Film Review | IT: Chapter Two: Brutal and diminishing returns

Director Andy Muschietti returns to complete the Stephen King-inspired killer clown duology with a confidently bankable performance in his rearview, but the results are something of a scattered misfire

Horror stories on the screen tend to be associated with either disposable pulp or a kind of throbbing, disturbing brilliance. It’s a genre that tends to live in the middle ground economically speaking (there will always be an audience for horror, but rarely to the extent of the current superhero craze) but that otherwise operates on a violent pendulum swing of extremes: like comedy, it tends to be either trash or treasure.

The current adaptation of Stephen King’s novel IT, directed by Andy Muschietti and thankfully departing from the mediocre misfire that was the ‘90s mini-series – which despite a brain-searing performance by Tim Curry really doesn’t hold up all that well – is an exception to this in many ways.

Perhaps harnessing the newly revived trend for horror-tinged coming of age stories set in the ‘80s – for which we have the record-breaking Netflix show Stranger Things to thank – the first ‘chapter’ of Muschietti’s updated take on King’s 1986 doorstopper novel drew in the ‘young adult’ crowds and, perhaps by dint of filling a gap that would otherwise have been stuffed with Hunger Games fans, resulted in that once-in-a-generation phenomenon: a horror film that does serious (but really, really serious) business.

So it’s hardly surprising that, now that we’re reuniting with the ‘Losers Club’ on the big screen just a year later, their adult selves walk into a film ready to be received with apposite fanfare and spectacularly polished set pieces. But while the aforementioned horror-brilliance of IT lies in the creepy, eye-catching simplicity of its central villain – Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the cosmic alien threat posing as a killer clown – simplicity is the one thing this second chapter sorely, and fatally, lacks.

We open on a brutal homophobic attack in the town of Derry, in which the victim is played – bafflingly – by the Canadian arthouse wunderind actor-director Xavier Dolan.

But while the assailants in question are, upsettingly enough, all too human, the riverside coup de grace is delivered by a hungry and fanged alien presence: Pennywise, back to haunt the town after a 27 year absence.

Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) is the only remaining member of the Losers’ Club left in Derry and consequently, the only one who fully remembers the details of their run-in with the entity all those years ago. Hoping they will do good on their pledge to battle Pennywise should he ever come back, he tracks down the remaining members of the so-called ‘Losers Club’ and summons them to town. Bill (James McAvoy) is now a successful horror writer in the middle of overseeing an adaptation of one of his books, with his wife Audra (Jess Weixler) playing a lead role.

Beverly (Jessica Chastain) co-runs a successful fashion designer with her husband, who is, however, just as abusive as her father was back in the days of the first Pennywise attack. The hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone) is a risk analyst in an insurance firm, married to an equally neurotic wife. Richie (Bill Hader) now channels his tendency for vulgar humour into a lucrative stand-up comedy career. Ben (Jay Ryan), the formerly plump ‘new kid’ with a soft spot for Beverly, is now a buff, conscientious and well-adjusted architect.

Their collective amnesia about what happened in Derry back in the ‘80s is what has kept them sane and safe after all this time… as evidenced by the fate of the last of their number, Stanley (Andy Bean), who commits suicide after suffering a panic attack induced by Mike’s call.

And certainly, none of the other members bar Mike are too keen to face that trauma head-on once again. But if they don’t, other kids will die. And Mike has a plan on how to stop the creature for good this time around.

‘IT’ is a horror narrative brought to terrifying life by lightning-in-a-bottle image, and brimming with universal potential. A killer clown as a stand-in for childhood trauma is one of those ideas that literally feels like it could have been beamed into Stephen King’s mind by a deranged but generous dark god. And now, this second ‘chapter’ – almost literally the latter part of King’s original novel – deepens the metaphor further by exploring the idea of repression… another key component in the trauma package. This is the horror genre at its best: through exaggerated, primordial imagery that speaks to our collective unconscious, it brings to the fore home truths about some of the most unpleasant aspects of our lives.

It’s a pity, then, that Muschietti is less concerned with giving this very worthwhile thematic backbone a smooth run for its money, instead favouring an episodic, fairground ride approach that crams in the effects-laden jump scares but distracts us from what it should all be about.

Once the remaining members of the Losers Club get on board, Mike sends them on something of a treasure hunt for childhood talismans, which he claims to be a crucial first step in battling Pennywise. This ‘collect the tokens’ approach to storytelling may work in a novel, but in a film it just comes across as awkward and repetitive, and it’s made even worse by the splicing in of episodes from the characters’ childhood selves. While the set pieces themselves – and the scares that follow – are certainly rendered effectively enough as standalone pieces, but they unforgivably hamper the flow of the narrative.

This results in a bloated, overlong and, by the end, not particularly engaging ride. The reasons for this approach could be numerous – increased budgets leading to lax, over-indulgent decisions? King himself being too closely involved in production (he does get an amusing cameo)? – but the upshot is that the audience remains short-changed of a truly visceral cinematic experience that does justice to the powerful image and implications of the Pennywise archetype.

Perhaps this is the trade-off we have to make when horror really gets ‘big’. Instead of being that naughty little goblin of cinema raspily whispering harsh home truths from the dark, sticky corners of the back seats, ‘blockbuster horror’ has to pay its dues to overbearing contemporary trends: in this case, piggybacking on ‘80s nostalgia tropes like Stranger Things, and a too-literal approach to the source material that does away with filmic coherence and flow in favour of giving the book fans what they want.

The verdict

While the scares are both well-timed and beautifully rendered and the film enjoys an expansive imaginative canvas not often afforded to contemporary horror features, Muschietti’s return to Derry is marred by a frustrating stop-start plot engine. So that instead of a lean and mean journey into the dark recesses of trauma, we get a pick-and-mix array of laboured set-pieces that deflate both narrative propulsion and thematic resonance.