Halloween Horror: It Chapter Two (2019)
In a text conversation, Aren described the first chapter of It as “Jump Scare: The Movie, but in a good way.” This mock title fits It Chapter Two just as well, as does the approval. Together, Andy Muschietti’s two films relate a uniquely epic horror story that effectively, if relentlessly, utilize seemingly every current technique available for scaring a movie audience.
The first film introduced us to the “Losers Club,” a motley group of misfit kids who band together to fight the evil force stalking children in their small town of Derry, Maine. There is Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), the group’s reluctant leader; Stan (Wyatt Oleff), the cautious pragmatist; Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a shy, chubby new boy at school; Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a fiery tomboy; Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the group’s foul-mouthed joker; Eddie (Jack Dylan Glazer), a hypochondriac mama's boy; and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the most sensible and stalwart of the bunch. The titular “It,” an ancient, shapeshifting, cosmic demon responsible for killing children, most often appears in the form of the terrifying clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), but It also has the ability to take on the shape of its victim’s fears.
In It Chapter Two, the Losers have all grown up and achieved varying levels of success in the world outside Derry. Bill (James McAvoy) is a horror novelist who can’t write a good ending; Stanley (Andy Bean) is an accountant; Ben (Jay Ryan) is a handsome architect; Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer with an abusive husband; Richie (Bill Hader) is a stand-up comic; Eddie (James Ransone) is a nervous risk assessor. While most of the characters have strangely forgotten the events of summer 1989, Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) stayed behind to watch for the return of Pennywise, who they know returns every 27 years.
Just as in the first film, in Chapter Two each main character has an encounter with Pennywise, which gives the film the structure of an anthology of horror. Each manifestation of the clown demon accents certain phobias and arenas of fear. For example, one scene depicts a character’s mother strapped to an operating table in a creepy pharmacy basement. You can likely guess which character experiences this terrifying scenario. The film’s visual design borrows from the history of horror, both literary and cinematic. For example, the entrance to the series of sewers and cavernous tunnels beneath the city is inside the quintessential haunted house, all titled angles with dead trees in the yard. For these reasons, the two It films may stand together as a summation of early 21st-century horror, even if Chapter Two has more deficiencies than its predecessor.
The main weakness of It Chapter Two is the narrative, particularly the way Gary Dauberman’s screenplay handles the two different timelines. The first film, written by Dauberman, Chase Palmer, and Cary Fukunaga, focused solely on the characters as children. For roughly two thirds of Chapter Two, we follow them as grown-ups, while about one third involves flashbacks to further flesh out events of the summer of 1989. Particularly at the start of the film, the cutting between timelines is muddled. As my descriptions above make clear, it’s a large ensemble cast, and so it would have been helpful to more clearly link the child actors to the adult versions via flashbacks at the very beginning of the film. As it is, it takes some time for a viewer, like me, who has only seen the first film once (and never read the book) to remember who each character is. This dulls the impact of the suicide of one member of the Losers Club early on in the film. Despite being culled from half of Stephen King’s mammoth book, the first film benefits by being a strong standalone narrative. In contrast, the second film relies heavily on the events of its predecessor, so there could have been a few more narrative redundancies to solidify the links between the two films and between the timelines.
That said, the new, older cast has been well chosen to resemble the child actors, both in terms of looks and personality. Jay Ryan’s Ben is particularly effective, since he’s physically changed the most, that is, he’s no longer fat, but his smile and the warmth of his eyes are the same. Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard make a nice pairing as adult and child Richie, but the character’s personal development plays a bit lamely for 2019.
One of the pleasures of the first film was how it drew on movies about children from the 1980s, not only the King adaptation Stand By Me but also The Goonies. There aren’t as many reference points for the exploits of the adults coming back together (maybe The Big Chill?), although their reunion dinner, with the smart setting of a Chinese restaurant with one of those big round tables, captures the mixed emotions of such events.
There’s still a preoccupation with small town Americana as well as the dark side of such places. If The Goonies involves the children’s defence of their small community against outsider development and take over, It presents the small town not as some idyll but rather as a microcosm of America’s good and bad. The small community compresses and intensifies America’s problems, bringing more raw hatred to the surface, which perhaps explains the strange homophobic attack at a carnival that opens the film (featuring the Quebecois indie director-actor Xavier Dolan, randomly, of all people). King’s story is not a proper allegory, but it does operate as a metaphor for the traumas of the past, particularly of childhood, growing up, and small-town life. It is about how the fears that build out of childhood events are perhaps impossible to fully escape, but that growing up and thriving involves facing them and conquering them.
In his review of the first film, Aren rightly described Muschietti’s horror style as emphasizing a kind of modified jump scare, in that it actually doesn’t solely rely on surprise (eliciting an impulsive jump), but rather teases the promise of something terrifying and then ratchets up the suspense before unleashing, in Aren’s words, “a flurry of violent imagery and explosive sound design.” Muschietti duplicates this pattern throughout the second film.
In one standout scene, adult Beverly returns to her abusive father’s apartment to discover he has died and it is now populated by an old widow. The old lady’s facial twitches quickly clue us in that something is not right, and we know from the narrative pattern that in this act of the film each character will encounter Pennywise in a different form, as It draws on darkness from their past. At one point, the old lady strangely, creepily dances and then undresses in the background, while Beverly sips tea unaware in the foreground. Her actions makes us jump a bit, but the real terror is anticipating when she will strike, as well as receiving confirmation that this is in fact Pennywise. When she does strike, it’s evocative of another King adaptation, the repulsive naked old lady in Kubrick’s The Shining. Another scene involving a child being lured beneath the bleachers is a similar powerhouse of suspense.
If Muschietti’s method grows repetitive by the end of the first film, it’s even more so here. One flaw, or overstep, in my view, is that both It films are too aggressive. Fear is supposed to be the primary driver, and, in the very best horror films, fear acts upon the unknown. The most scary thing about each It movie is the way Pennywise plays on our knowledge that the clown will act upon the character’s fears, so we feel suspense and grow scared anticipating what form it will take and when it will attack. The active screaming and chasing is less scary, and more of a release.
But both films’ repetitive manner of eliciting fear got me thinking about the method’s importance to the story, even if it slowly depletes the suspense. Both narratively and thematically, It Chapter Two is about catharsis: the narrative repetition of “build and release” in each encounter with Pennywise parallels each character’s purgation of their childhood fears and secrets. Moreover, although the repetition dulls the scary effect, it deepens the themes, since the viewer’s desensitization to the scares coincides with the characters’ need to put off fear. The audience gets less scared, but so do the characters, which is what must happen if they are to defeat a monster who feeds off fear.
It’s a strange example of thematic and formal cohesion actually diminishing a base-level effect. But, from a critical vantage point, it’s brilliant. It Chapter Two is not perfect, but I think it’s going to be remembered and has artistic and cultural significance. And it’s still a good, scary movie to watch at Halloween.
7 out of 10
It Chapter Two (2019, USA)
Directed by Andy Muschietti; screenplay by Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King; starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jaeden Lieberher, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Glazer, Chosen Jacobs, and Bill Skarsgard.