1. What scares us most is what we do not understand, which is why everything is so much scarier when you’re a kid. We may not be much smarter as adults than we are as children—I submit [looks around] as evidence—but we definitely understand fear in a more rational, and thus less interesting, manner. Our fears aren’t about monsters under the bed; they’re about loss, and ill health, and politics, and utility bills. Ghosts and goblins just don’t do it for us in the same way. Our fears are too worldly. All told: It’s much more fun to be scared of spiders.
2. This fundamental problem—that there’s something inherently more primal about children’s fear—is one that It, Chapter Two can never quite overcome. The first film had its issues, most of them steeped in the mustiness of Stephen King’s source material (it was telling that the film didn’t bother to update its story from the ’50s to the ’80s in any cultural sense; it just changed the references from Jayne Mansfield to Rubik’s Cubes), but it was uncanny how it was able to dip into the fundamental confusion of childhood and mine it for terror. Nothing’s scarier than the bully down the hall, or your overbearing mom, or that creepy painting in your dad’s study, or, yes, clowns. The across-the-board splendid young actors of the first film felt like real kids, and it felt like real horror. But when you turn those kids into adults, they lose not just most of their wonder, they lose most of their interest. They’re just some people in a horror movie trying not to get killed. And we have seen that many, many times before.
3. You can tell the first film was a hit because the quality of the adult actors: Somehow I doubt you’re getting Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy if Chapter One just broke even. They’re the two leads, Beverly and Bill, all grown up now, beckoned back, along with their buddies (including Bill Hader, in the film’s standout performance), by Mike, the one guy who stayed back in their hometown of Derry, Maine, where the madness of the first film took place. (Mike is played, well, by Isaiah Mustafa, better known as the Old Spice guy.) It’s 27 years later, and Pennywise, the killer clown they defeated as children, has returned to Derry, and they’re the only people that can stop them.
4. It’s unfortunate, though, that their big return is less about re-defining and re-establishing their friendship and more about laboring through some very exhausting mythology from the book. It, Chapter Two is nearly three hours, and it feels every second of its running time, oddly meandering when it should be barreling toward its conclusion. Rather than reflect on how these kids have changed and stayed the same throughout the years, the film puts them through the paces of a dull love triangle and, excruciatingly, separates them so they can individually find some sort of token for some sort of ritual that will presumably kill Pennywise. This leaves the middle third of the movie lagging for long stretches as each character goes on their own journey, and we discover that, well, they were a lot more compelling as children. It turns the film into a pointless, endless search for amulets and hidden objects, and it’s mostly an excuse to provide various jump scares, with diminishing results. The horror sequences aren’t nearly as inventive as they were in the first film either. The metaphorical monsters from that movie are replaced by literal ones here, to little effect.
5. But the main issue: Jeez, where is Pennywise? The most original aspect of both King’s book and the whole enterprise is Pennywise, who is less a clown than a manifestation of fear itself, a thundering force of nature that is so terrifying that it can only exist as “It,” with “It” being whatever terrifies us most. There was something unknowable about Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise, something rabid, something hungry, that transcended the material itself: He was unsettling because he seemed to know something about the children, and maybe us, that they (and we) didn’t entirely get themselves. But he disappears for long stretches of this movie, and only shows up to hop out of the darkness. He’s replaced by long speeches about friendships and maturation and Discovering the Real You, and who wants any of that? It, Chapter Two thinks it’s a long-gestating story about a group of friends figuring out who they really are. But it isn’t. It’s a movie about a monster clown demon who eats your soul. The children understood that. These adults, they just keep getting in the way.
Director: Andy Muschietti
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Bill Skarsgard
Release Date: September 5, 2019
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.