It Chapter Two: Big Horror Cheap Thrills (Movie Review)

What do we make of It Chapter TwoFilms rarely fit neatly into one genre anymore, and the notion of what is or is not horror is often debated among film fans as well as casual moviegoers. Are horror films always about something supernatural like The Conjuring? What about the slasher sub-genre? It’s easier just to accept most as hybrids, like Edgar Wright’s best film, Shaun of the Dead.

A friend once offered a deceptively simple yet effective definition for what she qualified as a horror film. It had less to do with how it makes you feel or even the reality of the story. Horror is when the audience fears for the lead character’s survival. Her take has stuck with me.

For one thing, recognizing the filmmaker’s intention negates the many ‘too cool’ movie fans who like to proclaim “well, I didn’t find it scary.” This also knocks out David Fincher’s Seven and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. These films are absolutely teeming with horror elements, but we’re never worried about Clarice (until the end), or Mills or Somerset, are we? Those characters are mostly investigating the aftermath of something terrible.

On the flip side, we very much worry about Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan, as it’s her state of mind pushing her towards something horrific. Additionally, anyone in a Conjuring or Halloween flick is at the mercy of a being intending to end their lives.

All of this is to say that Stephen King’s seminal novel, It, has the potential to be the best kind of American horror tale. Taking place over the span of 27 years there are seven members of the “Losers Club” who, in theory, can be picked off and eaten at any time, by that most devious of clowns, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). There might be the occasional dollops of humor, or as is the case of It Chapter Two, a lot of wisecracks, but these two films are 100% horror pictures, whether or not you find them scary.

With that out the way, the question is whether It Chapter Two delivers on its main goal: putting these characters in harm’s way and making sure that feeling resonates long after the lights go up. The quick answer is no, but I’m sure plenty of fans will see It Chapter Two and toss their popcorn at the jump scares and clutch their partner’s arm in terror.

I certainly did at times. More often than not, though, I was never really invested in the lives of Beverly, Bill, Richie, Mike, Ben, Eddie, and Stanley. How much do we need to care about the camp counselors at Crystal Lake? We don’t, but It is way more ambitious in scope, scale, and themes.

For those who need a refresher….  spoilers of the first film.

2017’s It took place in 1988. Seven kids were stalked by a shape-shifting clown. As the legend goes, in the town of Derry, Maine, a supernatural entity awakens every 27 years to feed off the fears of the town’s children. Once they are sufficiently scared, the kids get eaten in creative, fun, and gory ways. By the end of Chapter One, the kids learned not to be afraid. Pennywise was vanquished but not entirely defeated.

End of spoilers.

Although the themes of child abuse were over-the-top, all of the performances from a cast of mostly young newcomers were top notch. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) might amp up every scene to eleven, but the first film was entertaining, with creepy production design and creative visual effects (even if they looked well, very CGI.) At well over two hours It was the rare long horror film that felt both long but also rushed. Regardless, I had a pretty fun time and was looking forward to It Chapter Two. I hoped the reported 169-minute runtime would allow the sequel to breathe even though I now worried if there was enough story to warrant nearly three hours.

It turns out the length of It Chapter Two wasn’t an issue. The film picks up in 2016, with The Losers now adults played by some recognizable stars (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, and Bill Hader), along with some lesser-known actors (Isiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, and James Ransone). Like Avenger’s Endgame, the structure of the final installment features three nearly one-hour acts. Also, like Endgame, the middle section involves going back to the past, which is not a bad thing as it allows for more time with the winning cast of young actors.

However, despite scenes of gravitas Chastain and Hader bring to the adult portions of the story, there’s not a lot of compelling or organic narrative. As it stands, once the six get a call from Mike (Mustafa), who never left Derry, and reunite, the interactions are a strang mix of stunted gestures and chatter that feels too comfortable for a group of adults who haven’t spoken in nearly thirty years. Part of the plot explains how anyone who leaves the town of Derry forgets all about Pennywise, but that doesn’t really account for the rather generic conversations that occur. That’s especially the case after dinner at a Chinese restaurant ends with fortune cookies that transform into terrifying little beasties. At that point, all bets are off, and the threat is real so that the ‘will they, won’t they’ work as a team element in the next hour rings false.

Luckily, Hader’s grown-up Richie provides moments of levity to move the proceedings along with each Pennywise encounter. Still, the main issue is character motivation. All too often, the conversations are all external with no real sense of how they would act or feel internally. It’s a tricky thing, but a more successful script finds ways to let viewers anticipate how a character acts, with just enough left out to be surprised.

Despite a solid cast, the screenplay by Gary Dauberman (responsible for multiple Conjuring films, including The Nun), can’t find much that feels like real people slowly awakening to deep-rooted fears. The script is also flawed in how it allows characters to make actions you know will be to their detriment, but still must do because it’s required of them.

There are also some odd choices on a more general level. Early on, there are violent scenes involving a hate crime against a gay character, and domestic violence that just feels manipulative. Scenes like those portrayed as an indictment on the real world would have been far more powerful and scarier, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with them.

Speaking of the real world, the original novel was set in the late 50s and mid-80s. King was very much speaking to these eras. How did WWII and Vietnam affect the parents and their children? The decision to update the periods to the 80 and 2010s feels arbitrary. Sure, the adults now have smartphones, but what exactly was the point?

Let’s be honest, the fun moments with the kids in Chapter One felt a lot like Stand By Me but with clown stuff. It ends up being ironic the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things owes a lot to King and Spielberg, but these two It films feel like Stranger Things also-rans.

As a horror film, It Chapter Two is successful merely in terms of set pieces. Many moments just click. For example, one scene has Beverly (Chastain) visiting an elder woman (a scene-stealing Joan Gregson). The teaser trailer showed a lot that goes on but thankfully, but the genuinely terrifying reveal has been withheld. I was pretty shocked. Another scene in broad daylight may not reach Midsommar-level terror, but my heart raced nonetheless, as an enormous town statue got loose to go after one of the Losers.

I wonder if It Chapter Two will age well despite my issues. For one, the finale is a big, technically impressive, emotionally satisfying capper. Also, how many big-budget horror films have been made? (The Shining is one) That alone makes these two films something of a marvel. So, the script may be a mess, and the direction by Muschietti is never subtle, but that may be the whole point. It and this sequel are horror roller-coaster ride hybrids.


1 Response to “It Chapter Two: Big Horror Cheap Thrills (Movie Review)”

  1. Gregg

    When I first saw your rating, I thought it had to be far too aggressive for this film. But no, you are correct. I agree with that whole heartedly. It was too long-winded for its own good and lacked any significant scares.