder the Losers are amusement park-like thrills that rival the effectiveness of other modern tentpole films. The cast also shines, with Hader, Ransone, and Skarsgård, in particular, giving showstopping performances. Hader’s Richie has the most fully realized arc of the film, and it’s largely because Hader turns Finn Wolfhard’s smart-mouth jokester into a still quipping heartbroken loner. Ransone matches Hader’s comedic energy at every turn, and two combine to form a relationship that ultimately serves as the beating heart of the film. The only cast member who rivals them is Skarsgård, who continues to solidify his take on Pennywise as one of the most memorable villains in horror history with a wickedly manipulative performance.
It: Chapter Two is essentially junk food for horror enthusiasts and Stephen King fans, providing a tasty momentary treat that sours under any sort of scrutiny. It’s a fun and a messy film that ignores the stripped-down, character-first approach that made its predecessor such a runaway success. More fascinating than the film itself is its destiny as a footnote in the ever-evolving identity of the horror genre, which is now enjoying the possibility of large-scale works that are currently dominating the cinematic landscape. If Muschietti’s sequel is an indicator of what’s to come, we could be in for some thrills the likes of which the genre has never seen. Let’s just hope its heart and soul isn’t banished to the margins in the process.
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