It’s been thirty years since the events of the first It movie. All the members of the Loser’s Club have grown up and gone their separate ways outside of their hometown of Derry, Maine. Well, all of them except for Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who stayed behind to do research on how to definitively kill Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard). When it becomes clear that Pennywise has risen from his slumber and devour people once again, it’s time for Mike to turn on the Loser’s-Signal and call the other members of the Loser’s Club home. Soon, Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Bill (James McAvoy), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Bill Hader) and Eddie (James Ransone) have all reunited with Mike in Derry to figure out how to defeat Pennywise., though this clown isn’t going down without a fight.
Also returning to the land of Derry, Maine is director Andy Muschietti and writer Gary Dauberman as they tackle adapting the second half of Stephen King’s massive book It. Their work in the first It had a playful dark quality to it that intersected nicely with a coming-of-age storyline. For It Chapter Two, Muschietti and Dauberman deliver something a lot more muddled and not very fun to watch even when you’re not comparing it to its direct predecessor. I can’t help but admire a modern-day movie like It Chapter Two that dares to go for a three-hour runtime, but alas, this prolonged runtime isn’t put to good use as the expansive length is simply used for scattered storytelling rather than delivering a large amount of memorable scares.
Speaking of scares, the strangest thing about It Chapter Two is how lacking in actual frights it is despite so many attempts at drumming up fear in the audience. The middle portion of the story is dedicated to each of the members of the Loser’s Club going on their own solo journey to some location from their childhood that see’s them flashing back to a childhood encounter with Pennywise. Each of these encounters follows the exact same structure right down to Benjamin Wallfisch’s overbearing score and the timing of when Muschietti and Dauberman will employ a predictable jump scare to get a jolt out of the viewer. This section of the plot just goes on and on and never becomes scary, on the contrary, it quickly becomes monotonous, the very enemy of good horror.
Tired jump scares delivered by fake-looking CGI monsters just doesn’t cut the mustard in any context, let alone in a movie that’s coming out in the middle of a modern-day horror movie renaissance. In a year that’s delivered titles like Us, Ready or Not and Midsommar, the assembly line frights of It Chapter Two left even a scaredy-cat like me checking my watch and wondering when the darn movie would just get moving already. Worse still, this supposedly more intimate section of the story doesn’t illuminate anything new about the characters. Shouldn’t seeing the Loser’s coming to terms with their past at least illustrate some new corner of their personalities if it isn’t going to deliver scares?
It’s the lack of actually good frights that truly registers as disappointing this extended stretch of It Chapter Two though. The reliance on cheap jump scares, CGI beasties and Wallfisch’s overly obvious score is all the more insulting given that the few actual moments of tension in It Chapter Two tend to come from more restrained means. A scene of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise luring a child towards him while being only illuminated by a firefly is a super stripped-down scene devoid of visual effects. However, it’s got a tangible quality and a sense of quiet impending dread, not to mention Skarsgard’s great performance, informing its horror and that’s what makes it so unnerving to watch. Compare this genuinely chilling scene to the climax where Pennywise is just a boring big version of CGI Scorpion Dwayne Johnson from The Mummy Returns and you begin to wonder why It Chapter Two didn’t opt for more small-scale scares.
In terms of both scares and storytelling, It Chapter Two is disappointingly underwhelming, a clear-cut example of a movie throwing so much at the wall yet rarely hitting a bullseye. At least we’ve got a decent cast to help get us through this thing. Much of the adult actors, particularly James McAvoy and James Ransone (the latter channeling Big Kyle Mooney Energy in his performance), are highly committed to doing dead-on impressions of the child versions of their characters. Sometimes this quality is distracting in how it left me wishing the actors could just develop their own takes on these characters, but for the most part it’s fine. On the other side of the equation, I was actually surprised by how little Jay Ryan evoked the child version of his character in his personality while Isaiah Mustafa gets free rein to create his own version of Mike since the character didn’t really get all that much in the way of a definitive personality in the original movie.
The MVP of the cast not named Jessica Chastain (she’s so good as a performer that she’s able to wring an interesting turn in this film despite Dauberman’s script not giving adult Beverly much to do) is, as you’ve likely heard by now, Bill Hader. Sometimes his comedic lines do feel like they intrude on the grim atmosphere of certain scenes, but predominately, Hader’s moments of levity are utterly delightful. Delightfully, Hader also gets a chance to shine with dramatic material and those of us who saw Barry and The Skeleton Twins won’t be surprised to see that Hader has the chops to handle this material superbly. When it comes to delivering memorable pieces of acting from Bill Hader, It Chapter Two floats to the top. When it comes to creating cohesive storytelling and actually effective scares, well, that’s where It Chapter Two sinks to the lower parts of Derry, Maine.