IT is back. The Losers Club, a tight-knit group of kids—good kids—with chips on their shoulders, humiliated Pennywise the dancing (and shapeshifting) killer clown (Bill Skarsgard), forcing him to hide in his hole. Now, 27 years later, Pennywise (he, she, “IT”) wakes from its slumber, hungry for flesh. Loser flesh.
As conceived by director Andy Muschietti, Pennywise always looks and sounds demonic. But IT Chapter Two and its 2017 predecessor over-telegraph the evil. IT’s mouth drools. The head is bulbous, spider-like. The blood-tear makeup is sinister. Skarsgard goes all in to give us all kinds of creep. By comparison, the iconic 1990 miniseries portrayal of Pennywise (Tim Curry) got the mix right. Without the aid of CGI to help him out, Curry was funny, endearing, even, before he poured on the malice. You could see how IT lured kids to their death in the sewers of Derry, Maine; how IT disarmed unsuspecting children—baiting them for the kill, setting a beguiling trap.
That is the first problem I have with Muschietti's IT films—Pennywise does not really dance. He is just a jack-in-the-box. The whole concept of his character is backward. The effect is too on the nose. Except for the opening scene in the first installment (which is also the prologue in the book), and the bleacher scene in the sequel, Pennywise never comes across as a true clown. This betrays the source material. Teetering between tent poles of humor and horror, the Stephen King novel on which the films are based at least creates the illusion that Pennywise is a cunning deception, a self-proclaimed "eater of worlds" that successfully masquerades as an innocent. Muschietti never quite convinces us, though, missing an opportunity to frighten the viewer on a deeper level.
But hey—the movie, try as it might, cannot be the book.
As for the movie, it is an echo chamber of 1980s horror. The novel is a self-designed master's thesis in horror fiction, but it is far more entertaining than such a description might suggest. It is a consciously epic look back at '50s boomerism, at the cyclic, ritualistic nature of an all-pervasive evil that physically lives just beneath the surface of a small town. Sparked from an idea that fused the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" fairy tale with real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, King’s IT also examines the nature of memory, and fear, taking a Big Chill-like approach to horror tropes. Coked out of his mind, King was the book’s biggest asset, the reason it cooks. Even when I read it as a kid, it came across as untrammeled id, pole-vaulting then at times puking in the gutter—a dirty, beery Ray Bradbury fantasy that is both turgid and tight, a look-at-me-ma mess of a book. In IT, King is all too willing to let the worm on the end of his line dangle before you. This gives the book, and other stories of his from that phase in his career, a raw power, a warped and shocking patina that his writing has lacked since. That drive, that will, to go there propels the book. The transitions between past and present—the superimposing of past over present—also justify the 1,138-page count.
This year, when I tried re-reading IT, the Goonies cuteness of the Losers Club was hard to stomach. Keeping things weird, though, King injects beautiful, breezy passages into a storm's brew of violence, of out and out meanness. It is not all fluff, in other words. Every so often, he changes gears; he breaks the tempo, letting his characters feel like they are more than just archetypes. (Each one stands in for every beleaguered, bullied kid known to man. We have the fat kid, the (possibly gay) hypochondriac, the girl with an abusive dad, the bookish black kid, the stuttering kid with a dead sibling, the geeky (and possibly gay) cut-up, and the Jewish nerd.) Transplanting the story to 1989 and 2016, respectively, the recent IT movies echo King's ambitions. From the John Carpenter-inspired font in the credits, to the 1982 Thing rip-off near the end, Chapter Two, in particular, is steeped in cinematic callbacks (do you get a Nightmare on Elm St. flavor like I do?). More so than the first installment, however, its reach exceeds its grasp. The conjuring of '80s horror is diluted before it even starts.
I blame the director, and I blame the script.
Moreover, I blame the decision to split the book into two films. OK, I hear you—there was no better way to tackle the adaptation. I will concede this, but only to a point. Much of the book's power comes from the spell it casts, the way King draws the reader into identifying with characters who are inexorably stuck in a mental slipstream, the past always one step behind (or ahead of) them. Occasionally, Chapter Two hits a similar mark. But, while the adult versions of the characters are likable, the actors seem stranded. They do not seem tethered to the kid versions of their roles, and the shallow presentation of the characters overall (as children or adults) gives us little to hang onto. Until they knuckle down and go toe-to-toe with Pennywise, the grown-ups are annoyingly inert. This is partly the point.
