IT: Chapter Two

Following the enormous  financial and artistic success of “IT” (2017), returning director Andy Muschietti had a real monster to contend with- how to top the first film and shape what needed to be the horror genre equivalent of “The Godfather, Part II”? To the credit of the filmmakers and actors, this ambitious sequel only gets halfway there to classic status but is satisfying enough and pretty great overall.

Twenty seven years after the events of the first film, The Loser’s Club is now grown up and reunited to once again face on an evil entity in Derry, Maine. Taking the form of a circus clown named Pennywise (played again by a terrific Bill Skarsgard), the evil “it” has a dozens of red balloons in his arsenal and is eating children. Unless The Loser’s Club can fully remember their pasts and work together, this cycle of carnage will never cease. To say the least, if you haven’t seen the first film, you’ll be lost.

The story bounces back and forth between what the survivors gradually remember about their childhood and how their present selves must battle a supernatural being. If there are too many giant CGI monsters, at least they’re well done and aim to evoke a Del Toro-like richness in their hideousness. We also get some welcome throwbacks to classic monster movies and a scene of Native American mysticism, which appears lifted from either “The Doors” or “Altered States.” Although Stephen King’s tale offers a richness in its exploration of how our past defines us, most of this was covered in the previous film.

There are gay subplots that aren’t handled very well: the brutal opening and a later character reveal deal openly with the subjects of homophobia and remaining closeted but these touches, although well intentioned, get lost in the overly busy narrative. This sequel isn’t lumbering and moves swiftly for a long movie but leaves too many plot points dangling. Like Beverly’s Marsh’s horrific home life, it has a strong introduction but is never dealt with again. Condensing King’s massive 1,138-page was absolutely necessary but adapting a lengthy work means either keeping story elements or dropping them, not holding onto bits of the good stuff, then forgetting them a few scenes later.

The adult cast is impressive and well chosen, particularly the always-excellent Jessica Chastain, who digs deep into Marsh’s alternately tortured and fondly recalled past. Bill Hader, playing the older Richie Tozier, injects sharp humor into his every appearance and easily steals the film.

 As solid as the adult actors are, the young performers playing the Loser’s Club still own the movie; the younger cast shares a well honed chemistry, rapport and comic timing that their grown up counterparts lack. It’s strange to admit that I was happy to see moments begin with Chastain and cut to Sophia Lillis playing the same role but there it is. Including the original cast and giving them new scenes to play was among the smartest choices here.

From the very beginning, we’re reminded that the older Bill, played pretty well by James McAvoy, has written an ending to his book that was unpopular and needs a new conclusion that “doesn’t suck.” It’s an obvious nod to the famous response to the 1990 TV-mini-series of “IT,” in which a stop-motion animated critter muted the overall emotional effect. Here, the final scenes work- if anything, the grand finale plays like a rousing, grown-up version of “The Goonies.” As aggressively scary and violent as this gets, a sense of fun (in an EC Comics way) buffers the grisly stuff. Compared to “Stranger Things” and “Super 8,” either “IT” is a preferable revisit to the 80’s (and Muschietti once again displays his apparent love for “A Nightmare on Elm St. 5”).

Whereas the first new version of “IT” is tighter and near-perfect, I admired how Warner Brothers basically let Muschietti over-indulge himself and do whatever he wanted for this installment. Truth be told, an even longer version (20 minutes extra, tops) would have created more room for dueling subplots to breathe.

Is this really the end? Of course not. If there isn’t a prequel called “Pennywise” made within the next five years, someone at Warner Brothers will find a red balloon floating above their desk.

Three and a Half Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly