Short & Sweet: It: Chapter 2 maintains many of the original’s strengths as well as another great cast. Though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previous film, it manages to distinguish itself, offering fun and bizarre scenarios along with visual spectacle
Before 2017’s It was released,many seemed to be skeptical of how this would turn out, in particular many 90’s kids who remember being traumatized by Tim Curry’s 1990’s portrayal. The miniseries itself may not hold up to newer audiences, but it holds a fond place in the hearts of many and so the skepticism was understandable especially with the new aesthetic. Needless to say, most were impressed if not completely blown away by the film and Bill Skarsgård’s performance. This of course leaves the sequel with the unenviable task of stepping outside of two very large shadows while also doing it’s best to stand on its own two feet. To a degree it is successful, mostly being able being to stand alone as its own unique film, but it’s not without flaws.
We start off 27 years after the events of the previous film with a gay couple being harassed by a group of locals ultimately leading to a gay bashing. The more brutalized of the two is played by It superfan and talented French-Canadian actor-director Xavier Dolan. After being beat within an inch of his life, Dolan’s character is dumped into the river and flows downstream until he reaches out for a hand, Pennywise’s hand. The scene is intense and for those familiar with the book, it is explained that when It awakens every 27 years it amplifies many of the bigoted and violent tendencies in the town, resulting in a rise in hate crimes, meanwhile It abducts and feeds on children. Unfortunately the film does little more than light allusions to this and so it is no wonder why some find the grisly opening problematic. This film begins with a darker and more realistic tone as opposed to the previous film’s iconic opening which isn’t as grounded in reality. That being said, it is a perfect antithesis to the first film’s opening scene not just by tone, but also by angle and situation. Dolan’s character is out having fun until beaten within an inch of his life, then he is wet on a non-rainy day and instead of being dragged down he is lifted up. It’s all very poetic and seemingly intentional, but it is a heavy opening scene.
After this, we spend the following 20 minutes or so playing catch up to see what the Losers club is like as adults, all struggling to remember except Mike, who stayed in Derry. He has spent his life dedicated to finding out how to stop It and calls them to announce It’s returned. We see how their childhood has spilled into their adulthood via Bev and Eddie’s spouses being near identical copies of their parents while Bill is a famous writer who seems to be terrible at writing endings and giving his stories closure. Ben and Richie don’t seem to be affected to the same extent as the others at first, but as their stories progress we do get more insight as to who they are and what about them is stunted or unresolved. Most tragic of all is Stanley, who, spoilers for anyone who isn’t familiar with the story, kills himself upon hearing the news that It has returned. Understandable considering his face was nearly ripped off by Pennywise’s mouth as a child. Spoiler over.
Once the Losers reunite they slowly remember and begin to fear the past as well as what is to come. While enjoying a dinner and catching up, they are rudely interrupted by nightmarish things breaking out of their fortune cookies, showing that It is just as strong as ever, and wants them gone. It’s here at this nearly 30-minute mark that the plot and scares start to come in, but much like our protagonists, everything seems different now. The horror of the first movie with blood and a stalking killer are traded out for odd things that occasionally escape description. It’s made pretty clear that It is not as interested in targeting them for his next meals as he instead goes to look for children again.
This serves as a bit jarring considering how much time throughout the first film we spend with Pennywise. Even when he is scaring the Losers by shape-shifting, he usually appears as Pennywise after, one example being Eddie’s encounter with the leper where Pennywise emerges behind several arranged red balloons. Instead Pennywise utilizes a minion of his to go after the Losers for him. While the Losers try to find the pieces to a ritual to stop It, they are forced to confront their past memories of It and so we do get to see Pennywise attack them, but again this when they ‘re kids and the effect just isn’t the same when we need to care about them as adults. That being said there are two scenes where It does make his presence known and they are effectively creepy, but the rest of the cast just deals with their trauma and trying to keep their composure through the situations.
Despite the lack of Pennywise, there are two true heroes in regards to making this film truly horror and it’s the director Andy Muschietti and DP Checco Varese. Their combined talents bring mood to every disturbing encounter, utilizing the whole color spectrum and tight camerawork to bring the horror front and center instead of leaving it hidden in the dark. There’s one scene in particular that takes place outside as one of our characters is having a near panic attack only to see Pennywise and everything shifts. The color instantly begins to take on a cross-processed and unnatural look; the blurred background is static save for some off-putting swaying in unison. Even though our character is out in the open during middle of the day, it‘s clear how wrong everything is and that nowhere is safe. It is a testament to the genius going on behind the camera as this open area on a sunny day is given a claustrophobic and cold feel. It’s exactly the type of tone this movie wants to take and is made very apparent in another scene when we see Pennywise with a big toothy grin repeatedly banging his head against glass to break it. The scene goes on over and over and is already dark in itself, but an unbreaking smile in a moment of abject horror really drives the feeling of helplessness and high-strangeness home. This being said, we also are treated to some very obviously computer generated effects and they don’t always work successfully. While nightmares literally spilling out of food is done better with CGI and allows for things to be more grandiose, a scene of a nude rotting woman should have been more akin to The Shining than a slightly improved version of Mama. Ultimately these effects end up being hit or miss and when they do hit it is effective, but the misses are there.
By the time the Losers have made their way to the final confrontation we’ve experienced virtually ever trick Pennywise can pull. In this final act we afinally see the Losers interact with Pennywise and not just his illusions as well as an interesting take on the infamous cave spider scene. I found it effective, but I can imagine it being divisive, but again, it keeps It: Chapter Two from being just another horror movie. To be perfectly honest, I’m not a big fan of either film’s cave scenes, but this does serve more purpose than just a final confrontation, it offers catharsis. Each character has been struggling with their re-emerging memories and reconciling with the past trauma they’ve left behind after leaving Derry, and in this final act they find ways to overcome what they have feared for so long. Their fear is more than Pennywise, it is the mother forcing placebos, the rapist and abusive father, the guilt of not saving another, never being enough, trapped between who you are and who you need to be. This strength does create another weakness in the film.
Though it isn’t a huge weak point, the Losers as adults are very much their own people and though they are broken and the cast has great chemistry for the most part, they do not fully capture the camaraderie and essence of the younger cast to the same level. This is understandable of course given that throughout the course of the film the characters do go on their own separate journeys, and so the plot needs them to be away and distant from one another, but it also leaves Mike with nothing to do while everyone else is dodging visions and homicidal maniacs. Mike is simply the glue in this story, and at the very least the filmmakers gave him more to do than the novel or miniseries.
When it all boils down, It Chapter Two manages to still be just about anything anyone can want from a sequel. It builds on the established story, it gives the characters a lot to work with (maybe not so much Mike), and it still offers something new. While the change of tone may not be welcome for everyone, I do believe it will be the defining factor that allows this to be remembered with the first film instead of fading into obscurity like so many other horror sequels who rely on formulas. Along with this, the story makes rooms for great character development and allows for every character to finish their arc in some form. The peaks may not be as high as the first, but the valleys aren’t too low either. The cast provides the heart and the horror shown through spectacle allows this to be a fun and bizarre ride. Maybe all the film really needed to be perfect was the inter dimensional light turtle from the book.