The biggest challenge of splitting Stephen King’s leviathan of a novel into two films was always going to be the adults, the grown-up Losers who return to Derry 27 years later to finish what they started. It’s one thing to sell the idea of a monstrous clown hunting children, it’s quite another to conjure that raw fear when you’re confronting grown men and women with a creature like Pennywise. Blame it on the second half of the 1990 miniseries, but even with all the good will in the world and such a strong cast, we had our concerns about whether or not It Chapter Two would be able to deliver on its promise of getting darker and scarier.
And yet, Andy Muschietti has pulled it off. This second part may suffer from many of the same weaknesses as the first (creaky structure and a disheartening over-reliance on CGI) but the horror hits home, and hits hard. From that oh-so-crucial opening sequence featuring the shocking fate of hate crime victim Adrian Mellon (arthouse filmmaker Xavier Dolan giving the character the necessary fire) through to the Losers’ Dream Warriors-style custom-tailored challenges in the grand finale, there’s a power and a resonance to the scares here that was lacking first time round.
It certainly helps that Pennywise is more vindictive and more lethal. In addition to the knowledge that there’s a good chance the Losers won’t all make it home, Muschietti stages a couple of genuinely horrible attacks to remind us that the eater of worlds and of children hasn’t lost his edge or his appetite. More important, however, is the fact that Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman manage to make the divide between chapters work in their favour.
While the young Losers appear in several flashbacks (too many flashbacks, to be quite honest) the focus here is on what’s been lost in those years spent apart. They’re all forced to confront what they’ve spent a lifetime forgetting, heading off to locate their own personal talismans in a plot device that is clunkily introduced but surprisingly well-handled once you accept its necessity and the fact that yes, this is a long film.
Their collective amnesia, described as part of the town’s weird magic by Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the one who stayed, operates as a metaphor for repressed trauma and demonstrates how these characters have relocated but not moved on. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) confronts the spectre of her abusive father having finally walked out on her abusive husband. Eddie (James Ransone) walks back into his childhood pharmacy to reacquaint himself with years spent living with a mother who convinced him he was sickly and weak. Richie’s (Bill Hader) revelations won’t be a surprise to fans of the book but are perhaps best saved as an affecting surprise for newcomers, Ben (Jay Ryan) may have grown out of the puppy fat but he’s still terrified that he’ll live and die alone and unloved, and of course there’s the spectre of poor Georgie haunting Bill (James McAvoy), who has never come to terms with feeling directly responsible for his brother’s death.
Although McAvoy and Chastain are as good as you’d expect, Hader comfortably steals the film, delivering a superb dramatic performance while hitting all the comic relief moments you’d expect him to. He’s nearly matched by an excellent Ransone, who’s so perfect as the grown-up version of Jack Dylan Grazer it’s genuinely uncanny, and Mustafa deserves praise for turning an exposition-laden character into a damaged human being, investing him with guilt, loneliness and a desperate nervous energy.
When the third act comes around, Muschietti goes full Dream Warriors, splitting his heroes up and confronting them with their worst nightmares. The film has already acknowledged its fairground ride nature early on, but there’s a real sense of danger here as well as a tremendous amount of fun. And then there’s the big, beating heart, the kind of thing you need to topple a CGI overload finale. A running joke in the film is that Bill, now a successful author turned screenwriter, is incapable of writing a good ending. How much time you have for all 169 minutes of the Losers’ journey may depend on how much time you had for them in the first place, but Muschietti and his team understand how much these characters mean to the new batch of fans as well as the Constant Readers, and that grand finale feels earned.
This is an improvement on the first film; darker, scarier and more heart-breaking as promised, and while the structure is clunky and the big CGI moments are still, well, big CGI moments, this is an ending die-hard King fans can be happy with.