IT Chapter Two

IT Chapter Two opens with a brutal assault on a homosexual couple by the bigoted people of Derry, Maine. It’s one of the movie’s best scenes because the progression of its brutality not only tells us a lot about these people, but also ends with a rare moment of subtlety in a movie stuffed with jack-in-the-boxes and haunted houses: one of the victims bobs in the river, glimpsing Pennywise’s outstretched hand. We see him get devoured from a distance. This approaches Stephen King’s entire premise for Derry, Maine, which is that the ignorance of the people who would consider themselves its good citizens allows horrors to happen in it every day. It takes us back to the first moment of IT (chapter one), where Georgie was eaten by the clown while an old woman just minded her own business. That’s the key of all the dread in this story, which is a glimpse into King’s hatred of middle America, and the main cause of the entire IT saga: a plea against apathy. At the beginning of both films, we see Pennywise reap the benefits of that cruel ignorance, and we understand why he lives here. We see that the people of Derry aren’t his victims, but his representatives.

But after this opening, director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman forget everything I just said to such a degree that the whole saga barely means anything. I had hoped that by taking its time, this version of the story could tackle its own idea of this town and its people, their relationship to the monster, and how the monster reflects them. What better reason could there be to take it slowly, and do the children’s chapter all by itself? When I saw the 2 hour and 50 minute run-time of IT Chapter Two, I rejoiced: that’s not the length of a cheap haunted house movie full of jump scares but of a layered drama that tackles the relationship between these adults and their past selves, between each other, and between a monster that feeds on fear and the people who allow it to do so by turning a blind eye.

Well, it is the length of a cheap haunted house movie full of jump scares, if you try hard enough. This writer and director achieve a level of irony I could not have predicted: they are as apathetic to the issues surrounding this story as the people of the town are to the violence they allow to happen. They achieve it by ignoring those people in favor of scene after scene of pointless buildup and predictable boos. They turn a blind eye, and just let the horror keep happening.

Just like the TV movie from 1990, IT Chapter Two begins with Michael Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) calling the old Loser’s Club back to Derry to face Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) one last time. We see their reactions to the call, get acquainted with their changed personalities, and watch them reconvene at a Chinese restaurant in town, where we learn that after leaving Derry they all forgot about that summer where they faced the horrors of their own upbringing and also hit a clown monster with lead pipes.

What Dauberman chooses to let them remember in his script is very telling. They recall vividly that adventure where they faced the scary monster and almost killed it, but you may remember that one of the things that the first chapter of IT did well was enunciate the story’s main concept: their daily lives as children were scarier than the clown. Facing it was far more significant than fighting it. The first chapter assembled their tapestry of everyday pain by showing us Eddie’s overbearing mother, Stan’s fear of being forced by his Jewish faith into being something he’s not, Richie’s repressed desires, Ben’s outcast personality, Michael’s trauma over losing his parents, Beverly’s abusive father, and Bill’s family broken over the guilt of his little brother’s death. As Bill said it for all of them on the doorstep of Pennywise's lair, “Walking into that house ... for me it's easier than walking into my own.” They are able to face Pennywise in the first place not because they are so brave but because they are so hurt (this is how “Loser” becomes a mark of pride for them). Knowing this, it’s easy to see the very first problem with the script of IT Chapter Two, from which it never recovers: it remembers that they faced a spooky monster that looks good on Spencer’s Gifts belt buckles and beat it with pipes, but they can’t remember why that was important. It is not able to translate the pain over their upbringing that they used to share into the relationship that they have now.

Perhaps that’s a flaw in the story itself; this shaky transition is identical to what happened in the 1990 version. The story’s themes seem to be much more cognizant in the life of a child than in that of an adult. Facing down a clown monster that feeds on fear, which through its chaotic energy made your parents cruel to you, is way more potent than learning to face it physically, which is what happens to the adults. They learn in IT Chapter Two that if they say they’re not afraid of the monster, they can physically wound it, a simple and pointless conclusion to a story that isn’t actually about fear but about what it turns you into. You may remember the kids learning this in Nightmare on Elm Street and The Bye Bye Man but that’s beside the point because you should really remember them learning it in chapter one of IT. The conclusions are on the same childish level.

