Has there ever been a movie like It Chapter Two? Yes, cinemas have been flooded with Stephen King adaptations for generations now, and scary movies remain one of the steadiest sources of Hollywood profit. Part of the fun of horror films is that they often feel cheap, grimy, and alluringly unglitzy, playing in the backwoods of the multiplex. Yet It Chapter Two, the sequel to 2017’s mega-hit about an extra-dimensional fear monster tormenting a group of teenagers, plays like a superhero movie. It boasts a formidable two-hour, 49-minute running time and is crammed with CGI, huge set pieces, and an A-list ensemble. Such is the story of modern Hollywood: Every release has to feel like the biggest event of the year.
The first It, which like this entry was directed by the Argentine filmmaker Andy Muschietti, could hardly aim for subtlety, given that it was drafting off one of King’s most demented opuses, a 1,100-page book about a demon clown. Muschietti adapted the movie into a kind of rollicking, funhouse adventure that would get the audience to shriek, jump in their seats, and laugh all at once. The pleasures of that film, which was based on the first half of King’s tome, were elemental, tapping into the primal and often irrational fears of its juvenile cast of characters (I particularly enjoyed the Modigliani monster). It Chapter Two is not nearly as straightforward.
The first movie pointedly avoided much investigation into just what Pennywise the Dancing Clown (played by Bill Skarsgård) was. Painted with ghastly white and red makeup, able to change shape at will, and armed with rows of sharp teeth, Pennywise is a deliberate blank who just so happens to favor a particularly chilling form. Chapter Two, with a screenplay by Gary Dauberman, is a concerted effort to dig into the myth of Pennywise, sketching out a video-gamey quest to defeat him. Devoted Stephen Kingphiles may be delighted to hear that the “Ritual of Chüd” is invoked countless times in this film, but more casual scare-seekers could exit the theater baffled.
Chapter Two is largely set 27 years after the original entry, where all the members of the fabled “Losers’ Club” have grown up, gone their separate ways, and mostly (almost supernaturally) forgotten their teenaged exploits in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. Only Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has stuck around, and when violent attacks reminiscent of the ones from their childhood begin again, he calls everyone back to do holy battle with Pennywise and banish him for good. The grown-up crew includes James McAvoy as the former stutterer Bill Denbrough, Jessica Chastain as his old flame Beverly Marsh, and Bill Hader as the wiseacre Richie Tozier; the group is rounded out by Jay Ryan, James Ransone, and Andy Bean.
Over the course of 169 minutes, the friends reassemble old memories, reckon with the strange directions their grown-up lives have taken them, and then figure out how to take on their chalk-faced tormentor once and for all. The process is a labyrinthine, multipronged series of metaphorical treasure hunts that reminded me of the knotty process required to defeat Voldemort (though King obviously published It a decade before J. K. Rowling even began her wizarding saga). Each member of the Losers’ Club has to go to some childhood haunt in Derry, confront a lingering insecurity, and retrieve an artifact to help ignite the “Ritual of Chüd,” a little-known Native American process of clown banishment.
All of King’s hallmarks are here: an internal mythos that over-relies on bowdlerized indigenous folklore, small-town creepiness, and the constant reminder that growing up can reveal to people new insecurities and shortcomings. But Muschietti, perhaps encouraged by the roaring box-office success of the last film, also jams in as many action-horror sequences as he can, plot be damned; the number of goopy, computer-generated beasts leaping out of the shadows has increased tenfold since the first It. On top of that, the fame of the prior entry’s adolescent cast has apparently exploded to the point where they’re all given a scary flashback of their own, just in case you forgot that these adults used to be kids once, too.
Of the new folks, Hader is probably the standout, transforming young Finn Wolfhard’s motormouthed jokester into an appropriately jaded and embittered stand-up comic who’s only half-convinced Pennywise can be defeated. McAvoy and Chastain are a perfectly competent lead duo, but they’re encumbered by the fact that their characters can barely remember anything about their childhood for the first half of the movie. It’s nervier Losers such as Hader and Ransone (a shocking lookalike for young Jack Dylan Grazer) who give Chapter Two any kind of propulsive energy.
Some sequences recall the boisterous, unnerving joy of the first It, particularly a gross-out buffet of food monsters at a Chinese restaurant and a drawn-out return to Beverly’s childhood apartment, which is inhabited by a creepy old lady. But too often the story gets bogged down in its own dense legendaria, burrowing into the past and present of each character out of nostalgia for a film that came out only two years ago. The length of It Chapter Two is matched by the scale of Pennywise’s big scares, assisted by the slickest visual effects money can buy, but it means the story never manages to pick up any speed. This is a lumbering brute of a film, a creaky roller coaster that inches a little too slowly toward every drop.