Stephen King adaptions are, to put it nicely, rather hit-or-miss. Of the over 40 separate film adaptions of King’s literary works, the vast majority of them exist squarely on a spectrum ranging from “tolerable” to “terrible.” Weirdly, despite being most well-known for his horror-and-supernatural-themed fiction, it’s the more grounded and dramatic pieces that have translated best to the big screen. Films like The Shawshank Redemption and Misery have been met with critical acclaim, despite being King’s somewhat less popular pieces, while his more popular genre works, like The Dark Tower and Pet Semetary, have resulted in much less successful adaptations, both critically and commercially. So, when news broke in early in 2010 that Hollywood was giving a theatrical crack at It, arguably one of King’s most iconic novels, a considerable percentage of his fans, myself included, were understandably skeptical.
But somehow, despite the past 30 years’ worth of questionable King adaptions in general, as well as a decidedly uninspired and hokey miniseries attempt at the book in the 90s, Andy Muschietti’s It released in 2017 to an unpredictably smashing success. It demolished box-office records, sold out theatres nationwide, and single-handedly reignited a cultural fear of clowns the world over. And, on top of all that, it was a pretty damn good film, to boot. It took a unique tonal approach to the source material that made the film extremely and uniquely accessible to general audiences, a task which is often difficult for horror films. It was well acted, with its cast of child actors being a genuine delight to watch. It styled itself after classics like The Goonies and Stand By Me, a smart move which made its main characters much meatier than the usual monster fodder audiences are used to in mainstream horror films. It was funny, scary, and had some genuine heart, as all great horror films should, and played a huge role in reigniting horror as a huge box-office draw once again, to be followed shortly by films like David Gordon Green’s Halloween the year after. To say the film had an impact is to do a severe disservice to the sheer power of It. And, as we found out as the credits rolled, It was merely the first half of a singular whole, a fact which any fan of King’s work knew right from the start.
Naturally, after the rousing financial success of the first film, its substantial impact on the culture of the industry, and the huge fan-base that grew in its wake, expectations for It: Chapter 2 were high. After a long, two-year wait, in which the popularity and pop-culture saturation of the first film grew even larger, the time is finally upon us: Chapter 2 has is officially in theaters. Of course, I was there to see it opening night, greatly looking forward to the experience. In fact, I was brimming with anticipation for a full week leading up to the premier. A friend and I went in to the theater together, excited, bracing ourselves for what we assumed was going to be another fun, suspenseful adrenaline-rush. But unfortunately, that would not be the case. How does It: Chapter 2 live up to its predecessor? Well, the short answer is: It doesn’t.
First, let me at least say this for Chapter 2: Much like the first film, its cast is absolutely stellar. It’s often a difficult task for a film to pick actors that will be playing aged-up versions of particular characters. There’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck between finding an actor that both looks the part, as well as brings the same personality and screen presence to their respective characters so that they are instantly recognizable to the audience as playing the same person as their younger counterparts. Usually, there’s a sacrifice made in one of these two qualifications. However, Chapter 2 manages to pull it off in a manner that frankly seems downright miraculous. Quite literally every single character in this film is not only the spitting image of their respective character’s child actors, but also a pitch-perfect recreation of their performances as well. Andy Bean and James Ransone in particular, who play the adult versions of Stanley and Eddie, respectively, are so near identical to their child versions that I almost began to believe that there was some sort of prosthetic or digital trickery making them look so similar. But no, it’s simply just spot-on casting.
James McAvoy, as always, shines as the now-grown Bill Denbrough, who pulls much of the film’s emotional weight. Likewise, Jessica Chastain perfectly embodies young Sophia Lillis’s melancholic yet playful portrayal of Beverly Marsh, the group’s sole female member. But the real stand-out of the film is Bill Hader’s hilariously vulgar Richie Tozier. Playing the adult version the role played by Finn Wolfhard in the previous film, Hader is easily and immediately the most likeable character of the bunch, serving as the film’s main source of comic relief, alongside Ransone’s Eddie. Pretty much every single line out of his mouth is absolutely hilarious, for better or for worse (more on that later). And, as anyone who’s seen Hader’s phenomenal HBO series Barry can attest, he really brings an impressive amount of dramatic gravitas when necessary as well. Oddly, he’s almost given the status as the film’s main character, despite the novel being largely an ensemble (with slightly more focus on Bill as the group’s leader). I have to imagine that this is entirely due to the sheer likability of Hader as a performer. So despite the misgivings I have about this film, the cast certainly all brought their A-game.
That being said, this leads me to the first of many problems that plague this film. While the cast is extremely talented, and are downright perfect approximations of what the child cast of the previous films will look like as adults, the film really doesn’t do all that much with them. Whereas the previous film gave most of the kids solid, fulfilling character arcs, this go around, they remain fairly static. A lot of screen time is given to the reunited Loser’s Club and their quest to recover their memories of Derry, but beyond that, they simply exist to react to the events of the film. The novel really delved into the fragile mental and emotional states of the adult Losers, and how the events of their childhoods subconsciously sabotage their lives even 27 years later. We get small glimpses of this, in the opening, expository scenes, but nothing really progresses in this arena past the 30-minute mark. There are times where deeper moments of exploration into the minds of the characters are teased, but there’s never any real follow-through. The best we get is a ham-fisted, overly-saccharine romance between Ben (played by the cartoonishly handsome Jay Ryan) and Beverly that appears pretty much out of nowhere and is accompanied by dialogue and emotional cues that would seem overdone even in a Disney film. So while yes, the cast is fantastic, they aren’t given all that much to work with.
The biggest waste among the cast, however, is a returning member from the previous film: Pennywise himself, once again played by the unsettling Bill Skarsgård. The sinister clown’s reign of terror in the first film felt like something that was truly a threat, constantly looming over our child protagonists, with no telling when he was going to appear next wreak havoc. His every appearance was surreal and borderline nonsensical, with his behavior varying from scene to scene, reflecting his otherworldly nature and the fact that, despite his circus performer exterior, he couldn’t quite pass as completely human. In short, he was convincingly menacing, a credible-enough tormenter for both the onscreen characters and the audience alike. But here, much like with the adult-versions of the Losers, Pennywise doesn’t seem to have a strong direction for what he’s supposed to be doing. Unlike the book, where we get chapters and sections from It’s point of view where it’s explained that he’s legitimately afraid of the Losers, and is trying to do everything in his power to stop them, there’s no such moments in the film. Like last time, he pops up from time to time to harass and mock the protagonists, but there’s no perceived sense of greater malevolence. If anything, he’s just sort of goofy. And he doesn’t seem nearly as dangerous to Derry this time, either. I think in the entire film he kills maybe three people, with one of them possibly being an illusion. And they’re never as effective or as gruesome as in the first installment. We never quite get a moment on the same level as Georgie’s death. It’s a shame, too, considering that the film is nearly three hours long. You’d think that, at that length, there’d be more time for the film’s main antagonist to make his presence known.
Pennywise’s seeming lack of a plan or any real motivation is a symptom of a deeper systemic problem with the film, in that it lacks a strong narrative core. Whereas the first film had a direct, simple plot, where a group of children discover that something sinister is happening in their small town which they realize they must stop, the sequel is a bit all over the place. Pennywise reawakens, and the Losers, beginning to remember their childhoods, return home to finish him off once and for all, just like they promised 27 years prior. Just like the novel. However, the film then deviates into a number of strange subplots. The worst of which some nonsense about finding tokens which represent lost aspects of their memories of Derry, which they then must burn in a Native American effigy of some sort. It’s completely random, takes up about an hour of screen time, and really seems to have no greater relevance outside of splitting the group up so that Pennywise can ineffectively stalk them one by one. All of this leads to a bloated, over-produced climax that’s so cheesy and fantastical that it makes the final battle in the 90s miniseries look Oscar-worthy in comparison. This is meant to be the definitive showdown between the Losers and It, yet it lacks any sort of finality or payoff. Their encounter in the previous film was much more emotionally and narratively impactful, and that was only supposed to be a taste of what this confrontation ultimately amounts to in the book. Yet the film version ends on an unsatisfying whimper, rather than a bang.
Along with this lack of story coherence and pacing standards also comes some confusion in tone as well. Whereas the first film masterfully blends the light-hearted, nostalgic simplicity of small-town, childhood summers with a foreboding, Lovecraftian sense of cosmic horror, Chapter 2 seems to have much more difficulty finding a middle ground between the two. As much as I enjoyed the performances of Bill Hader and James Ransone, their characters, at times, feel like they’d be much more at home in a Judd Apatow comedy than a horror film. At far too many times in the film, even during what is meant to be moments of heightened drama or terror, the mood is undercut by one-liners and off-hand jokes from the pair. Humor is important in horror, sure, but in small, measured doses. And it’s not just the characters that suffer from an overabundance of comedy. The film itself has several weird, non-sequitur comedic beats that frankly left the audience more confused than anything. There’s a particular moment where Eddie is being attacked by a creature, which is inexplicably interrupted by, at most, three seconds of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” which is never acknowledged again. It’s a moment that would feel more at home in something like Deadpool than a film which is supposed to have much higher stakes and a much stronger sense of consequence and agency. Because of strange choices like this, Pennywise is again reduced from the nightmare-inducing monster we saw in the first film to more of a wise-cracking, Freddy-Krueger-esque caricature this time.
On the other side of the same tonal coin is the fact that the neutering of Pennywise’s effectiveness as a monster and as an antagonist greatly reduces the film’s ability to follow through with its promise of even being a horror film at all. The first film, while again, being an earnest and often sincerely charming coming-of-age tale, was also supplemented by some genuinely demented and heart-pounding scares. In order to really, truly work as a horror movie, a film really needs this range of emotional extremes in order to most effectively manipulate an audience into the proper reactions. Moments of levity make the scares that come next all the more unexpected and impactful, and likewise, scenes of terror make emotional beats and character development and growth feel more earned and help audiences better to empathize with a film’s characters. And frankly, horror is just an all-around more fun experience when it actually can make you jump, or shake with anticipation. After all, isn’t that the point?