With an ending as weak as defeating a cosmic apathy entity by saying out loud that it’s not scary, the journey to that ending becomes even more important. It needed to deal heavily with what drives these people towards the trauma they experienced as children; it needed to deal with the monster’s presence in the town and what it does to its people. The problem is that it almost never deals with any of it, and when it does, Dauberman chooses to do so in the cheapest, most horror movie standard way possible: through jump scares.

For instance, the second most competent buildup and release after the opening involves the adult Beverly (Jessica Chastain) visiting an old woman in the apartment that she used to live in with her abusive father. This is the most intimate we ever get with any citizen of the town, and this old woman’s face is also the scariest thing in the film: the performer understands the demeanor of these people, and that taking horror lightly and living in suspended naivete is the core of all the bad stuff that happens in Derry.

But the old woman is not a real citizen of Derry: she’s the clown, and possibly a ghost. She strips naked and becomes a giant monster with googly eyes. This tells us nothing about what’s wrong in Derry because it has no truth in it. Going back to the opening, are the bigots in that scene forms of the clown, or just a form of the accepted normal of the whole town? Can you see how the second is much scarier? It allows us to reflect on what people do, not because of alien monsters, but because of their own prejudices (these things, after all, happen in real life too). Over-emphasizing the clown creates an awkward situation where we have to wonder: is everyone just automatically not bigoted anymore after the clown is gone? Does the clown actually reflect anything real, or is it just an alien monster?

Dealing with this relationship so infrequently makes it impossible to understand it enough to be horrified by it. Pennywise becomes a monster (like the old woman but also like a Paul Bunyan statue, a school bully, or a demon Pomeranian puppy) that exists somewhere between a created reality that’s spooky for children and a bad dream. His purpose seems to be to scare them but then we don’t know what. Building up their fear as children and savoring them kind of makes sense, but it becomes unlikely that he would let any of them get away by the time we get to Chapter Two, since they’re only a threat to him when they’re together. As adults, it no longer makes sense that he’s letting them survive. I’m not even too sure why he called them back to begin with. “I missed you,” he says. I think he just wanted a sequel.

While this business of scaring them for unknown reasons is going on, we’re not dealing with the people of Derry, so the scares are never put in any meaningful emotional context that describes the relationship between the town, the kids, and the monster. For convenience’s sake, all of the kids’ parents (all of them) are dead in Chapter Two, and the whole production almost totally misses the creepiness inherent in any little town that stays still for so long. There’s absolutely no sense of dread inherent in the scenery of this movie because it doesn’t build any of its inhabitants or establish the tone of this place. Instead, it devotes time to building up to a Pomeranian that explodes into a skeleton monster with the comic timing of the live-action Scooby-Doo movie. This is an aside at the climax of the film, the point where tension should be at its least laughable. But this script never makes them confront any challenge more meaningful than defeating a boss in a video game.

This kind of scene where they see a monster, get scared, and run away, and not the more methodical scenes of dread that would make it real for us based on some kind of truth of the people around them, is what IT Chapter Two does for almost two straight hours of its run-time. After a good setup, the adults split up and don't reconvene until the end, forcing the movie to inherit every pacing problem of the TV movie by creating memories of scary situations in the past, and then immediately going to the same location and getting scared by the same thing again as an adult. Every scene happens twice. The worst is when Eddie (James Ransone) goes to the pharmacy and relives a situation where he tried to save his mom from a monster leper in a creepy horror movie basement, and then the adult Eddie defeats the leper in the present day. Why not send the adults back to the places where we saw them get scared in chapter one, to create some kind of continuum of emotional memory for us? Why pad the run-time with new scares that then have to be recreated? This construction absolutely guts the tension of this movie. But more than that, it makes me wonder why it was done in two parts at all. IT Chapter Two sacrifices its structure to do so much with both the kids and the adults that it becomes bloated and unwieldy in the exact way I thought chapter was designed specifically to avoid. IT Chapter Two could almost just be called “IT.”

