Upon seeing an autonomous skateboard emanating blood clatter down a stairway, one main character in “It Chapter Two” comforts a friend who thinks they ought to be running away. “This is Derry,” says James McAvoy’s Bill in an unusually plucky tone. “I’m kind of getting used to it.”
After putting up with nearly two hours of assorted jolts on par with the possessed skateboard, audience members will surely relate to Bill’s sentiment of not caring about “It’s” smoke and mirrors anymore. Unfortunately, for general horror fans and Stephen King devotees alike, “It Chapter Two” stands as yet more bungled proof of the unfeasibility of translating the author’s sprawling, cocaine-influenced novels to the screen. Whereas It the creature assumes the form of whatever its prey fears most, “It” the pop-culture phenomenon takes the form of whatever mass audiences and woke critics crave the most, manifesting most often as a mess.
The movie opens on a distressing and disconnected anti-gay beating that’s ripped without discernment from the earlier pages of the book. The grown-up timeline of the novel “It” was contemporaneous with the period in which King cranked it out, a time in which fatal violence against figures like Harvey Milk and Charlie Howard would occasionally ignite media outrage and puncture the illusion of American tranquility.
The film version of “It,” however, transposes the action three decades forward, both for convenience’s sake and ostensibly to ride the now tiresome wave of ’80s nostalgia, which peaked with the advent of “Stranger Things.” The change in setting and, by extension, social mores to 2016 results in an unbelievable and gratuitous cold open that merely accentuates the sensationalism and simplistic morality (hate bad, love good) already ingrained in King’s writing.
Subsequent to the attack on the nameless gay couple, which could be substituted for any other omen or just removed to save time, the movie segues into a repetitive cycle of getting the Losers Club back together that offers a generously early warning as to the movie’s structural faults. The adult Mike, who stayed behind in Derry as a watchdog, calls one childhood friend after another to alert them of It’s return, and the film accordingly re-introduces in single file every character we met in the previous chapter as a teenager.
Think of Nick Fury summoning the Avengers, but they’re all in retirement and take about twice as long to convince. Eventually the heroes converge in their hometown and, after much exposition, devise a plan to slay the titular Pennywise by performing a bunch of individuated quests, all involving facing their suppressed memories and fears.
This split-up-and-look-for-talismans arrangement creates redundancy twofold, within the movie itself by repeating the same scene ad nauseum and within the series as a whole. Through flashbacks, the cyclical middle act constantly calls back to conflicts or insecurities dealt with less obnoxiously in the first film and with less obtrusive CGI. When finding themselves caught in the psychological snare of Pennywise, the characters often assure themselves, “This isn’t real, none of this is real!”
Audiences will probably have a similarly cursed reaction upon bearing witness to such counterproductive jump scares as a gaggling naked hag, a giant Paul Bunyan statue sprung to life, or a girl’s head engulfed in flames. You may not have noticed that none of these things were real, but your brain did.
The surplus of unconvincing scares can’t be pinned on the CG artists, who turn in deliriously cool and creepy work (the fortune cookie monsters are a favorite of mine), but on the indiscretions of director Andy Muschietti, driven mad by his $60-70 million budget and neglectful that there’s a limit to how much digital fakery the human mind can accept, especially in a typically low-budget genre that thrives on inventive prosthetics and makeup.
If the horror wasn’t already unintentionally funny and feeble enough, “It 2” cribs another deplorable technique from “The Avengers” by sending its now matured characters to the Marvel University of Quipping and Smack Talk. Bill Hader’s stand-up comedian Richie, in particular, squashes any vestige of dread, tension, and sorrow by injecting a one-liner or punctual profanity after every disturbing revelation, which has the effect of illuminating the utter lack of poetry and elegance in King’s dialogue.
“I believe Richie said it best,” remarks the leader of the Losers, referring to a line from “It” that screenwriter Gary Dauberman apparently regards as memorable. His friend has to think a moment before his “best” comes back to him: “Let’s kill this f-cking clown!” So inspiring. Bravo, Muschietti.
On one level, “It 2” wants to function as a self-aware celebration of King’s work, full of fan service moments that are unwarranted or even self-incriminating. In one nightmare sequence induced by Pennywise, a character jams his head into a door frame and yells a line improvised by Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” a loose adaptation made with no consultation from and indeed hated by the original author.
There’s also a running gag at the expense of the writer Bill, a King surrogate whose wife, friends, and fans tell him that his “endings always suck.” It goes without saying this is a bold kind of joke to weave throughout a movie with an ending guaranteed to be viewed as corny and laughable.
Both parts of “It” play into a bromide that has infused a lot of King’s books and postmodern horror, namely, “The real horror is X that human beings do to each other.” For every spooky clown chase in the first “It,” Muschietti included a scene of familial or social discord designed to appear more relatable and disturbing to snobbish critics who tend to denigrate horror.
For example, the real horror isn’t an imaginary demonic clown yanking a kid down the sewer drain, but the all too real monstrosity that is sexual abuse at the hands of a lecherous father. The real horror isn’t a disfigured leper spreading poison by physical contact, but ordinary, real people spreading airborne poison by bullying, gossip, slut shaming, and racism. So on and so forth.
The 2017 “It” at least had the benefit of focusing directly on these calamities instead of flippantly suggesting them in flashback, but the “real horror” mode of storytelling always runs the risk of devolving into a soapbox and preventing the audience from getting invested, let alone scared. This ailment has plagued Guillermo Del Toro’s overtly political monster movies, and it afflicts “It 2” which adds gay repression and domestic assault to the already deep pot of real horrors chronicled in its predecessor.
Moreover, the patronizing way it deals with these themes has all the subtlety of Pennywise’s sneak attacks on naïve children. “Be who you want to be. Be proud,” exhorts a voiceover, as the camera predictably cuts to a major character whom the film has clumsily and reticently outed as gay, despite stopping short of showing any physical intimacy. Would that Warner Bros. knew the deadline for corporate Pride condescension passed more than two months ago.
With a browbeating, fit-for-bestseller lesson on the destructive power of words and the parasitical nature of evil, “It 2” speaks a message King fans have heard numerous times before encased in a film they more or less saw two years ago. Muschietti himself has stated that President Donald Trump “does exactly what the clown does,” so horror hounds shouldn’t feel pressured to head for the cineplex; supposedly they can watch It sow fear from the comfort of their own social echo chambers.
Although the sequel certainly has its highlights—Bill Skarsgård’s demented performance as Pennywise, some creative visuals, and the enduring camaraderie of the ensemble child cast—it’s hard to recommend spending another three hours with “It.”