Film review: Pennywise is back, but is it too soon for IT: Chapter 2?

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★★★★☆

The follow up to 2017’s smash-hit horror adaptation IT, the aptly titled IT: Chapter 2 lacks subtlety, but deftly mines King’s epic for thrills nonetheless.

IT: Chapter 2 makes for a curious case study in adaptation. The “Chapter 2” in the title would suggest that this film finishes the story that began in 2017’s IT, but it seems more accurate to say that this sequel reframes the original and provides a context that reveals the real core of the story. This has the effect of making the film far more thematically robust and satisfying while also making it feel a little overfamiliar as a sequel. This doesn’t, however, stop the film from being an excellent and worthy follow up.

Twenty-seven years after the events of the original, the Losers club are all called back to Derry by Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) to combat the resurfaced evil of Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård). Having left Derry, the Losers have subsequently forgotten their experiences and must revisit those painful memories if they are to succeed again.

In Stephen King’s novel, it’s this juxtaposition of the past and the present that informs the themes of the story, and it’s to this structure that director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman return, interspersing the adult scenes with flashbacks of the returning child cast. In creating a parallel between Pennywise’s cycles of terror with the repeating cycles of unhealthy decisions made by the Losers, IT: Chapter 2 offers a more complex and interesting experience to accompany the parade of funhouse scares.

Telling a more complex story does create a tension though with how these scares are constructed and play out. It often seems as if Bill (James McAvoy) and Beverly (Jessica Chastain) would be better served in a film that was more capable of matching the heaviness of their particular traumas. While Muschietti does show some restraint in building set pieces that lean more on emotional discomfort and an atmosphere of dread, he often falls back on a jump scares and CGI creation to punctuate the moment.

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Perhaps the biggest flaw in the way the film executes its scares is that Muschietti still all too frequently ends them by having something run at the camera making loud noises. This is a shame, as some of the strongest sequences of the film generate atmosphere through the strength of performance alone: Pennywise’s seduction of a little girl and Beverly’s meeting with an acquaintance of her father being particular standouts.

This is not to denigrate every set piece of the film, however. When Muschietti lets loose and creates a more visceral disgust with elements of comedy (reminiscent of Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson’s early work) he finds a lot of success. It’s no wonder then that the scenes surrounding Eddie (James Ransone) and Richie (Bill Hader) are the most effective. Both actors share a talent for mining humour out of extreme scenarios without sacrificing the horror being evoked, and their interplay with each other ends up providing the emotional centrepiece of the film. It’s the pair of them that provide many of the film’s laughs, and prevent its near three hour runtime from dragging.

The biggest threat of this comes in the third act, which runs long in the tooth. One might be tempted to blame this on the source material. King has long been criticised for his inability to write satisfying endings, which the film refers to at multiple points (even King himself gets in on the joke in a small cameo). I think the more likely culprit, however, is the decision to split the novel into two films which each require a climax. While the novel could present them simultaneously, this sequel has to cover much of the same thematic ground as it did in its predecessor, albeit with a much higher budget. As such, the final act of this film can’t help but feel superfluous despite the first two being richer overall.

Where opinions will differ on the strength of this sequel will be in your tolerance for similarity. IT was marginally tighter and its combination of funhouse scares with adolescent camaraderie felt novel. Even with much of the cast chemistry being recaptured with the adult cast, and there being ample narrative reason for the parallel plotting, repetition can breed indifference. Regardless, this film is more ambitious and achieves a degree of poignancy and nuance that makes it a welcome return to Derry.

IT: Chapter Two is showing now at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham, and The Mockingbird, also in Birmingham.

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