Another 2019 event film, another strong argument for less-is-more. The eagerly anticipated It: Chapter Two gives us almost three hours of clownery, a sprawling runtime that pays tribute to author Stephen King’s notorious logorrhoea in a very literal way.
Following their showdown with Pennywise the Dancing Clown twenty-seven years earlier in the box-office smash It, this second part imagines that the grown-up Losers Club of Derry, Maine have found career success despite their childhood trauma: they’re novelists, comedians, risk assessors, and architects. But they’re all desperately unhappy! If this seems like a worn-out cliche, imagine seeing a variation on this theme for each principal cast member, one after another. Reluctantly, they’re summoned to return to Derry and face their fears by Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who’s been keeping watch in their absence. Among the new cast are James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader, as well as the returning young actors of the first film (in some cases, creepily de-aged with digital makeup).
As the kids reunite and fall back into their old rhythms, an intriguing subplot about buried trauma emerges, one of the more intriguing threads picked up from King’s opus by screenwriter Gary Dauberman. Why, the Losers wonder, have they forgotten most of their time in their hometown – and each other? It’s a powerful theme, handled delicately. But it’s quickly forgotten as the cast are compelled to find physical artefacts from their childhood, spiritual fuel for a Native American ritual to banish Pennywise from Derry forever. This sets up a clunky metaphor for confronting the past, and more importantly, an episodic series of scare sequences for each cast member, in which their deepest fears are imaginatively brought to life.
That’s more or less the entire arc of the film. Compared with the first chapter, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is given fewer opportunities for genuine creepiness here, especially in a third act where he serves mainly as a snarling, superhero movie-grade baddie. The first It film was elevated by his twitchy, agitated performance, skittering through dark places and whispering menacingly – it’s a profound loss. Instead, this sequel is more of a showcase for a new menagerie of creatures and ghouls, which the shapeshifting Pennywise morphs into. Like The Conjuring series, or indeed any of James Wan’s horror films, an ensemble of mildly scary monsters takes the place of one truly terrifying one.
A notched up level of humour fills the vacuum left by an absence of scares. Although the cast give self-aware and funny performances, with Bill Hader’s obnoxious Richie Tozier providing most of the best moments, Chapter Two‘s embrace of comedy is often misplaced. It’s not that we shouldn’t laugh – if we can’t laugh at a film about a spooky clown monster, then comedy is dead – but rather that director Andy Muschietti’s handling of tone is slippery, and genuinely tense moments are often punctured by a misfiring quip or soundtrack cue. Chapter Two seems to want to imitate the funhouse scares and knockabout humour of Beetlejuice, but falls short, hampering its antagonist with a lack of real credibility. The effect, over the course of three hours, is of air very slowly being let out of a balloon.