If there was ever a shared cinematic universe that has yet to be properly exploited, it’s the one from the mind of author Stephen King. King, the modern master of horror, has churned out novel after novel over nearly 50 years of writing and with all that has created one of the most prolific canons ever in literature. What’s even more surprising about all of his novels is the fact that many contain a shared mythology. Sure it’s a convoluted and bizarre mythology that loosely ties his stories together, but it’s there and it’s very much a product of his imagination. But those ties have never really been explored too deeply on the big screen, because as much as Stephen King has a devoted fan base and a body of work worth a dozen or so franchises, King’s relationship with Hollywood has been a sometimes contentious one. Very protective of his own work, King often oversees the adaptations of his books into film himself, ensuring that everything he values from his own writing makes it onto the screen in tact. Because so many of his novels run on the long side, he often forgoes taking his books to the big screen in favor of creating television mini-series instead, because the longer format gives him the time he needs to include everything from the books. This often has come with it’s own downside, as King has had to compromise the more graphic elements of his stories in order to meet television standards, but it’s a compromise he has been willing to make in order to retain his control over the adaptation. This probably stemmed from the 1980 adaptation of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, which King famously hated because of all the changes Kubrick had made to make it more “theatrical.” The receptions of his television adaptations have been fairly mixed over the years, from positive (Under the Dome) to very negative (The Langoliers). But if the was one that proved to be a standout, it was probably his 1990 miniseries of his most famous novel; IT.
For a novel with a title as simple as IT, it is remarkably monstrous in size. Running the length of a Bible, IT is peak Stephen King, in both the best and worst ways. For one thing, it has some of the most surreal and frightening imagery that he has ever committed to the page. One the other hand, it is also bloated and meandering, and just plain weird for weird’s sake, showing the author at his most indulgent. The novel is famous for a lot of things, but perhaps it’s most famous creation is the titular monster at it’s center; the demon clown who also goes by the name Pennywise. Even the novel’s most ardent critics will admit that Pennywise is one of King’s most enduring creations. Anyone who’s already afraid of clowns will no doubt be traumatized by the mere thought of this character, which makes the novel all the more famous, because of the often provocative covers of the novel, which continue to display the demented smile of the monster, even to this day. Stephen King’s TV mini-series adaptation ran for two nights shortly before Thanksgiving in 1990, and it very much was a TV event. In retrospect, it hasn’t aged very well, and does feel like a neutered version of the original novel (with good reason considering some portions). But again, it was Pennywise that was the standout, with actor Tim Curry giving a now lauded performance. While satisfying to Stephen King, a lot of fans of the novel felt that the mini-series left a lot to be desired and that a movie version was needed to do the book justice for real. But how do you take the immensity of the novel IT and do it justice on the big screen. The answer came 25 years later when director Andy Muschietti came up with the idea of taking the two time periods of the novel (when the main characters are children and adults) and splitting them into two separate movies. The novel intertwines the time periods, and the mini-series more or less stuck with that structure too. But Muschietti’s approach worked very well and the first film, IT (2017), which focused on the characters as children, broke box office records. Now, this week, we are presented with the final, It: Chapter Two, and the question now is was the cinematic approach taken effective enough?
IT: Chapter Two begins right after the close of the first chapter, with a rag tag band of pre-teens who call themselves “The Losers Club,” recovering from their near death encounter with the demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard). The all swear to each other that if Pennywise ever returned to their hometown of Derry, Maine, they would as well in order to destroy “it” once and for all; no matter what. 27 years later, after a mysterious murder is committed in Derry, with all the tell-tale signs of the Clown’s handiwork, a grown up Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) begins to call up the friends that he hasn’t seen in years, delivering them news of the day they hoped never would come. Among them include prolific writer Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), comedian Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), successful entrepreneur Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), insurance risk analyst and hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransome), and deeply scarred Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain). They meet in a Chinese restaurant back in Derry, and fondly reminisce, until they realize that one of their friends, Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) is not there with them. They soon learn that Stanley had that same day taken his own life, and the painful memories that they had surprisingly forgotten all start flooding back. And then, Pennywise’s mind tricks begin to manifest. Some of them want to flee as quickly as possible, but Mike claims he has found a way to entrap Pennywise and seal him away for good. It involves them making a sacrifice a token of their past in a ritual, so each of them sets out to find something in town they had left behind. However, the longer they stay in Derry, the easier it becomes for Pennywise to begin playing with their minds again. On top of that, the former bully who tormented the Losers Club as children named Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) has been broken out of an insane asylum with Pennywise’s help, tasked with killing each one of the Losers. Whether hunted by evil living, dead, or otherwise, the Losers Club are determined to put an end to Pennywise once and for all, which becomes all the more difficult as the Clown only grows more powerful the more fear he spreads across town.
