IT: Chapter II has danced into theaters, with the weight of the phenomenal IT: Chapter I, Stephen King fandom, and an outpouring of thinkpieces about the book all hung about its frilled grease-painted neck.
So, does it work?
I have seen the film, all two hours and 49 minutes of it, and I’m happy to report that my answer is a resounding: Sometimes?
Where to begin? The second part of the film is bumpy, with some extraordinary scenes of horror and a beautiful celebration of friendship. IT also tips into sap at certain points. Some of the characterization is clumsy, and some of the acting is stiff—particularly in the early scenes. There are scenes of graphic murder, domestic abuse, children being menaced by clowns, and, oh yeah, a hate crime. But then there are set pieces (a couple of them are teased in the film’s trailers) that are just such beautiful examples of the horror genre. There are hilarious winks to Stephen King’s oeuvre. There are fun updates to the Losers that fans of the book will love, but I definitely think that anyone who is simply a fan of the first film will enjoy this sequel without needing to binge 1,000 pages this weekend. And really what I’m coming away with is that this is a weird moment for me, because Richie Trashmouth Tozier has been one of my favorite characters for most of my life. And now he’s going to be everyone’s favorite character. He, and his actor Bill Hader, are going to be what everyone’s talking about all weekend. And I don’t know how I feel about that?
For those of you who need a reminder: the town of Derry, Maine is plagued by a terrifying monster, who most often takes the form of a maniacal clown named Pennywise. A general miasma of depression and violence hangs over the town, and adults seem to just kind of look away as kids disappear. 27 years after the events of the first film, a group of ridiculously successful adults are called back home to try to defeat Pennywise, and gradually remember that before they escaped their hometown, they were the sad and abused group of friends known as the Losers Club.
Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), whose brother Georgie was one of Pennywise’s victims, is now a successful novelist; Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer; Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is not just an architect, he’s a hot architect, and looks like if he gets tired of designing buildings he could have a whole other career as a sexy-yet-troubled werewolf in a CW series; Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk assessment expert with a fancy car; Stan Uris (Andy Bean) is an accountant with a fancy house; and Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a stand-up who can pack huge theaters. The only one who isn’t ludicrously successful, in fact, is the guy who’s calling them home: Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the Derry librarian who seems like he’s one red-threaded crazy wall away from getting locked away. The characters need to explore Derry and remember their past battle with IT so that they can have a tiny sliver of a chance of defeating the monster, and lifting the curse from Derry. Because this is a Stephen King story, this involves serious assistance from Indigenous tradition, a subplot with an escaped mental patient, and gouts and gouts of blood. Because this is an Andy Muschietti movie, it also involves references to a lot of other Stephen King stories, Evil Dead II, and imagery from horror films from Japan to Korea to Mexico.
The characters are tweaked in ways that riff on the book versions. Book Eddie’s profession as a chauffeur is referenced in a fun gag; Richie, as you see in the trailer, is wearing hipster glasses rather than contacts as he does in the book. (Of course ’80s Richie wore contacts to look cool; of course 2019 Richie wears chunky neo-tortoiseshells just like the ones I’ve been meaning to get. That dweeb.)
The film deals with the horrifying gaybashing that opens the book, but the filmmakers have made a few choices that recast that attack, and make it, if not palatable, at least less gratuitous. (If you’ve seen the film, this spoilery article over at Them might be a good read.)
In a more critical vein I think the film manages to be both overstuffed and somehow too short. The pacing is often bumpy, which means that we don’t get enough time at the beginning to get to know the adult Losers, and watch them re-bond with each other, and the climactic scenes at the end seem to unfold and unfold and unfold like the many jaws of Pennywise. None of the adults get enough time in their introductions. We need to see a bit more of Bev and her monster of a husband, of how Richie manages his career, of Ben’s designs. We also needed to really see how hard it was for them to untangle themselves from their adult lives. A huge theme in the book is the idea that they have to become kids again, but the movie loses a little of that heaviness by not showing us the fights with wives and business managers. We also don’t see quite how utterly they’ve forgotten their childhoods, or how those childhoods echo through their adult choices. Fans of the book will be able to fill all that in of course, but I wish the movie had dwelt on it more, because that’s the element that gives the book a bit more thematic depth than your average horror novel.
Your real life can turn into a horror story any time—the check didn’t clear, the doctor needs to speak with you in person, you’re walking home alone and realize a man is following you, you’re in a crowded store and suddenly your child’s hand isn’t tucked into yours anymore, There’s Something Wrong With The Plane. Your pulse speeds up, you can feel the sweat beading under your arms, and each breath brings you less oxygen. Time slows and becomes elastic and you’re suddenly pressed up against Life, which up to now has been so mercifully distant, and you are aware of each second unfolding around you. You remember again that your carefully constructed life is an illusion that can crack apart without warning.
When we go to a horror movie we pay to have this experience. In a comparatively (hopefully) safe environment, sure, because we’re choosing it, so we can control it. Part of the contract is that the nightmare moments might slip the bounds of reality—that we’ll become children again, in thrall to a fairy tale full of monsters and things that can’t possibly happen. This is what IT is about—Stephen King was inspired to write it because he saw a bridge that reminded him of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, and thus Derry’s Kissing Bridge was born. But the monster under the bridge isn’t a troll, it’s a creature that pretends to be Pennywise the Dancing clown, who can become anything you’re most afraid of. The opening half hour of the film is almost completely taken up with human monsters—psychotic homophobes, abusive husbands, rich white men who want to suck the creativity out of everything. This group of adults who have all experienced real-life horrors have to learn to be kids again so they can defeat a mythological monster. In some ways this is what the film does best. Once it gets the real-world stuff out of the way, and the Adult Losers are back in Derry, they’re pulled out of ordinary life and into nightmares. The film gently slips the noose over them—and us—until the monsters are just as real as Bev’s terrible husband or the gang of thugs at the Derry Canal Days festival. And yet one of the things that was most startling to me was that after watching the gang jump on Adrian Mellon for kissing his boyfriend, after watching Beverly’s husband reach for his belt, I was actually relieved when Pennywise showed up.
I’m also just gonna say it: I wanted more evil clown in my evil clown movie. Bill Skarsgård is a goddamn miracle here, just like he was in IT: Chapter I, but he doesn’t get quite as many iconic terrifying scenes. However, any time the film flashes back to the Smol Losers, the horror ramps right back up to the levels of the first film.
One of my concerns with splitting the story in half was that we’d lose the time-collapsing effect that’s so strong in the book. Director Andy Muschietti dodges this problem by giving us many flashbacks, weaving them in around the scenes of the Adult Losers rediscovering Derry. Each of the scenes is either an entirely new moment of terror, or a new angle on scenes from the first film, which gives us more time with the younger Losers, lets us see more of their awful lives in Derry, and, best of all, gives us many more spikes of pure horror that help the character’s current battles make a lot more sense.
And here’s the part where I talk about Bill Hader. Like all right-thinking people I believe Stefon is one of the greatest characters ever created. I think Hader’s work in The Skeleton Twins and Barry put him in league with any actor working today, and here he adds layer upon layer to Richie, pulling off mid-sentence emotional shifts like some sort of empathy acrobat. His Richie is (no disrespect to Harry Anderson, RIP), exactly what I’ve always wanted Richie to be. Angry and pissy and motormouthed but also catching himself when he uses his humor to distance people, and calling himself on it. Richie Tozier was already a great (if problematic) character, but Bill Hader has made him a real living breathing foulmouthed hilarious person, and gives the film a weight it can’t always sustain.
James McAvoy is also great, and the filmmakers make a fabulous choice by giving him some long sequences of riding his beloved bike and remembering his childhood. As he digs into that strata of his childhood, we watch him age—he seems to become decades younger and then infinitely old before our eyes as he remembers what Derry is. But the one unfortunate thing about the film’s structure is that all the scenes with the younger cast pop right off the screen in ways that the adult-oriented segments just…don’t.
Now, if you don’t mind I’m going to get slightly spoilery for the rest of this paragraph. One of the great strengths of IT: Chapter I was the film’s note-perfect use of nostalgia. It used its 1980s setting to great effect, clothing the kids in the kinds of dorky clothing kids actually wore back then, soundtracking their adventures with the songs that would have been on the radio (New Kids on the Block) rather than the ones people wish had been on the radio (IDK, Joy Division?), and reminding us with every set that most of these kids were pretty poor in Reagan’s America. The sequel can’t hope to compete with the tone of the first film. No one knows yet what the “tone” of the late 20-teens is going to be—we know it’s heavy with a particular type of ’80s nostalgia, we know bisexual lighting is popular, we know checkered Vans are back, we know the disparity between Boomers, Xers, and Millennials has turned vicious. The Losers are either young Xers or maybe Xennials if you buy into that? so we can look at them and know that they most likely know certain Simpsons quotes and they might have had a favorite Friend, but this never comes up. Not even in Richie’s speech. Bev, the fashion designer, wears a loose-fitting white shirt and artfully ripped black skinny jeans, an outfit that would have looked great at any point between about 2005 and today. Richie, as I mentioned, favors chunky glasses over contacts. But no one comments on music choices or favorite authors of the moment or political beliefs or anything, and in a weird way it makes the film a bit washed out compared to its predecessor. Which again, kind of works? One of the points of adult life is that it does feel less urgent than the technicolor wonderland/horrorshow that is childhood. But one of the problems with that from a cinematic standpoint is that it’s much harder for the second half of IT to feel as important as the first. Given a bit more space for the adults to grow, the movie could have become the poignant commentary on maturity and loss that it clearly wants to be.
As it is, IT: Chapter II is a mostly-effective horror film with a bit more emotional kick than you might expect. And Richie Tozier needs a prequel, a spin-off, a late-nite talk show, a set of keys to my apartment, and everything he wants from his fictional life, and his avatar Bill Hader needs an Oscar nomination.