In retrospect, one of the most impressive things about Andy Muschetti’s adaptation of It was how it took an ungainly, sprawling piece of horror fiction and turned it something with mainstream appeal – and big box office receipts. A novel featuring a murderous clown from outer space, mystical turtles and pre-teen orgies became one of the most successful horror films in years, in part by cutting down the story to its core: sharply executed jump scares and an endearing coming-of-age narrative.
Chapter Two, set some twenty-seven years later with its cast aging into A-list Hollywood counterparts (Bill Hader as Richie, James McAvoy as Bill, Jessica Chastain as Beverly) or otherwise (Neighbours’ Jay Ryan as Ben, The Wire’s James Ransone as Eddie, Old Spice Guy Isaiah Mustafa as Mike), isn’t likely to be as appealing to mainstream audiences. This is a weirder, lumpier story. It straddles horror and fantasy, falling into some arcane genre middle-ground. Chapter Two is neither as scary nor as coherent as its predecessor, while its near three-hour runtime is sure to scare (some) audiences away.
All of this is to say – you might not like It: Chapter Two. But I loved it.
This isn’t without acknowledging the film’s flaws. If this weren’t adapted from a novel, it’d be hard to forgive its structure – in which the majority of the ‘Losers’ Club’ are separated to tackle their own traumas (whether in the present-day or flashbacks featuring the younger, CGI de-aged cast) – a holdover from the book’s twin storylines, unpicked into two films here. Equally, I’m not going to pretend I’m not miffed by the series’ continued sidelining of Mike – the one person of colour in the film! – or disappointed by the usually impressive McAvoy’s lukewarm work here.
But at its core, Chapter Two authentically explores the resonant heart of King’s novel: the inescapability of childhood trauma. While the adult characterisations are painted with a broad brush – the guy who loved building is an award-winning architect, the girl with an abusive father becomes a woman with an abusive husband – they each sprout from a seed of truth. Whether our upbringings are idyllic or abysmal, the choices we make are shaped by key moments in our childhood – even those moments that might have faded from memory. Even the most confident adult has part of them that’s still a scared, insecure child, remembering that one taunt from primary school that cuts deep decades later.
The bulk of the film’s second half centres on these characters’ struggles to grapple with their individual traumas. Muschetti leans away from the high-impact scares he employed to great effect in his first film to ground Pennywise’s antics in foundational anxieties. When a younger Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) encounters the shapeshifting antagonist at school, his fear that he’ll never be good enough to be loved is more terrifying than a greasepaint-smeared Bill Skarsgård could ever be. Eddie’s (Jack Dylan Grazer’s) discovery of his mother tormented by a leper beneath a pharmacy (yeah, it’s a lot) isn’t necessarily scary in of itself, but it’s a vivid evocation of the toxic dependency polluting his relationship with his mum.
Bill Hader, as you’ve probably heard, is the standout. A lot is asked of him. Granted, it’s maybe not a stretch for him to execute sharp retorts – naturally, Richie grew up to be a successful comedian, like Hader himself. And it’s important to note that the film itself is frequently funny – and goofy, even! But there’s a depth of sorrow, regret and bitterness that bubbles up over the course of the film that he renders with real nuance. After Barry season two and this, Hader’s quickly becoming one of America’s most capable actors.
But I also want to single out Muschetti’s work here. Over the film’s first hour, I admit to some reticence about its tone. As I detailed in my review of the first film for Junkee, much of what makes It work is the sense that Pennywise and Derry are intimately intertwined: his malice as much a product of the town’s wrongness as the other way around. That was subtly but significantly incorporated into Chapter One, but the notion of Derry as a nucleus of evil is largely abandoned here (outside of a disturbing scene of homophobic violence early in the piece). In Chapter Two, Derry is a ghost town. Almost literally – many scenes occur in seemingly-deserted streets, with the Loser’s accommodation while back in town seemingly vacant of other occupants or even staff members.
While initially off-putting, over the course of the film this reinforces the notion that the Losers are as much travelling through their own memories as the physical space itself. Our memories tend to be lonely locales, with specifics stripped away in favour of the seismic moments inscribed onto our consciousness. That’s the cumulative effect of Chapter Two: a lonely, uncomfortable but – ultimately – powerful journey through childhood memory. That might not appeal to general audiences as much as ‘scary clown’, but for me it made for a much more memorable experience.