For most of the film's 169 minutes, the grown-ups are spectators to the collective nightmare that unfurls around them—slaves to fear until they are not. After Loser Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) summons the group back to Derry, they must re-learn the social cues, the places where each friendship left off. And the awkwardness between them, the weird lack of chemistry, fits for other reasons: until Mike comes calling, the Losers have blocked Pennywise from their minds, have presumably not heard from or seen each other in years. In practical terms, it might make sense that the characters (and the actors who play them) do not really gel. I would not have found this dynamic strange, though, if both chapters had given us a chance to bond with both the older and younger versions of the characters from the first film on. As it is, the bond they have as kids—one forged by trauma and sex (an aspect, this last, that the book makes explicitly clear)—has no weight.
That is mostly a matter of structure. Tonally, Chapter Two face-plants by leaning hard on the humor. As a wisecracking comic, Bill Hader brings the adult Richie Tozier to life, and nearly steals the show. It is spot-on casting. As a character, Tozier is welcome comic relief in both films; but Chapter Two never gains steam as an actual horror film. The gay bashing in the first scene starts things off strongly. It is horrific. From then on, though, the film limps forward as a supernatural-themed actioner, the bulk of its long midsection given to the adults hunting for tokens from the past, before the final showdown with Pennywise—as though they, and we, had stepped into a live-action video-game. Some of these sequences in the middle are better than others. All of them jigger us with cheap, gotcha-like scares. Soon into the picture, I lost faith in Muschietti's ability to build, let alone sustain, an atmosphere of dread. Each "scare" is a thin, horror-film-informed payoff, a moment, or a touch, pilfered from some other film I would rather not name. This does not bother me, in and of itself.
If Chapter Two had simply wanted to be a celluloid funhouse, I would have gladly taken it on its own terms. But Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman undercut the promise of deeper scares with large doses of humor. The shrill Eddie Kasprak portrayal is the biggest culprit. Everything about him is an exercise in hysteria; not one redeeming note of modulation exists to make him less of a cartoon. (We get, in other words, one too many Richie Toziers.) We also get a King cameo that is the cinematic equivalent of tires reversing on spike strips. To be sure, humor can sometimes deepen the texture and flow (the effectiveness) of a work of horror. IT Chapter Two overdoes it.
And maybe those tonal and structural missteps would have landed better if the filmmakers had made the characters feel more real—less Goonie and more Derry (a balance that King himself, a softie at heart, comes close to fumbling). My quibbles aside, the book's unwieldy presence has a logic to it. King takes his time setting the characters up, introducing them as adults who travel back in time (in memory) in a way that feels seamless. We get to live in their heads. The adaptation, by comparison, must visualize the story, the characters' internal struggles. That is what movies do, of course—and sometimes they do it poorly. I suspect the recent IT films would have gained from a longer format. Had it occupied more real estate—as, for example, a miniseries, or a triptych of films—Muschetti's take could have shaded the characters in more. Then again, length alone does not have to be the answer. It is the combination of elements, of choices, which clicks or does not.
Some critics have faulted IT Chapter Two for its length. To me, that misses the forest for the trees. If anything, a more expansive approach could have helped. The film lacks the courage of its source material. It does not go far enough into the darkness at its core. Character development is wafer-thin; it is high-pitched, easily done in by excessive amounts of humor. Having seen the movie in the theater, I wanted a second viewing at home to leave me feeling enriched for all the time I spent with the characters, in this setting. I felt no sense of elation, no sense of discovery or unease. The movie tired me the way an inferior Indiana Jones flick does: The slickness of the production is something to behold; but when it ends, I am glad it is over.
Warner Bros.'s Blu-ray release carries a separate Blu-ray of the movie and one with extras. There is also a bonus DVD and a digital copy of the film. Muschietti supplies a commentary track. Featurettes include a behind-the-scenes look at the Losers, the Skarsgard performance, and the author, Stephen King.