My Stephen King phase lasted from roughly 1986 to 1993, and began when a late-night cable viewing of Christine spooked me so much that I checked out the novel from my junior high school’s library. Having consumed that, I resolved to catch ’em all. To an extent I inherited the fixation from my mom, whose all-time favorite novel is The Stand. I proceeded to read every novel from Carrie through Gerald’s Game, skipping only The Dark Tower series because the first one was impossible to find when my King spree began. (Drifting away from King’s work wasn’t his fault exactly. 1993 was among my darkest years.)
Though I do have my favorites among them, I have a particularly fond memory of the It reading experience. I sat down one evening with the 1000-page paperback edition and proceeded to devour the first 500 in one go. At 6 a.m. my grandma got up for breakfast and was quite surprised to see I hadn’t gone to bed yet. I haven’t done that in ages and would dearly love to have the free time and concentration power to devote to any task for that many hours in a row at my age. I blame the internet.
Of all King’s screen adaptations, ABC’s 1990 It miniseries may be the only one that our entire family has watched. It became one of those rare cultural artifacts that everyone watched back in the day. My wife even picked up the DVD as a $4 Black Friday special, particularly a gem because it includes commentary from some of the original cast, including the late, awesome John Ritter (who gives a few of his own scenes the MST3K treatment). It was as flawed as most TV-movies and miniseries of the day, but we were happy with it remaining a nostalgic work from a bygone era of our lives, regarded in a sentimental way despite some creaky, limited-budget aesthetics.
But as with far too many intellectual properties of yore, Hollywood decided It needed to take a turn through the reboot machine. I waited till IT Chapter 1 was on home video before watching it and therefore wasn’t obligated by my own rules to write about it. (The short review: okay, not mind-blowing.) With It Chapter 2 I decided not to wait and caught it opening weekend. Longtime MCC readers know every film I see in theaters gets its own entry, regardless of how many weeks I procrastinate writing it.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Killer clown from beyond terrorizes a band of outsider kids way back when. They have a fight; outsiders win. 27 years later the clown returns and the kids are now adults who literally forgot all about the fight of their lives. The one guy who never left their hometown has to call everyone back for a surprise reunion, reopen all their psychological wounds, and wage war on the clown one last time for the sake of the town, their reemerging PTSD issues, and all the present-day kids now being murdered until they get their act together, overcome their fears, and save the day, preferably with a better ending than we got from either the novel’s original ick-fest or the miniseries’ climactic dogpile on a 1940s prop spider.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Bill Skarsgård is naturally back as Pennywise, as are all the same teens and preteens including Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things), Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!), and Wyatt Oleff (li’l Peter Quill in the first Guardians of the Galaxy). Joining the thrill ride as Our Heroes all grown up are James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, X-Men survivors; James Ransone from season 2 of The Wire; SNL alum Bill Hader, Emmy Award-winning creator of HBO’s Barry; Old Spice ad maverick Isaiah Mustafa; Jay Ryan (from The CW’s Beauty and the Beast; and Andy Bean, whose turn as Stan lasts about as long as his DC Universe series Swamp Thing did.
A few fun cameos intrude, including director Peter Bogdanovich (Mask, Paper Moon), stereotyped in a bit part as a director, and, as a crusty bike shop owner, a certain celebrated horror novelist returning to the big screen for his first time in years. (I’d forgotten how he used to cameo in some of his films — taking a cue from Hitchcock, then passing on the cute-cameo baton to Stan Lee.)
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Fear is the mind-killer
- Ordinary childhood can seem a walking nightmare even without magical murder clowns in it
- Things that scared us as kids may still get a rise out of us as adults, but some old fears, like Freddy Krueger in the first Nightmare on Elm Street, ultimately have no power over us if we stand our ground
- Sometimes you can and should go home again
- Childhood friends can be your BFFs, but sometimes they will also let you down and not be worth Facebook-friending
- It’s okay to reboot stuff that fans already consider definitively adapted, because CG advancements, money, and/or a need to compensate for previous, perceived faults
- Whenever an overtly creepy guy begs you a little too hard for friendship or pity, RUN AWAY (I believe this will also be a plot point in the next evil-clown flick coming soon to theaters)
Nitpicking? The first one felt more like a satisfying, self-contained, uninterrupted viewing experience even though we knew Pennywise wasn’t really gone for good. Chapter 2 necessarily brakes for new flashbacks with the kids and consequently is a longer, sometimes draggier experience. The teen heroes’ sequences feel like outtakes from Chapter 1 and, surely would’ve dragged that one down if they’d been kept therein. I presume the filmmakers’ editing was intentional due to concerns that the audience might have forgetten all the necessary setups and foreshadowing and therefore not properly appreciate the finale’s callbacks if it weren’t inserted here. Weaving the two narratives into a single film, not unlike that miniseries, might have streamlined both narratives into a more consistent flow…but then wouldn’t have divided as neatly into two halves. That being said, the bloat that Chapter 2 has to shoulder is at times palpable.
Come to think of it, easily 20-30 of the film’s 170 minutes are spent on Our Heroes taking turns running back to their hotel and threatening to quit the film for good because they’re s-s-s-s-scared, only to be pep-talked into staying by whoever’s already overcome their own ghosts. The hotel in effect becomes a revolving-door running gag whose humor is less intentional than the film’s other, actual jokes.
