The first instalment of director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel ‘It’ (2017) was an unexpected critical and commercial hit, going on to become the most financially successful horror film ever made. Perhaps its instant acceptance into the cultural zeitgeist coincided with the wave of nostalgia for the 80s (when the first chapter was set), but as both a film and as an adaptation of King’s work, it was a deeply satisfying and thoroughly chilling experience, one that left you hungry for the rest of the story. Now, with ‘It Chapter 2’, Muschietti brings this epic to a close, for better and for worse, in a big way.
27 years after the Losers Club promised to return to Derry if Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) ever returned, their promise is now being called in. Pulled back together by Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who believes they can only defeat It together, Bill (James McAvoy, ‘Split’), Beverley (Jessica Chastain, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Bill Hader, ‘The Skeleton Twins’) Eddie (James Ransone) and Stanley (Andy Bean) must dig deep into the memories of childhood and face the horrors hidden there in order to defeat Pennywise, who lays in wait for their return, ready and hungry.
Compared to the first chapter, this second film is messy, unwieldy and occasionally unfocused. This is partly understandable though, mostly because of the source material. The childhood narrative in the book has a much clearer cinematic and more narrative language to it, but the adult sections of the book are wild, with King in his more ambitious and cosmic mode. By untangling and separating them for the films, the first chapter had the advantage of the more traditional story, while Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman have more difficult material to control here. There’s also the issue that, while the childhood section does not need to be in conversation with the adult section to work, the adult section does need the childhood section. To accommodate for this Muschietti and Dauberman saved material with the kids for this film, and the first half of ‘Chapter 2’ has to devote time to each of the Losers individually, addressing the past before balancing it with their responses to those memories in the present. It’s a lot to wrestle with, and that’s before we even get to King’s batshit insane finale. Looking at the two films now, it makes more sense that the timelines were split the way they have been, but while that split benefited the first film enormously, this second one does get left to pick up the pieces a bit.
That said, despite the dragging rhythms in the first half and some clunky dialogue to put the pieces together, ‘It Chapter 2’ is still a rollercoaster of a film. Rather than rest on his laurels and chickening out at the end, Muschietti goes for broke, crafting an ambitious horror epic that isn’t afraid to play with tone or emotion. There’s a degree to which ‘Chapter 2’ has to repeat many beats and images from the first instalment, so he compensates for that with an approach that’s more irreverent and adventurous. The scale of the film builds and builds towards its enormous final act, and Muschietti expertly crafts the film in such a way as to earn that scale and make it feel justified. By necessity, it cannot be as big as King’s ending, but the substitute still feels true to the story Muschietti is trying to tell. The film looks gorgeous, with cinematographer Checco Varese doing a great job following on from the wonderful work from Chung-hoon Chung in the first film, and composer Benjamin Wallfisch crafts an even more luscious and emotional score, building beautifully on his original themes. If your definition of a horror film is some good scares, then you’ll probably be disappointed by ‘Chapter 2’ (and should probably rethink your definition of a horror film), but the imagery in the film is still deliciously nightmarish, relishing the balance of the preposterous and the perverse. It also calls back to the first film in a manner that never feels self-conscious, weaving the films together as a singular world or a tapestry despite the slight shift in tone.
Where ‘It Chapter 2’ triumphs is where it really matters: by delivering an adaptation that inherently understands what lies at the heart of King’s masterpiece. His novel is an epic myth on childhood trauma and abuse, how it affects us in the immediate and in the future. This was beautifully woven into the first film, but it’s in ‘Chapter 2’ that it’s really brought home. The Losers all suffer from the PTSD from their childhoods, not just Pennywise but the abuse from their families and the town. It manifests in each differently, but their choices as adults are dictated directly by those experiences. Muschietti understands that the return to Derry and the final battle with Pennywise isn’t about defeating a killer clown but a fight to the death to conquer their trauma - to either make peace with it, destroy it or allow it to destroy them. Pennywise is a conduit for that abuse, a mythical figure to explain suffering that goes beyond explanation. By honouring this subtext in King’s novel, the film has a resonance almost unheard of in a major studio horror film. In the end, the scares are secondary to the emotional integrity of the film, and that integrity allows it to be far more moving than you expect. In many ways, that beating heart at the centre of the film allows you to forgive many of its flaws. Where most studio horror films would just want to give you a good fright and send you on your way, ‘It Chapter 2’ wants you to feel something, to leave you with something genuine and heartfelt.
Where ‘It: Chapter 2’ triumphs is where it really matters, by delivering an adaptation that inherently understands what lies at the heart of King’s masterpiece.
Once again, Muschietti captures lighting in a bottle with the casting, with this adult ensemble as strong as their child counterparts. All are uniformly strong (with Hader and Chastain doing particularly good work), but just as is with their characters they’re stronger when together, which also may account for the second half being more satisfying than the first. There’s such a great chemistry between them, and they all understand how to execute the sentimentality so inherent to ‘It’. The original kids all return for the flashbacks, and it’s wonderful to see how they play off their adult counterparts in subtle and satisfying ways. Bill Skarsgård is still terrific as Pennywise, but there’s less of him in this film than the first, this one opening up the scope of its shapeshifting abilities and requiring less work from him specifically. Muschietti and Dauberman have removed or reduced many of the secondary characters from this section of the book, though the return of Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) feels underdeveloped and unnecessary, serving very little function in the film as it stands. There’s also a few crazy cameos in there, with one magical one in particular that will delight King fans.
‘It Chapter 2’ isn’t as stable or as refined a film as its predecessor, and while it feels lacking by comparison, it’s still far better than most studio horror films. It’s epic, ambitious, crazy, witty and unafraid to go for the heart as well as the throat. As a whole, this adaptation of maybe Stephen King’s greatest work feels singular in the landscape of modern horror cinema: two films built on strong interconnected relationships spread over decades, as sentimental as they are vicious, and executed on the scale of a fantasy epic. They also may be amongst the best adaptations of King’s work, understanding what makes his writing (and this novel in particular) so horrifying and so arresting, the human horror amongst the fantastical. Andy Muschietti aimed big with ‘It’, and even in the moments its reach exceeds its grasp, you’re still so glad it reached so high in the first place.