The first IT from 2017 was a surprise hit that year, breaking every conceivable record for a horror movie during it’s run, as well as setting new high water marks for the month of September and the fall movie season in general. It benefited greatly from the book’s long standing reputation, and also from a strongly emphasized theme of nostalgia at the heart of the film. Since the first movie depicted the story of the main characters in the past, it made sense to have it set in the past (the 1980’s to be exact) so that Chapter Two could have a contemporary setting. Because of this, there was a lot of 80’s flavor added to the movie that gave it some extra character, not unlike the Stranger Things TV series that owes a lot of it’s inspiration to the works of Stephen King itself. Given how well the first movie resonated with audiences, the pressure was on to follow it up strong with the inevitable Chapter Two. And I have to say, director Andy Muschietti met the challenge and then some. When comparing the two, I have to say that I found Chapter Two to be even better than the original. Though I liked the first IT well enough, I thought that it was a bit uneven in tone, fluctuating wildly between moments of sincerity and moments of absurd over-the-top insanity. IT: Chapter Two follows much more the unhinged weirdness of the latter, and it benefits greatly from that. I think that in the time between films, Andy Muschietti realized the best way to approach the story was to really embrace the zanier aspects of King’s novel, and avoid the melodrama altogether. The first film at times felt like a mash-up of Stand By Me (1986) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which often made it feel distractingly sporadic in tone. Here, the movie sticks with the creepiness and keeps the sentimentality to a minimum. And it’s a formula that for the most part works.
One thing that I actually found myself really impressed with about this movie was how well paced it is. IT: Chapter Two remarkably has a run-time of nearly three hours, which is unheard of for a horror movie. The first IT also ran at a bulky 2 1/2 hours, and when you combine the two, that makes for nearly 5 hours total devoted to this story. But, given the length of King’s novel, it’s understandable. Even so, Muschitetti manages to never make this movie feel it’s length, and he does so by constantly delivering new set pieces to drive the story along. Every character is given their own standout segment of the movie, some more frightening than the others. I haven’t read the novel myself to compare how much of what ended up in the movie came from the book itself, but each encounter with Pennywise in the movie is thankfully diverse and keeps revving up the tension up until the end. I especially like a scene with James McAvoy’s Bill attempting to save a child trapped in a Hall of Mirrors maze while Pennywise is on the other side of the glass. It’s an especially creepy scene with incredible atmosphere, which is owed a lot to the movie’s exceptional production design. There’s very little of the movie that feels rehashed, even from the original movie, and that helps to give it an identity all it’s own. In some ways, the movie owes just as much inspiration to the work of director Sam Raimi as it does Stephen King, as it balances the juxtaposing tones of humor and horror with a great amount of skill, something Raimi excelled at with his Evil Dead films. It works much better than the Spielbergian overtones that director Muschietti tried to incorporate into the first IT. You’ll definitely be finding yourself laughing at this movie just as much as you’ll be clutching the armrest of your seat in anticipated terror. Few movies can strike that balance, and I felt that Chapter Two did better than most.
The other thing that I also found really remarkable about the movie was just how well cast it was. For one thing, this is a very strong ensemble of adult actors, with impressive bodies of work of their own. For one thing, Jessica Chastain is one of my favorite actresses working today, and it is nice to see her here in the very crucial role of Beverly, elevating the part beyond just being the token girl of the Losers Club. James McAvoy always delivers solid work no matter the role, and it’s especially pleasing to see comedic actor Bill Hader given such a meaty role in a big movie like this, helping to boost his stock as a film actor. But, what is especially impressive about this cast is just how close they all look like their younger counterparts from the original IT. You put these actors side by side with the young actors who played the same characters in the other film, and you could definitely believe that they are the same person 27 years apart. There’s even one incredible moment in the movie when the picture dissolves from the face of James Ransone playing Eddie in the present day to the face of young Jack Dylan Grazer playing Eddie in the past, and the similarity is uncanny. Andy Muschietti probably intended to cast for lookalikes, but you rarely see it done this well in movies. There are moments where the movie does have to remind you that we are seeing different time periods at play, and surprisingly we revisit the past quite a bit in this movie. You can tell at some points that some of the young actors had short window to film their scenes before their bodies changed too much; such as Finn Wolfhard (Young Richie) and Wyatt Oleff (Young Stanley) who both grew several inches between movies. But the effect still works for the most part and the movie goes between different time periods with ease. It also has to be said that the one constant for both films, Pennywise, still remains strong. Bill Skarsgard looks like he’s having a blast playing this character, which is something he has in common with Tim Curry’s iconic take on the character. It’s always hard to portray terror with the guise and personality of a clown, but he nails it and becomes both terrifying and hilarious at the same time throughout his performance.
All this being said, the movie is not without it’s faults either, which keeps it from becoming an all time great as well. The interesting thing is that the problems with this movie come less from the crafting of the movie and instead comes from the story itself. Even with an expanded budget and more time to devote to the material, I still think that no amount of time and money could make everything from Stephen King’s novel work on the big screen, and there are moments in Chapter Two that I still feel could have been changed or excised completely. One is the completely unnecessary Henry Bowers plot cul-de-sac which is as pointless here as it was in the original mini-series, and I assume in the book as well. It even culminates in an underwhelming resolution, which just made me wonder why it was even deserving of being here in the first place other than just as a way of remaining true to King’s novel. You know, there was a reason why Kubrick took the living hedge monsters out of The Shining, because he rightly knew that it wouldn’t have worked on film, and that it would have been an unnecessary addition. King should understand that while his books are amazing creations, not every single idea in them is golden, and that definitely becomes apparent by the film’s end. There’s a running joke in the movie where people’s common complaint about the books that Bill writes, saying that he’s terrible at writing endings, which is a self aware nod to the often universal complaint about IT‘s almost universally hated ending. But, even despite making a self-aware joke, even this version still can’t overcome the silliness of it’s climax, which is another example of the filmmakers perhaps adhering too closely to the source material. At least this time around, they try a little harder to make the ending work; they do it better than the mini-series anyway. But, yeah, it’s still the weakest part of the movie, but not enough to undermine what had come before. And the novel is even weirder than what we see in the movie (no giant cosmic turtle in this one I’m afraid) so I commend them for trying to fix as much of the original story’s problems as they could, but even still, Stephen King’s novels unfortunately have just as many problems as they do their strengths, and that even extends into the best adaptations of his work.
For the most part, as a horror film and an adaptation of Stephen King’s writing, IT: Chapter Two is a success, hindered solely by shortcomings of the original story itself. I thought that this movie did fix a lot of the uneven tone that undermined the first movie in the series, and I was especially impressed by how well it utilized it’s nearly three hours of run-time. You really don’t feel those three hours at all, which is a triumph in itself. The cast is uniformly excellent and I was impressed with how well each matched their younger counterparts from the first movie. Bill Skarsgard definitely deserves a lot of praise for creating a memorable version of Pennywise for the big screen. Filling Tim Curry’s big clown shoes is not easy, but I feel that Skarsgard’s Pennywise is on par with the original. The only thing I would say Curry’s version has over his is the voice, with Tim’s natural baritone coming off a lot more sinister than Skarsgard’s squeakier tenor. I also appreciated that the movie embraced it’s sillier tone at times, never taking itself too seriously, which allows for the zanier Stephen King elements to land more effectively as the movie goes along. Again, the faults in the film have more to do with the fact that King wrote too much into the original story to begin with and also, in a way, had no idea how to wrap it all up in the end. King is much better at crafting ideas than a full, perfectly constructed narrative, and that often has been something that has been a blessing and a curse for him as a novelist. At least now, thanks to Andy Muschietti’s valiant efforts, we do have a cinematic version of it spread over two films that probably be the closest we’ll ever get to a perfect adaptation of this monumental novel. I for one am happy to see an earnest attempt like this of bringing Stephen King’s writing to the big screen and my hope is that we see more like this in the future. There have been many King adaptations over the years, but few actually do the books justice, or even elevate beyond what King envisioned, so with IT Chapters 1 & 2, it is pleasing to see someone take the biggest and most complicated book of them all and actually deliver something worthwhile with it. And that’s no laughing matter.