Therein lies It: Chapter 2’s biggest pitfall, besides its overly-long, meandering plot: It’s just not scary. Again, Pennywise in this film just has no sense of urgency. It never feels like he’s really trying to kill any of the main characters. He just pops up from time to time, makes some goofy joke, and then disappears. In the first film, his sudden appearance would often be accompanied by a shock to the audience, often through a well-placed jumpscare. The projector scene in particular was one that got audiences really going in both theatrical showings I saw. He also conjures up illusions based on the specific fears of his victims, resulting in some legitimately frightening appearances. The painted woman that appears to Stan in the temple comes to mind. Here, in Chapter 2, he does neither of these things particularly well. In fact, most of the monsters Pennywise creates in this film are downright stupid. Remember that incredibly tense moment in the trailer, ripped straight from the novel, where Beverly visits her childhood home, only to find herself attacked by a delirious and, eventually, monstrous elderly woman? Well, I promise you, it’s much more effective in the trailer. Like nearly every other scare in the film, the scene eventually just devolves into a terrible, low-effort CGI chase with a silly, non-threatening monster.
The first film pulled no punches whatsoever with its imagery and its violence. We see a small child brutally dismembered in the film’s opening moments. And at first, it seems that the sequel will follow suit, with the violent, homophobic assault and murder of Adrian Melon by local Derry hicks, which fans of the book will recognize. However, after this tense opening scene, the violence never again reaches the same visceral, hard-to-watch severity. It almost seems like they were trying to tone the violence down to reach a wider audience, which makes no sense for an R-rated film. Not that I advocate for extreme gore in film (I despise franchises like Saw and Hostel that exist solely for this purpose), but in order for the threat in the film to be taken seriously, there needs to be visual consequences befitting a horror film. Instead of winging or covering our faces and bracing for a moment of gruesome carnage, my friend and I found ourselves, more often than not, rolling our eyes instead.
I don’t honestly understand how we got this film in its current state. From my understanding, based on previous comments from Andy Muschietti, the first film’s success should have allowed him greater freedom to really make Chapter 2 as intense and upsetting as the novel. And frankly, the marketing for the film seemed to support this as well. I was under the impression that, given the characters are adult now, the horror would be much more mature, and, as a result, much, much scarier. There was talk as well of scenes that were cut from the first installment, deemed too horrific at the time, that were meant to be included in the sequel, but from what I could tell, there was no sign of them. This movie reeks of studio meddling and producer micro-management, which is always a risk with sequels. I had just hoped that, given the quality of both the previous film and the source material, that it would escape this sadly common trend.
On a personal note, structural and technical problems aside, I think the thing that disappointed me the most with Chapter 2 was its seeming disinterest in the lore of the novel. I understand that the cosmic aspects of King’s universe might have been a bit much for the first film, but given the sequel’s runtime, I expected at least some acknowledgement of the greater mythology of his writing. Besides some loose exposition and imagery recalling Pennywise’s arrival on Earth, we get virtually no other backstory or insight in to what he is or how he operates. The Deadlights are present, but their significance is never explained. We’re never told what exactly the entity really is, or where it came from. Maturin the Turtle is never even mentioned, and the Ritual of Chud goes from being a fantastical battle of wills taught by higher beings from another dimension to nothing more than a Native American peyote trip. Even the final confrontation shied away from actually giving us Pennywise’s true form, turning an epic mental duel between the Losers and It into a playground name-calling match against what appeared to be Helena Bonham Carter’s character from the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland adaption. The 90s miniseries had a budget of $3 and somehow managed to do a better job at depicting any of this. The film seems scared to take anything more than a shallow pass at the most interesting parts of the novel, and I find that incredibly sad.
By the time the credits had begun to roll on the film, I was frankly just relieved that it was over. Not because it was an intense, adrenaline-inducing experience, like the first film, but because it was simply just a slog to get through. I left the theater feeling nothing but exhaustion and regret. I really, truly wanted to like this film, and I had such high hopes for it. But ultimately, it didn’t even come close to living up to them. I don’t know, maybe I expected too much. Or maybe I’m just too invested in the source material, although my companion has virtually no background with King’s body of work, and was equally disappointed the final product. Andy Muschietti claims that there’s a four-hour cut of this film in existence, and has also expressed interest in combining it with the first film to make one long, cohesive narrative, in the spirit of the original novel. All I can say is, after this fiasco, I want no part of it. Much like the Hobbit films, this movie is too unnecessarily long, and does far, far too little with that time. I think maybe it’s time to leave King’s work alone for a while, at least until someone figures out a way to properly end any of it better than King did himself. Which is to say, not well.