When It Chapter One was released in 2017 it took the whole world by storm – myself included. It re-ignited an appreciation for Stephen King and the horror genre as a whole. The film grossed $700 million at the box office – which is almost unheard of for a horror flick. Modern horror films like The Conjuring, Annabelle, and Paranormal Activity are considered blockbusters when they manage to pull in $200 and $300 million at a time, but It came out of nowhere and humbled them all. Apparently, It is not only the eater of worlds and children, but of other horror films’ clout as well. Soon after, King saw a further renaissance of his work with adaptations of his other twisted tales such as Gerald’s Game, 1922, and Pet Sematary. Some of them were good, some of them were awful, but none of them came close to It in terms of breaking into the zeitgeist. And so, we all waited with bated breath for the follow-up. In a way, It Chapter Two became the Avengers: Endgame of Stephen King films – the thread that might tie the shared Stephen King cinematic universe together, at least symbolically.
Now that the sequel has been released, can I say the wait was worth it? Honestly, yes, in a way. Although my thoughts on the movie might be as divisive as the movie itself. Let’s get one thing out of the way upfront: It Chapter Two is not as good as the first. But let’s get another thing out of the way upfront, and this may be a hard pill to swallow for Stephen King fans (please bear with me, I’m a fan too), but it’s something that became increasingly obvious to me as I watched Chapter Two: this is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Stephen King property ever. It’s certainly more faithful than the first chapter, and that is both a blessing and a curse. Every criticism you’ve ever had or ever heard other people have of King’s novels is here: it’s too long, it’s cheesy, the pacing is off, some of it seems more like a nonsensical psychedelic trip than a tightly woven story, and so on.
I actually revisited the book It after watching Chapter One, and I distinctly remember being impressed at how the filmmakers managed to cut out all the extra fat and deliver a film that still contained the spirit, the essence, of Stephen King’s novels, without falling into any of the pitfalls. Part of that was due to the wise decision to keep the story and focus anchored strictly within the childhood of the characters. Unlike the book, which (sometimes haphazardly) bounces back and forth between past and present, the first film understood that such a feat would be difficult to pull off on screen – arguably it wasn’t perfectly executed in the book either. Chapter Two, however, attempts to simultaneously juggle the childhood and adulthood of the characters – and the result is a bit messy at times. In many ways, it robs both timelines of their impact. At the same time, it is admittedly interesting to see the two timelines juxtaposed against one another, and sometimes revisiting the past serves as a decent recap of previous events. After all, it’s been two years since the previous movie’s release, so a periodic refresher doesn’t hurt too much. The problem is, the film doesn’t seem to know when enough is enough. A periodic refresher is one thing, but some of these scenes just feel gratuitous.
I remember seeing a joint appearance with Stephen King and fellow author George R.R. Martin on stage. Martin, who is famous for taking an extraordinarily long time to finish books, asked King how he managed to write so fast. King replied that he forces himself to write every day, even when he doesn’t feel like it. He admitted to struggling with writer’s block, but just powering through it. Martin seemed impressed, perhaps a bit envious, but also at odds with King’s style. Say what you want about Martin, but he doesn’t write just to write. He writes when he knows he has something worthwhile to say. It Chapter Two often feels like the part of the book where King is writing just for the sake of it, in an almost self-indulgent way.
King even makes a cameo in the film, essentially poking fun at himself in a scene that comes close to breaking the fourth wall. It’s played like it should be self-deprecating but also comes off as slightly self-indulgent. If there’s one thing we can learn from this chapter, it’s that sometimes less is more. But I digress.
Now that I’ve aired my grievances – you’re probably wondering what, exactly, is good about the movie. The truth is, there are a lot of good things about this movie, just as there are about King’s book.
For starters, the acting is phenomenal. This is a stellar cast that is generally every bit as good as their younger counterparts from the first film. Bill Hader definitely stands out as Richie, he truly steals the show here, at least from the other adult members of the Losers’ Club. In a lot of ways, Hader provides the heart of the film. He also provides a lot of comedic scenes that feel like they wouldn’t have worked as well without him. Still, that doesn’t mean the other performances aren’t without merit. Honestly, there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. Jessica Chastain does justice to the role of Bev, James McAvoy displays a nuanced version of Bill, Isaiah Mustafa makes Mike a fully dimensional character, James Ransone is very impressive as Eddie; really, everyone is on point here. It’s also remarkable how similar many of them look to the kids. They’re all believable as grown-up versions of those same characters. Even if some of them have packed on a few muscles.
Moreover, it goes without saying that Bill Skarsgård turns in another spellbinding performance as the diabolical Pennywise the clown. As a sidenote, his appearance kind of reminded me of Death Note‘s Ryuk at times. Coincidentally, a friend of mine mentioned that the movie plays more like “anime horror” than traditional Western horror. Honestly, that makes sense. Some of King’s crazier concepts have been hard to adapt to the screen because of how fantastical they are, and anime aesthetics often have qualities that effectively bridge the gap between fantasy and reality.
Beyond the acting, the writing is also strong – at least when it sticks to what matters. The main themes of the story are all here. And the movie plays like a greatest hits collection of Stephen King’s most frequently recurring themes. Rooms filled with blood? Check. Creepy, naked old ladies attempting to smother people? Check. Menacing dogs? Check. Wife-beating? Check. Child abuse? Double-check.
Really, a lot of these scenes are basically miniature re-enactments of The Shining, Carrie, Cujo, or any other number of Stephen King stories. In a way, that’s what has always made It so special. Because It can be anything. It is the end-all be-all horror story. The creature is so nebulous that it could basically be shoehorned into any other horror film and be the one-size-fits-all explanation behind every bump in the night. That’s the beauty of It.
The additional beauty of It is another one of King’s recurrent themes. It’s one of his more positive themes, and it’s something I strongly believe in, which is the power of people to overcome greater evils. The concept that if you apply “mind over matter”, you’ll realize that most of the things holding you back in life are in your head. They’re the lies you tell yourself. And although nothing comes free, as there is always a sacrifice in life as there is in King’s stories, the sacrifices you have to make are often for the greater good.
All of this is captured beautifully in It Chapter Two. It’s just unfortunate that It, with a nearly unjustifiable 3-hour runtime, also captures another hallmark of Stephen King, a trait that even Tim Curry’s It miniseries from 1990 couldn’t escape: it’s too long for its own good.