Adult Eddie’s scene also contains the most tonally confusing moment in the film, in which the leper vomits black goo into his mouth and the movie plays two bars of “Angel in the Morning” abruptly and then falls silent again. Is it supposed to be funny? Tone is a consistent problem in IT Chapter Two, and a reflection of the issue that the story works better when the protagonists are children. Maggots with the faces of babies emerge from fortune cookies at the Losers’ Club reunion dinner; the babies scream right at the screen, with the obvious intention to be horrifying. But adult Richie’s (Bill Hader) reaction is to say, “What the fuck is that, man?” No one is really screaming or getting worked up about it; they seem used to it. They’re adults now, and Pennywise doesn’t seem to know how to scare adults. He does best with Bill (James McAvoy) by becoming his dead brother, and thus becoming his own guilt complex. But what the movie really needed was to remember how scary the town is all by itself.

I can’t think of a better description of the entire problem with the way IT Chapter Two was conceived than to point out that the greasy pharmacist (Joe Bostick) who hit on Beverly in the first movie, still working at the same drug store, is much scarier than the leper monster at the climax of the spooky basement scene right after him. He’s the scariest character in the film by far. Your skin crawls just looking at the guy, and that’s because he’s the kind of scare that has truth in it: the truth of perverted people who don’t respect others, rather than the truth of a giant, naked pharmacist monster.

Knowing this, it makes sense that Skarsgård’s best scene is right after the laughable old lady monster, where he pantomimes a human in an antique dressing room at the end of a hallway, and becomes the clown in real time before Beverly’s eyes. The ending is such a letdown compared to this. The final form of this chaotic entity could have been anything, but at least it should have been scary (a flashback to a Native American ritual earlier in the film shows the monster in a much more visually inventive way: imagine the climax occurring in this style). Instead, it’s a big version of the clown on top of spider’s legs, which have cute stripey clown stockings on. We’d seen so many spooky monsters by this point that this needed to be subtle and it needed to be a shock. But the true form of pure fear is nothing to be afraid of, less even than a pharmacist with a bad complexion and no regard for personal space. Skarsgård in makeup, lit by a firefly under the bleachers of a baseball game, is many times scarier than this uninspired finale.

As if for no other reason than to add to the cheapness, Dauberman also includes many references to other movies in IT Chapter Two, which are not only outdated but also incredibly easy to write. To reference The Shining, a man grins maniacally as he breaks his head through a door and says the literal line, “Here’s Johnny!” There’s a mistimed Die Hard reference. To reference The Thing, they replicate shot-for-shot the transformation of a head into a walking spider head, and even quote the reaction in that movie to have Richie say, “You gotta be fucking kidding.” That’s the exact line from The Thing. Who are these references for? They act like they have to be overly clear so the kids will get them, but no one who gets them needs the help and no one who doesn’t will benefit from them.

Here’s some more irony: the scene with that walking spider head looks more like The Thing (2011) than the Carpenter movie because IT Chapter Two is obsessed with CGI. It thinks that we’ve reached the point where anything it chooses to render will be just as good as real, including even some of the children, who look gummy and smeared at times after obvious de-aging effects to get them back to that childhood summer. But any number of its monsters would have been more effective as practical creations. The scariest scenes in the movie, after all, just involve Skarsgård's real face.

Instead of understanding Stephen King’s book, these creators are living out a recreation of the negligence it represents in its people. Muschietti/Dauberman choose to look at that text and see nothing but scare scenes; they sand off almost everything else, outside of a few potent reactions between friends and the fine performance from Hader, whose emotional arc is the only one in the movie even remotely worth investing in. King said in his book that “We lie best when we lie to ourselves.” That’s what this writer/director did when they told themselves that they understood the heart in this story, or even just in their version of it. IT Chapter Two is unforgivably reductive, far more exhausting than scary. After all this buildup, it’s not more significant than any horror movie conceived for the mainstream Friday night crowd with the intention of making them jump in their seats a bit; it’s Annabelle done on a $70 million budget. The depth of feeling is completely gone. All that’s left is apathy.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Andy Muschietti

Gary Dauberman

Stephen King (book)

Beverly Marsh Jessica Chastain/Sophia Lillis
Bill Denbrough James McAvoy/Jaeden Martell
Richie Tozier Bill Hader/Finn Wolfhard
Mike Hanlon Isaiah Mustafa/Chosen Jacobs
Ben Hascom Jay Ryan/Jeremy Ray Taylor
Eddie Kaspbrak James Ransone/Jack Dylan Grazer
Stanley Uris Andy Bean/Wyatt Oleff
Pennywise Bill Skarsgård

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