The first of these It films, which really ought to have been titled Chapter One from the get-go, was one of the most surprisingly fun horror movies in recent years due to its mixture of standard horror thrills with an engaging coming-of-age adventure. Pennywise and his cavalcade of monstrosities are never all that scary, but I also don’t believe that to be the franchise’s biggest appeal. In many ways, it is a fantastic journey split between two distinct eras – it just happens that this particular quest has dropped the usual hobbits and dragons for modern people and an illusory killer clown. In other words, It works best as a dark fantasy with a horror coating.
The original novel is a massive tome and, when the first half came out, it seemed logical to divide the work between the past and the present. That ultimately worked for the first film – if they wanted to, that story could have easily stood alone. However, this split has exposed certain structural issues with the adult half.
The concept of memory is at the heart of this story, and it is now absent in the first half and overbearing in the second. This story runs on parallels, and what can be striking when you immediately compare the past and present is repetitive when you get all of one and then the other. Chapter Two unfortunately still tries to directly parallel the two eras, and it ends up bloated with flashback sequences that really add little besides some fun set pieces. What results is a film more formulaic than a subpar crime show, the second act becoming a tiring cycle of adults returning for a childhood object before flashing back to a scene in the same general location with the monster and then back to the present with a similar encounter. There’s no real tension to these flashbacks, as we have already seen the conclusion of that side of the story. They attempt to justify this because the characters are only now regaining these memories, but it’s simple retreads for the observer. With so many characters, the experience turns surprisingly dull.
Beyond feeling largely unnecessary, the flashbacks have a fair share of technical flaws that don’t seem present in any other part of the film. The audio mixing is off, with Jack Dylan Grazer’s lines feeling glaringly dubbed over. Even worse, they attempted to digitally de-age these young actors and the result is as uncanny as any of the monster’s forms.
These flaws feel especially odd considering the rest of the movie is rather well-polished. This is horror as a rare high budget spectacle, and most of these individual sequences work surprisingly well in a vacuum. The filmmakers clearly had fun cobbling together a hundred creepy designs and situations, from the familiar leper to a grotesque old lady. None of these are particularly scary but they’re certainly fun to look at in a macabre way. The film additionally has some stellar transitions, from the night sky transforming into the underside of a puzzle and a fantastic matching shot of Eddie’s two actors.
The most surprisingly strong element is the acting; the cast brings depth to what was at risk of being standard popcorn horror fare. Bill Hader and James Ransone especially have great chemistry as Richie and Eddie, both adding a certain playfulness that makes the experience more lively than most other horror I have sat through this year. Their range allows key tonal shifts and spot-on delivery, ensuring this rather silly film never takes itself too seriously.
Though it’s easy to lose him beneath all the clown makeup, Bill Skarsgard is still the center attraction. Between his startling physical presence and command over his voice, he truly brings the clown to life. His plain-faced confrontation with Bev is a perfect showcase of his raw talent, but he really steals the scene as he lures a young girl beneath the stands at a sports game. Pennywise is a classic villain and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job.
Even with these strong features, there are some moments that feel entirely misplaced. One particular horror scene suddenly drops “Angel of the Morning” during what was otherwise one of the better sequences and I honestly have no idea what the filmmakers were going for. This movie clearly toes the line between traditional horror and horror-comedy, but this leans into the entirely random. Another sequence has a character shout “Here’s Johnny” and, again, it’s so jarring it immediately took me out of the moment. Brechtian technique can be effective but these were the wrong moments to break the fourth wall.
The real elephant in the room is that the novel really doesn’t seem to be the best source material for a film, even one that runs well over five hours altogether. The people involved really seem to be doing the best they can with what they have. This is Stephen King at some of his most self-indulgent, twisting a tale of cosmic powers all situated among a group of friends in a small town. There is a monster that feeds on fear that seems happy to kill most of its prey within minutes yet repeatedly lets the central characters escape for no adequately explained reason. What is the monster’s goal here, exactly? A bit of research suggests there are cosmic elements in the source that the filmmakers must have been too embarrassed to include, but removing this instead makes the monster seem entirely incompetent as a villain. I cannot buy him as a threat when he passes up so many opportunities to finish off the Losers.
It Chapter Two is seriously flawed, yet that comes down almost entirely to a questionable structure and some odd edits. Otherwise, it’s a far more fun ride than most standard horror movies and, even at nearly three hours with a repetitive rhythm, I somehow never felt like it was too long. I wouldn’t be surprised if a re-edit mashing the two films together actually turns out better than either half on their own; there is a lot here that really works.
3 Stars Out of 5