Review: 'It, Chapter 2'

The gang reunites for a head-scratcher of a sequel
in second installment of Stephen King horror
SQUAD GOALS: All grown up, the gang is back to finish 'It'—once and for all.

Stephen King once described the film version of Cujo (1981) as "a big dumb Sonny Liston of a movie." He was referring to the famed boxer: disreputable, graceless, but an unstoppable puncher. To which pug would one compare It, Chapter 2? My vote is for some middling middleweight—known for occasionally landing a powerful sucker punch—but who just sways around the ring until the bell is rung.

Andy Muschietti's It Chapter 2 is a textbook "getting the band back together" movie. Twenty-seven years later, we re-meet the Loser's Club, that group of small-town rejects who sent Pennywise the Dancing Clown back to hell in 1989. As children, they swore a blood oath to return if the monster ever revived. Now the six are recalled to action by Mike (Isiah Mustafa taking over for Chosen Jacobs). Mike stayed put at the hellmouth in Derry, Maine, living above the public library and studying the multi-formed horror. Turns out the local Native Americans knew him all too well, long before It (Bill Skarsgard) materialized in bad clown form: wall-eyed, needle toothed and with a bulbous forehead upon which the make up has cracked like rotting plaster.

The grown up Losers all have serious worldly success (the question of "what is up with that plot point?" will be addressed in a minute). Derry gives you a recovered-memory effect. Like the town where you went to college, the farther you get away from it, the more you forget why you left in the first place. But what should feel like a slowly gathering evil that one cannot forestall arrives with the inevitability of a mandatory sequel. The first It was more than just a bad clown; like Moby-Dick, he was just a mask that some unknowable pure evil glared through. Now we know what's behind the mask, and the explanation is dissatisfying.

Some of it works. The creatures are fun, thrust rapidly into the camera and shaken like the props in a carnival's dark ride. Someone will, and maybe should, pick apart the Jade of the Orient restaurant scene as a racist joke about the weirdness of Asian food. But there's something to be said for the shock of all that blazing green neon on its front, and the way a banquet turns into a Hieronymous Bosch painting.

Far better is Joan Gregson as Mrs Kersh, a longtime resident of Derry, whom Jessica Chastain's Beverly interrogates. Gregson is the best part of the movie. It's easy to see why she dominated It Chapter 2's previews; the old lady with a rictus of a smile, and a peekaboo of ulcerated skin visible through a gap in her house dress. She uses loaded words to torment the molested Bev: "I was always Daddy's little girl"—it's almost scarier than the yelp-inducing punchline. A leper beast in a basement later looks like Iggy Pop with a giant prosthetic tongue. Less effective: a severed head that sprouts jointed crab legs and walks off. It was more horrifying in practical-effect form in John Carpenter's The Thing (1982); maybe it's here as a reference to the underwhelming origin story of the killer clown.

There's an anecdote about Garbo being disappointed by the ending of Beauty and the Beast: "Give me my beast back." One wanted the Losers back. The kids grew up into successes, the opposite of the way it tends to work after childhood trauma. Ben, the fat kid of the gang (Jeremy Ray Taylor) blossoms into the muscular Jay Ryan, and now apparently owns a yacht. Yesterday's wiseass Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is now played by Bill Hader; an immediately recognizable TV comedian—unhappy, but successful.

James McAvoy's Bill is a horror novel writer surrogate for Stephen King. (King himself is in the picture, as a pawky Maine antique shop owner, part of a running joke about how nobody likes the endings of Bill's books. If only the ending of It Chapter 2 weren't a perfect example of why people complain.)

Chastain, who is distracted here, doesn't at all seem like the person Sophia Lillis' Bev would have grown up to be. In flashbacks Lillis is very touching; few things in It, Chapter 2, bear as much horror as the memory of Bev's father perfuming her with an atomizer, before whatever it was that he did next. The scene has a Blue Velvet vibe.

Give It, Chapter 2 credit for suggesting that the monster rejoices at anti-gay violence; bad enough that it bites the heads off children, It is also a homophobe. Still, this script needed the attention of someone funny. It's padded with rock climbing, swamp-swimming and hand-holding. This creature is not just of sudden violence, but of blocked drains, sewers and puke-fountains. It Chapter 2 revels in a textbook King trope—revealed in his book of essays Danse Macabre: if he can't work the levers of terror or horror, he'll go for the gross-out.

It, Chapter 2
R, 170 Mins.

Find Movie Theaters & Showtimes

Zip Code or City:   Radius: Theaters: