REVIEW – ‘It Chapter Two’ can’t meet the high expectations set by its predecessor

Everybody loves a clown. After 2017’s It shockingly became the highest-grossing horror film of all time, we all knew a sequel wouldn’t be far away, particularly after the words “Chapter One” flashed on-screen during the closing credits. With its 1980s nostalgia, a winning ensemble cast of youngsters, and a menacing performance from Bill Skarsgard, the film deserved every dollar it raked in at the box office.

Just two years later, it’s time to head back to Derry where Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Skarsgard) is set to unleash a whole new wave of terror on the next generation of local residents. While all the same ingredients are served up again in this blockbuster sequel, the end result isn’t quite the roaring success of its predecessor. With an exhaustive running time close to three hours long and a relentless wave of outlandish set pieces that get sillier by the minute, It Chapter Two proves that less is more.

At the conclusion of the first film, the Losers Club had defeated the titular villain and sent the shape-shifting monster back to the depths of the sewers below the town of Derry, Maine. Unsure of whether they banished the creature for good, the Losers each swore a blood oath to return home if the villain should ever reappear. Unsurprisingly, the gang have all gone their separate ways over the last 27 years, desperate to put as much distance between themselves and Derry.

Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful author-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter who can’t seem to ever end his stories effectively (a sly jab at It author Stephen King who has long-suffered this very criticism). Richie (a phenomenal Bill Hader) has turned his penchant for quippy one-liners into a career as a wisecracking stand-up comedian. Beverley (Jessica Chastain) has replaced the abuse she suffered from her father with an equally-damaging relationship with her jealous husband. Ben (Jay Ryan) has shed his baby fat (and then some) and become a billionaire architect. Hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone) now works as a risk assessor for an insurance company. And while Stan (Andy Bean) has found a new life with a loving wife, he’s still deeply troubled by the torment he suffered as a child.

Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) was the lone Losers Club member to remain behind in Derry where he now works at the local library, devoting much of his time to researching It and, more importantly, what to do should the entity ever come back. After a series of mysterious deaths and disappearances, Mike is convinced It has returned, meaning it’s time the Losers Club make good on their promise. Forced to confront their childhood demons which still plague each of them, the group reassembles in the hopes of defeating Pennywise for good.

Adapting King’s 1,100-page novel was always going to be a difficult task and it was undoubtedly a wise (and profitable) choice to split the book into two films. While Chapter One focused solely on the events of 1989, Chapter Two constantly jumps back and forth between past and present, with the original young cast returning before they’ve aged too greatly to be unavailable. Director Andy Muschietti blends the two eras in terrific fashion including some impressive visuals transitions from one time period to the next.

The flashbacks flesh out the backstories of the adult characters and showcase how people never really change, no matter how steadfast they are to put their past behind them. However, the 1989 scenes prove to be somewhat of a curse, as they consistently highlight the phenomenal chemistry the young cast had and how that connection simply isn’t replicated by their older counterparts. Muschietti has assembled a superb ensemble adult cast who all look and feel authentically like their younger versions. Yet, they never gel together quite as harmoniously as we saw in the first film, no matter how hard the screenplay forces us to believe they’re still the best of friends.

It doesn’t help the narrative separates the Losers Club during the second act, as each member must return to a location from their childhood to retrieve an artifact to assist with their climactic battle against It. It’s an interesting move that forces each character to literally confront the personal demons of their past, but it stretches on for an exhaustive amount of time (almost an hour) and often drags the pace of the film to a grinding halt.