Before we leave the kids alone, I’m guessing their flashbacks were all filmed at the same time as Chapter 1 for the sake of visual continuity and for convenience while they were all already gathered. Only one kid appears two very noticeable years older: Jackson Robert Scott, the late Georgie Denbrough, returns for a scene with the adult McAvoy, who of course wasn’t cast until after Chapter 1‘s release and therefore couldn’t shoot their scene at the time. Li’l Georgie is buried in his raincoat and a web of shadows, but he looks as though his growth spurt has continued even beyond death.
While the film has its effective shocks, some of Pennywise’s antics come off more as goofy than scary — a few of the unconvincing all-CG creatures, some slapstick involving a doggie, a giant Paul Bunyan statue (the patron saint of road trips!), and in particular a sequence in which Ransome, as the once-sickly Eddie, fends off a disgusting, literally filth-ridden attack when inexplicably Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” begins blaring on the soundtrack, as if we hadn’t just seen that same song put to comedic use in Deadpool, and with much better timing. Things that are supposed to be funny to Pennywise but mortifying to Our Heroes keep coming off as intrusively wacky to the audience, alleviating more of the built-up tension than they’re meant to.
On the other end of the sensitivity spectrum: any viewers operating on warm memories of Tim Curry who weren’t already frightened away by Georgie’s nasty demise in Chapter 1, or newcomers with zero familiarity to the source material, may lose their lunch over the brutality of the opening scenes, in which — sticking to King’s original written interlude bridging the 27-year time-jump — a gay couple experiences the most horrifying night of their lives, even before Pennywise shows up. One has to wonder how many meetings were held to debate whether or not to keep the scene in today’s social climate, and exactly how nauseating to make it.
My biggest problem overall: as an old fogey, I still prefer Tim Curry to Bill Skarsgård. Curry, at least, was convincing as a seemingly benign, real-world human clown who could persuade an average child that he was a silly, harmless, professional jester who was safe to approach, right before inserting his sharpened dental prosthetics. By contrast, Skarsgård’s piercing gaze, buck teeth anxious for some angry gnawing, and harsh red paint streaks don’t look employable as a charming funnyman by any circus open after 1940. His is the sort of face that gave clowns a bad name. The fact that any and all children don’t start screaming “STRANGER DANGER!” as soon as he says hi is the two-parter’s biggest logical hurdle. I never bought him as a happy clown hiding a heart of darkness. He’s all dark from the get-go.
So what’s to like? To be fair, Chapter 2 has its share of effective terrors, including a scene in which Pennywise actually does trick a reticent li’l lass into ignoring her gut instinct. Though at first she rightly senses something’s wrong and recoils, Pennywise swiftly switches gears, feigns hurt feelings, drips crocodile tears, and makes her feel like she’s the one who’s being mean and judgmental. Just as she falls for it and apologizes for not being a nice girl, then the trap is sprung. This tactic will feel unnervingly familiar to a lot of women who’ve dealt with more than their fair share of dudes and trolls throughout their lives, both online and off-.
Even scarier: a brief moment of Skarsgård sans clown makeup. The unexpected revelation takes seconds to devolve into instant, damaging madness. For a viewer like me who doesn’t go out of their way for horror as much as they used to in their youth, it’s inspired, visceral bits like that that remind me why any of it ever appealed to me back in the day.
The adults bring gravitas to their roles where room permits. The absolute runaway MVPs are Bill Hader and James Ransone, inheritors of the mantles once worn by Harry Anderson and Dennis Christopher, Richie and Eddie remain the wise-crackers of the gang with the funniest quips as kids and grown-ups, but their relationship deepens as the stakes are raised, with their bromance — perhaps something more, had their fortunes gone otherwise? — providing the heaviest emotional anchor in the face of the gallivanting circus of death. Hader in particular brings to bear all the lessons learned and exemplified in the best bits of Barry. (To this day, I still tear up whenever I remember his line reading of “My lord, the queen is dead” in the season-1 finale.)
It seems wrong for Jessica Chastain to rate only an “honorable mention” given Bev has the darkest past, but she nonetheless makes a deeper impression here than she did in Dark Phoenix and reminds viewers there were valid reasons for all those past acting nominations. I’d never seen Jay Ryan before this, but I’m curious to look for him in the future. Somehow I felt James McAvoy was given the shortest shrift as Bill, who stutters once or twice this time around. And yet, compared to the rest of his 2019 (the unnecessary Dark Phoenix and the blood-angrying Glass), I can safely, technically say Midlife Crisis Crossover calls IT Chapter 2 the Best James McAvoy Film of the Year. Very technically.
Most of the memorable scenes remain intact in updated versions. The Chinese dinner scene continues on schedule, albeit with more computers at work. The Henry Bowers subplot remains mostly pointless except to give Mike something to do besides toting all the exposition. As for the most pressing question in the mind of anyone who’s ever experienced IT in any form: the ending still isn’t perfect, or captivating, but I’d say it is slightly improved in a manner consistent with this Pennywise’s overall shtick, and in a way that would make Jon Peters happy.
I still prefer the original miniseries, quaint cheapness and all, but director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman manage to facilitate a few flourishes worth checking out for their own sake, ably enough that I’m hoping theirs is the last word on IT in my lifetime. If some future hotshots want to redo it yet again as a 39-episode Netflix show, I’m out.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the IT Chapter 2 end credits. But I had to stay and make sure he didn’t secretly pop up again when I wasn’t looking. This way I know for sure he’s really gone. I think.