Pennywise the Dancing Clown may be Stephen King’s most terrifying creation, but It’s lasting resonance comes from the Losers Club, the band of Derry, Maine misfits who are forced to contend with an unspeakable monster and, in the process, confront their darkest fears. Their deeply rooted, wholly relatable dreams, doubts and anxieties—about sex, family, and identity—underpin their saga’s supernatural insanity, and make them figures worth not only rooting for against King’s signature fiend, but caring about as living, breathing three-dimensional boys and girls (and men and women). No matter that it’s awash in unforgettable nightmares, King’s 1,138-page tome is a hopeful horror story about sympathetic individuals who triumph over evil through the power of memory, togetherness, and love.
Andy Muschietti’s 2017 blockbuster It understood that about the author’s magnum opus, and so does his follow-up, It: Chapter 2 (in theaters September 6). Which is why, viewed apart or together, they’re two of the finest big-screen King adaptations ever.
With a 169-minute runtime, It: Chapter 2 has a girth to match, relatively speaking, that of its source material. And though it makes many alterations to King’s book, excising certain elements and combining others, it’s true to its sprawling, carnivalesque, poignant spirit. Wearing its heart on its carnival-costumed sleeve, Muschietti’s sequel is the latter half of an epic that intertwines yesteryear and today. In the director’s expert hands—guided by a Gary Dauberman script that shrewdly spends as much time on its human characters as its nerve-wracking set pieces—it delivers jaunty, jolty thrills and unnerving imagery while simultaneously placing its prime focus on the process of growing up, and how it necessitates wrestling with the memories that, for good or ill, define us.
Twenty-seven years after the first film’s events, Derry is still a place that’s rotten beneath its cheerful surface, as proven by an opening scene in which a group of gay-bashing thugs beat a homosexual couple to a pulp and toss one of the men off a bridge, where he’s promptly chomped on by the embodiment of this locale’s malevolence, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). This registers as a hate crime to most but not to Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who’s never left his hometown and works as the resident librarian (he even lives in the public building’s attic). Recognizing that the clown he and his childhood friends defeated—but didn’t kill—is up to his old wickedness, Mike phones his former cohorts, reminding them that they all swore a blood oath decades earlier to return to Derry should It ever reawaken.
Employing a variety of transitional trick shots, as well as extreme canted angles whenever Pennywise’s destructive influence is felt (including over his main minion, psycho Henry Bowers), Muschietti reintroduces us to the now-adult Losers Club: horror writer Bill (James McAvoy), whom everyone agrees can’t concoct a good ending; fashion designer Beverly (Jessica Chastain), who’s suffering in an abusive marriage; stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader), who’s stuck in the closet; risk-assessment advisor Eddie (James Ransone), as big a hypochondriac as ever; and architect Ben (Jay Ryan), who’s shed his adolescent weight to become a sensitive hunk. Though they barely remember their initial ordeal with Pennywise or the promise they made to each other, they agree to reassemble—save, that is, for Stan (Andy Bean), who responds to Mike’s call by slitting his wrists in the bathtub.
The Losers Club’s Chinese restaurant reunion is enlivened by Richie’s wisecracking and by a genuine sense of reconnection and remembrance. Their slowly warming rapport exudes joyfulness, which makes Pennywise’s rotten fortune-cookie interruption all the more jarring. The past keeps intruding on the present in It: Chapter 2, figuratively and literally, as the Losers Club go in search of vital yesteryear artifacts and Muschietti cross-cuts between 2015 and 1989 to underscore the way in which exhilarating and traumatic youthful experiences leave permanent marks. His temporal flip-flopping requires de-aging his younger leads (somewhat unevenly, replete with shaky ADR), and it creates a dialogue between childhood and adulthood, with the grown-ups striving to remember the good times that fade as the years go on, and to face the uglier incidents that wound and scar. The result is akin to an echo chamber, epitomized by Beverly fending off her husband in the exact same manner that she did her dad in the first It.
Alongside a couple of cheeky cameos, It: Chapter 2’s adult stars superbly evoke both how these characters have been defined by their maiden battle with Pennywise, and the arduousness of their decision to stay and fight the personification of their every weakness. At the same time, their performances radiate warmth, camaraderie and humor, with Hader stealing the show via a stream of hilarious quips, many of them about Eddie’s mom. They’re perfectly realized imperfect forty-somethings: wracked with misgivings and self-loathing; wrestling with pain and distress they’d just as soon forget; and finding strength in each other’s loyalty and bravery.
For long stretches, It: Chapter 2 ignores its horror-movie obligations in order to concentrate on its protagonists’ efforts to transcend their suffering. In doing so, it sacrifices a certain amount of scariness, and even when Pennywise is present, he proves considerably less chilling than he did in his prior outing. This isn’t due to Skarsgård’s turn as the creature; his drooling coos to children from shadowy recesses and his eyes-facing-different-directions staredowns of potential prey remain pitch-perfect. Nor does it have to do with Muschietti’s lack of eerie imagination; his CGI ghouls have a pleasurably gross amusement-park quality to them. Rather, it’s merely the natural byproduct of a story about people learning to stand up to, and diminish, that which frightens them most.
This Pennywise is as over-the-top cruel and cunning as before, and so too is It: Chapter 2, which does away with most of the out-there metaphysical elements of King’s story but still manages to deliver a host of inventive centerpieces (Beverley’s visit to her old home, now owned by an elderly lady; Bill’s journey through a funhouse hall of mirrors), along with retaining the absurd Ritual of Chüd, a Native American rite designed to destroy the villain. The real forces of evil in Muschietti’s alternately unsettling and moving film, however, are the corrosive thoughts and feelings about one’s self that lurk, like a virus, within—and are only conquerable through the act of remembering who you, and your friends, truly are.