The highlight here is a terrifying sequence involving Beverly’s return to her childhood home, now occupied by sweet old lady Mrs Kersh (Joan Gregson) whose not all she appears to be. But if you’ve seen the trailer, the sequence is sadly robbed of most of its surprises. But the low point here is Eddie’s return to his local pharmacy where a few horrors await in the basement, namely the leper who stalked him as a youngster. The sequence begins wonderfully tenses and suspenseful but is completely obliterated by the bizarre music inclusion of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Adding to the film’s frustrating running time is a pointless side plot focused on the return of the Losers Club’s chief bully Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been holed up in a mental institution for the last 27 years. With the assistance of It, Bowers escapes and heads home to enact revenge with his trusty switchblade knife. But the storyline goes absolutely nowhere and is tossed aside so ridiculously quickly, you can’t help but wonder why it was even included here. While Grant gives a wonderfully psychotic performance, the side story merely distracts from the main plot and adds nothing to the overall film.

As all sequels generally do, It Chapter Two ups the ante on its number of gargantuan set pieces, with a neverending wave of encounters with It where the entity shifts into all manner of garish monsters. But for all the visual effects wizardly displayed in these moments, few offer any genuine scares to haunt your nightmares. Those will instead come from a number of the film’s quieter and more subdued moments with the creature, particularly a deeply unsettling scene where a young girl is lured under the high school bleachers by Pennywise, reminiscent of Georgie’s sewer drain encounter with the clown in the first film.

The cast is filled with a host of terrific talents who are each put through the wringer in what was likely an arduous production process. McAvoy and Chastain are typically great, although both are somewhat underused. Beverly’s damaging childhood is mined for great dramatic effect, which Chastain naturally handles with aplomb. But her romantic subplot with Ben leaves little impact due to a lack of genuine chemistry between Chastain and Ryan. As integral to the storyline as Mike may be, his character is given little to do but provide often silly exposition, namely a rather laughable hallucinogenic encounter with a Native American tribe who first encountered It centuries ago.

But the real star of the show here is Hader, who is typically hilarious and wonderfully endearing as the smart ass Richie. Effortlessly matching the performance of Finn Wolfhard in the first film, Hader feels like a genuine evolution of the character. Shadowing the younger version at every turn, Hader provides some much-needed levity to the film, livening up every scene he’s a part of and stealing focus every chance he gets. In a film with an enormous cast of characters, it’s the charismatic Hader who runs away with this one.

As for Pennywise himself, Skarsgard is every bit as menacing and unsettling as he was the first time around. Again, he’s rather sparingly used, making an audience long for his every appearance. It’s a shame so many of his scenes involve a calamity of CGI-work where he actor disappears into a series of gigantic creature creations. Pennywise is far more terrifying when he’s nothing more than a clown. Yet, Muschietti can’t resist the temptation to transform the entity into something meant to elicit screams from an audience. Sadly, it often elicited laughs from my audience than howls of terror.

In a visual sense, It Chapter Two is a spectacular display of evocative production design from Paul Denham Austerberry and gorgeous cinematography from Checco Varese. Muschietti’s starkly contrasted colour palette is once again beautiful and his ability to meld scenes from the past to present is wildly impressive, thanks to superb editing from Jason Ballantine. Again, the film highlights how visually sumptuous the horror genre can be, despite the genre’s lack of love come awards season.

But the fatal flaw with this overloaded sequel is its exhausting running time which is simply far longer than it needs to be. By the time the film reaches the two-hour mark, you’ll begin to tire of the set pieces and just long for everything to wrap up. Ahead of you from that point is an absurdly silly climactic showdown that’s all-out madness, as the Loser Club face off with Pennywise who has now taken the form of a giant spider. While the CGI-effects here are truly spectacular, the action is far from it.

Occasionally entertaining and sometimes terrifying, It Chapter Two throws everything it can on the screen and hopes that it sticks. For all its visual delights and a few wonderful performances, the sequel can’t meet the high expectations set by its predecessor. There’s plenty here to enjoy, but it’s wrapped up in an excess of a director who simply didn’t know when to say cut.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgard
Director: Andy Muschietti
Producers: Barbara Muschietti, Dan Lin, Roy Lee
Screenplay: Gary Dauberman
Cinematography: Checco Varese
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Production Design: Paul Denham Austerberry
Editing: Jason Ballantine
Running Time: 169 minutes
Release Date: 6th September 2019 (Australia)

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