It Chapter Two
Mainstream interest in the horror genre has spiked over the last several years, thanks in large part to the so-called subgenre of “elevated horror.” Popularized by indie studios such as A24 and Blumhouse, “elevated horror” describes (with a fair amount of condescension) a horror movie which purports a level of intellectualism and prestige “not traditional” for the genre (like Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out or Ari Aster’s indie hit Midsommar). More often than not, these “elevated horror” movies are buzzy; people share their trailers on Facebook, post their reactions on YouTube and prognosticate their awards potential on Twitter. More standard horror movie fare — such as The Conjuring franchise or a Stephen King adaptation like Pet Sematary — come and go with little fanfare and mediocre box office performances. This is simply the state of horror in 2019, with one notable exception: Andy Muschietti’s It and It Chapter Two.
When It was released in the fall of 2017, it opened to a whopping $123 million domestically. To put that in perspective, Thor: Ragnarok ($122 M), Spider-Man: Homecoming ($117 M), Wonder Woman ($103 M) and The Fate of the Furious ($98 M) all had lower opening weekend grosses. It wasn’t just a hit; it was (and still is) the biggest horror event since The Exorcist, which had a total gross of $232 million in 1973. Needless to say, the hype for It Chapter Two began even before it was officially announced, and expectations were high. Writer-director Andy Muschietti had only two options as he prepared to direct the next installment of the horror genre’s biggest hit: go big, or go home. And to his own detriment, he did a little bit of both.
Audiences who ventured to the theater to catch Muschietti’s latest installment may have noticed that It Chapter Two is one of the longest horror films in recent memory. Though the idea of an epic-length horror movie is hardly unique (the aforementioned Midsommar clocked at around 140 minutes, while last year’s Suspiria topped 150 minutes), It Chapter Two is unusually long for a movie that doesn’t comfortably fit the descriptor of “elevated horror.” At 170 minutes, Chapter Two is nearly as long as the 1990 It miniseries, whose three-hour-plus runtime encompassed the plots of both of Muschietti’s chapters. Sometimes length can be a great asset, creating a more immersive experience for the audience, but in the case of It Chapter Two, longer is definitely not better. One thing that doesn’t help is that It Chapter Two is painfully predictable. Every beat is spelled out twenty minutes ahead of time by exposition machine Mike Hanlon, a character whose only real purpose is to get the gang back together and tell them exactly what to do. Compounded with the fact that It Chapter Two features innumerable flashbacks throughout its long runtime, the film’s predictability feels especially taxing.
The only truly great moments of the movie — a.k.a. anything that features Bill Skarsgård’s supremely twisted Pennywise performance — are few and far between. In stark contrast to the first It installment, It Chapter Two has Pennywise taking a backseat. He still torments the “Losers” as he did when they were kids, but his motivations are vague. Sure, he wants the Losers to feel fear before they die (hence the torment), but he is shown killing other Derry residents swiftly and with ease. Meanwhile, he lets the Losers parade around Derry for what seems like days. What’s stopping this interdimensional child-eater from killing the Losers other than lazy plotting? Between Pennywise’s limited screentime and lack of clear motivation, it’s no wonder he feels overshadowed by the big stars who spend most of the movie sulking and arguing with each other. The dynamic between Pennywise and the Losers has inherently changed, and the result is thirty to forty minutes of thrilling horror, scattered amidst two hours of uneven drama. Grounded drama in a horror movie can work (look no further than last year’s Hereditary), but it requires something that It Chapter Two does not have: good casting.
Bill Skarsgård and the child actors (all of whom reprise their roles from the first film) do a fine job -- it’s the grown-up “Losers” who are more hit-or-miss. On the positive end of the spectrum are Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live) and James Ransone (The Wire), as Richie and Eddie. Hader and Ransone share a lot of screen time and are primarily tasked with bringing levity to the otherwise grim film. But that’s not to say that it’s all fun and games for these two — Richie and Eddie’s friendship also serves as one of the key emotional story arcs in the film. Luckily, it seems both Hader and Ransone are just as comfortable dramatically as they are comedically, a strength which leads to at least a few successfully nuanced moments. On the negative end of the spectrum are James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Jay Ryan, who do their best to navigate the tedious love triangle of Bill, Beverly and Ben. Despite the fact that McAvoy and Chastain are playing the ostensible leads of the film, they have no chemistry, and neither actor ever comes close to commanding the screen. Any emotional attachment to Bill or Beverly must be tied to their younger counterparts, because the “new” Bill and Beverly tell us nothing new. On the other hand, Jay Ryan’s portrayal of the formerly-chubby Ben does a miraculous job of undoing all previous emotional attachment, stripping away his character's charm with his unnecessarily stoic performance.
As an ensemble movie, It Chapter Two is unbalanced. It has a couple of good performances and a few great scares, but the whole film buckles under the weight of its miss-matched cast and bloated runtime. With a more judicious execution, this could have been a worthwhile resolution for fans of the franchise, but as it currently exists, it’s hard to label It Chapter Two as anything more than an unsatisfying finale. ★★½