After hearing that this horror epic would run close to three hours, I fairly dreaded watching it.
Not for the length (hey, I did catch Avengers: Endgame four times in the cinema), but because director Andy Muschietti is really good at his job.
And that means that for two hours and 40-plus minutes, I would be strapped in for a roller-coaster ride of fear, revulsion and horror – but also one that abounded in exhilarating and poignant moments.
After chilling the pants off us with the first part two years ago, Muschietti returns to slam the book shut (several times, and always to startling effect) on the heroic Losers and their battle with the enduring evil that has haunted their hometown of Derry, Maine, since time immemorial.
Now, let’s get this straight: after so many years of horror flicks, nothing in It can be said to be truly leave-you-sleepless-for-weeks scary.
Still, the film’s parade of grotesqueries (from pocket horrors springing out of fortune cookies to an ambulatory head clearly designed as a shoutout to John Carpenter’s The Thing) and wanton bloodletting are nothing if not effectively used to jolt us in our seats and keep us constantly on edge.
Even so, Muschietti and his collaborators’ true skill lies in how well they spin a compellingly human story against an oppressively ominous and spine-chilling backdrop. Granted, they had pretty solid source material to work from, with Stephen King’s 1986 original novel standing out as one of his most horrifying yet most affecting works too.
The first It “cinematic chapter” focused on childhood fears. In It Chapter Two, things get progressively darker as the emphasis shifts to adult terrors, repressed memories and how – even relegated to the subconscious – they prevent us from getting on with our lives.
Twenty-seven years have passed since the brave Losers faced and defeated Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard, still fantastic). Most of them have moved away from Derry, yet they seem unable to truly move on with their lives.
For example, Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is now a bestselling author preoccupied with the notion that there is no closure in real life (hence, he sucks at writing endings). Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is a successful architect, but something of a reclusive eccentric. And Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) has made a name as a designer, but seems drawn to men like her abusive father.
It Chapter Two opens with a senseless and violent hate crime, followed by a swift and bloody sign that the murderous Pennywise is back. And a call to the other Losers from old friend Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who stayed behind in Derry to keep watch, brings long-repressed memories and trauma flooding back.
In essence, as the Losers revisit their past to find ways to defeat Pennywise, It Chapter Two becomes a sprawling exercise in psychoanalysis for its protagonists. (Oddly enough, these “sessions” reminded me of a Time Heist. Guess I watched Endgame one time too many.)
The characters’ attempts to confront their pasts proceed with wildly uneven results, beautifully portrayed by a glowing ensemble cast who seamlessly bridge the gap between their characters’ younger selves (none more so than Bill Hader, as the grown-up version of Finn Wolfhard’s foulmouthed joker Richie Tozier).
The nasty edge of It Chapter Two's opening sequence is a harsh reminder that the world is a rough place – whether or not ancient evils from beyond the stars lurk under our feet.
It is not surprising that King – and here, Muschietti – frequently uses the ignorant and intolerant as catspaws for the greater evil that is afoot, because such types are a potent fuel for vicious cycles.
Similarly the Losers’ situation, and that of their haunted town, serves as a metaphor for the very things that keep people, communities and sometimes even whole nations from moving on.
Hearteningly, then, It Chapter Two's resolution is a reminder that those who seek to improve the way things are – to break the vicious cycles, whether they take 27 years or whatever period to swing around again – have it within themselves to take the power back for themselves.
In that sense, the ending here (significantly better than what we got in the miniseries) is probably an appropriate one for these times when it is all about taking control of the narrative.
How’s that for an effective, and quite cleverly done, updating of a 33-year-old story?
Director: Andy Muschietti
Cast: Bill Skarsgard, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff