Given Hollywood’s recent proclivity to adapt any and everything Stephen King has ever written, it seems in hindsight that it was only a matter of time before the actual subject of writing and storytelling would appear in one of these works. Stephen King is the most renowned horror writer of all time, and it’s not an understatement to say that he writes A LOT. His works are so dense and packed with so many characterizations and events that they are not only difficult to adapt, but challenging to create a satisfying conclusion to. In It: Chapter Two, both of these issues arise to mixed results.
The sequel to the 2017 megahit, the film sees the return to Derry of the Losers Gang. Bill (James McAvoy), Bev (Jessica Chastain), Richie (Bill Hader), Eddie (James Ransone) and Ben (Jay Ryan) are all back and all grown up. They’ve been called back to their hometown by their childhood friend Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who happens to be the only one who remembers the killing spree of Pennywise and the pact the Losers made if the supernatural clown ever returned. Mike is the only one of the group who never left Derry, instead choosing to stay and track the mysterious crimes that could be linked to the monster. After a satisfyingly horrific opening (which lives up to the standard set by the original’s opening), in which Pennywise makes another appearance, Mike is finally motivated to summon everyone to end this terror for good.
Given the dire stakes, director Andrés Muschietti smartly balances it out with the comraderie of the reuniting Losers. Many of the early scenes feel like you’re witnessing a high school reunion rather than a collection of people coming together to kill a clown. There’s excited greetings, surprise changes, old jokes dug up, and playful teasing at one another’s insecurities. It’s strong writing and excellent work from the cast, although Hader clearly steals the show. If Netflix wanted to get this group together for their own 13 episode comedy or dramedy, I’d watch.
However, as the honeymoon period subsides and the reality of this reunion rears it’s ugly head, the cracks in the film soon start to show. The long middle portion of an already long movie features a deluge of the Losers being confronted by Pennywise in the form of their worst fears, also accompanied by flashbacks for each character featuring past experiences with the monster. These scenes are obviously important, but represent a faux pas in editing – by stacking these scenes on top of each other they can quickly become repetitive since they all follow similar set ups and payoffs. In addition, instead of weaving these scenes in naturally, the film just simply has each character show up at the scene of their traumatic experience for no concerted reason.
What keeps these scenes engaging despite the repetition is the enveloping effects and creepy performances from our villains. Chief among them, of course, is Bill Skarsgård’s return as Pennywise. Skarsgård (Big Little Lies) is making a career out of playing unsavory characters and his Pennywise is as loony and deranged as ever. If anything, you wish there was an even greater focus on his performance to make way for the depths of depravity the actor is willing to go to. But understandably, Pennywise is merely a foil to our main characters whom the spotlight is keenly focused on, along with their traumatic baggage.
The central thesis at the heart of It is that returning to their home is critical for the characters to understand their flaws, fears, and the pitfalls of their current life. Some are too afraid to even make the trip back, while others discover the source of their failings in marriage, love, and work. The ‘horror’ the characters are afraid of is not dying, it’s confronting the truths of their past, a past that is unfortunately tied to the nostalgic memories of youth. This is what makes It an enduring tale – what is more relatable than the conflation between our sweet musings of childhood and our bitter sources of pain and regret?
However, despite the thoughtful reflection, the film doesn’t stick the landing entirely. For a story built on how personal the tribulations are, It: Chapter Two settles too comfortably in simple solutions for the conflict at hand. The finale, albeit grand and visually impressive, lacks a considerable amount of cleverness and wit to compliment all the great work put into building this story over the course of two films.
There is a scene early on where Bill, now a successful writer whose work is adapted in Hollywood, laments the reaction to the ending of his latest story. Several characters, including his own wife, give him some variation of “I liked it… except that ending.” It is a not too subtle reference to King himself, and how appropriate it is. For hooks, while difficult, are considerably easier to establish. Most of the great openings in a story start with just an idea, but crafting an ending is like trying to extract oil. The ending to It: Chapter Two isn’t perfect by any means. But the film at least is comfortable in knowing you can’t please everyone, not even nostalgia can accomplish that.