Watch a movie closely enough and you’ll notice the best filmmakers share a dialogue with the audience. Expectations get subverted. Winking nods are exchanged. A filmmaker needles, prods, pokes and manipulates. When done effectively, you may feel you’ve gained a new BFF. Although we’ve never met, I feel that way about Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich (who delivers a funny cameo here), and Billy Wilder. They speak to me.
With It Chapter 2, director Andy Muschietti clearly wants to have a chat with us. He knows how to creep us out, how to get inside your head, but it feels like he’s that party guest who overshares until you need to excuse yourself to refresh your drink. Get too much of him and you’re bound to say, “Hey, Andy, could you dial it back a notch? You don’t have to say it all now.” Still, he has enough in the plus column to keep him around for a while.
I enjoyed his first It, and although I had never read the book, had a general idea of what to expect with the sequel. Twenty-seven years later, our members of the Losers Club have grown up and mostly forgotten about their childhood traumas, but Pennywise, the Dancing Clown, has returned to Derry to once again feed off of the vulnerable. Can these friends join together once more to defeat this monster or will this horror haunt them forever?
From this description and the fantastic trailer, I had high expectations for a popcorn thriller filled with scary images. Each character will once again confront their worst fears, but with the difficulty of adulthood added to the mix. On that front, it delivers handily. What I didn’t expect was a graphic early sequence of a brutal gay bashing. I understand it’s in the book, but reading about it and watching it onscreen may just turn out to be two very different experiences. I don’t have an issue with the depiction, but the execution took me by surprise for a big studio film. It doesn’t help that the scene ends with the terrifying return of Pennywise, which takes the hopelessness to a whole new level. Muschietti truly understands film as a dreamscape with the unforgettable images of Pennywise reaching towards the water, slightly out of focus, and ready to strike. Needless to say, I put my popcorn down and dreaded the next two-plus hours.
Luckily, Muschietti has the ability to keep things zipping along as Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one of the gang to remain in Derry, gathers everyone back to fight Pennywise. All of the adults, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, and Andy Bean, prove great matches for their younger counterparts. Hader in particular has the most dynamic role as the adult Richie, all grown up and working as a popular standup comedian. When the group meets in a fun Chinese restaurant scene, we get a great vivid sense of their bond with the added bonus of terrifying creatures giving John Carpenter’s The Thing a run for its money.
At best, this film succeeds in fits and starts, much like the first one. It seems to lurch from one character’s fear sequence to the next, forcing me to count down how many scenes like this we have left. Fortunately, many of these scenes have great impact, especially an under-the-bleachers scene in which a young girl meets our highly manipulative villain. Muschietti and his cinematographer Checco Varese have created a treasure trove of memorable images, such as hundreds of those dreaded red balloons descending upon Derry in the gay bashing scene, a sewer pipe overflowing with water in a clever homage to The Shining, or Pennywise holding a bunch of balloons as he floats over a giant Paul Bunyan statue. He knows how to get you to wince, such as when one character tries to pull a balloon stuck under a bed, and seconds later, you’ll scream. It’s delicious trickery which carries over throughout the film. It doesn’t hurt to have Bill Skarsgård back with his one-of-a-kind, viscerally detailed Pennywise. His body language and creepy vocal nuances provide an endless series of delights.
With so many characters, however, the film struggles with forward momentum. We check in with each individual and ping-pong around to accommodate this large, unwieldy cast. Everyone does a pretty good job, but Hader walks away with the film as exactly the kind of person into which the swearing, motor-mouthed Finn Wolfhard would grow. Ransone also has a field day with his tightly wound Eddie. Pay close attention and you’ll also notice a gay storyline, which, in light of the in-your-face opener, didn’t really need to play things as coy as it does. Perhaps it’s a misguided carryover from the source material, which set the adult portion in the 80s instead of the film’s modern day portrayal, but after literally hitting us over the head at the start, the latter subtleties seem a little off.
In the final act, the filmmakers choose to go big with a gigantic, apocalyptic CGI sequence which proved exhausting. Skarsgård saves the day, however, with some highly memorable facial contortions. Again, Muschietti may not have the most streamlined story or script to work with, but he does know how to etch certain moments into your brain. Even when things turn into a mushy “Hallmark Card meets Nike Commercial” type of sentimentality in its final moments, I give this film credit for some fine horror moments. Next time, I hope Muschietti gets to talk to us on a much smaller scale. I’d love to know what a quiet conversation with him would look like.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. It Chapter 2 gets a 30 out of 50. Whereas the first film used racism as its underlying theme, homophobia seems to have supplanted it in the sequel.
By Glenn Gaylord
It Chapter 2 continues to chomp up all of the other films at theaters worldwide.