Like most adults trying to reclaim the wonder of their childhood, a group of friends nicknamed the Losers Club reunite in their hometown in Andy Muschietti’s new film “It Chapter Two.” Unlike most adults, however, the Losers Club’s stroll down memory lane brings them face-to-face with terror, death and one murderous alien-clown.
Twenty-seven years have passed since the events of “It,” but “It Chapter Two” makes the time jump impressively smooth. The film opens with the return of Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgård, after he disappeared from Derry, Maine almost three decades prior.
The opening scene plunges moviegoers right back into the claustrophobic, vile and dark world the Losers Club defeated as middle schoolers in “It.” After a Derry man is brutally beaten and thrown into a river, he is retrieved not by his distraught partner, but by Pennywise, who then feasts on the man’s broken body.
Each character is introduced moments after Isaiah Mustafa’s Mike Hanlon, the only member of the original characters who remained in Derry after the kids defeated Pennywise, calls the rest of the Losers Club to warn them that Pennywise has returned. Almost immediately, the film introduces the notion of post-traumatic stress disorder: each member of the Losers Club reacts to the news of Pennywise’s return in such a horrified manner that a few of them fall physically ill.
Moreover, the audience is able to glimpse into each character’s adult life — including the high-profile writing career of James McAvoy’s Bill Denbrough and comedy career of Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier — before the Losers Club is forced to reunite in Derry. Seeing the characters’ reactions, along with their struggle to come to grips with the horror of their childhoods in the midst of their adult lives, was refreshing for the genre. More often than not, action- or horror-orientated movies tend to brush over the effect that traumatic events have on the characters in favor of sending those characters back into the action of the plot. “It Chapter Two,” however, lets its characters grapple with their pasts and struggle to face the overwhelming dread that lies ahead of them.
Although the first few scenes move slowly, with the repetition of Hanlon calling the entire Losers Club hindering the pace, the moment the characters reunite is entertaining, beautiful and a chilling set-up for the horror and tragedy about to befall the group. The actors do a wonderful job of showing the depth and strength of the characters’ friendships, and the banter is so natural that much of it feels improvised.
The reunion scene is set in a restaurant, and the majority of it lingers on the easy way the group falls back into friendship, even as they regain the memories lost once they left Derry. While the film makes it clear that part of Pennywise’s power is to alter people’s memory if they move away from Derry, the extent of Pennywise’s power is never explained. The characters’ memory loss is crucial to the plot — they can’t defeat Pennywise until they each find a token from their past, thereby unlocking the entirety of their childhood memories — so the film’s failure to delve deeper into the logistics of Pennywise’s strength and abilities seems like a critical misstep.
Once the Losers Club finishes dinner, they begin to wonder why Stanley Uris, the seventh and final member of their friend group, never arrived, only to learn that Uris took his life after hearing about Pennywise’s return. The news sends the characters into a spiral, and most of them try to leave Derry with the hope of once again forgetting Pennywise’s existence. When Hanlon manages to convince Denbrough that he’s found a way to kill Pennywise, the rest of the group decides to stay and continue helping. To perform the Native American ritual that will force Pennywise into his true form, which will make him vulnerable and defeatable, each character must find a token from their past.
While the characters scatter across Derry to piece together their pasts, Henry Bowers, the Losers Club’s childhood bully who was driven insane by Pennywise in “It,” is revealed to be alive and locked in an asylum for killing his father. Desperate to continue killing, Bowers is released by a zombie reanimated by Pennywise, and he begins to stalk Derry in search of the Losers Club.
The bulk of the film, in which each member of the Losers Club tries to decide what their token could be, contains some of its strongest moments. Although “It Chapter Two” chooses to lean more heavily into dark humor than its predecessor, the scenes intended to be scary are, often, genuinely scary — and most of those scenes occur while the characters are separated.
Searching for these tokens allow the film to intertwine the past and present in a smooth manner, giving the child actors a chance to reprise their roles from “It.” Both the child and adult actors do a fantastic job with the characters, and seeing the younger cast in new scenes that occurred during and after the events of “It” gave both films more depth.
When Jessica Chastain’s Beverly Marsh returns to her childhood home, where she lived with her abusive father, she’s greeted by a kind, though bizarre, old woman who invites her in for tea. After finding her token — a love poem written to her by fellow Losers Club member Ben Hanscom, played by Jay Ryan, when they were children — Marsh sits with the old woman in her living room, and the conversation slowly shifts from awkward to unnerving to horrific. Pausing between words for an uncomfortable amount of time and talking about death with a smile, the old woman slips into the kitchen, leaving Marsh to wander around the living room. With the camera pointed toward Marsh’s face and over her shoulder, the audience can see the old woman walking in an impossible, non-human fashion and peeking out from behind corners to study Marsh without her knowing.
The most horrific moment in the scene comes when Marsh realizes the old woman is one of Pennywise’s manifestations, and, with her back still turned toward the kitchen, only the audience can see the old woman creep out of the darkness, look at Marsh with a terrifyingly gleeful expression, then vanish once again. Moments later, she attacks Marsh.
Another horrifying moment occurs when Pennywise lures a young girl under the stadium stands of a baseball game that her parents are watching. Hidden mostly in shadow, Pennywise easily convinces the girl into coming closer to him by offering to “blow away” a birthmark on her cheek. The flesh-hungry alien promises to count to three before removing the birthmark, though he stops after only two counts, and the camera lingers for several seconds on Pennywise’s frozen expression, twisted into a portrait of macabre glee, before he lunges forward to eat the girl.
Unsurprisingly, Skarsgård again does a phenomenal job as Pennywise. He portrays the manipulation of the young girl and Pennywise’s petrifying expressions with such ease that it’s difficult not to feel, as an audience member, as vulnerable and weak as his young victims.
As the Losers Club finds each of their tokens, a bloodthirsty Bowers finds them. He nearly kills James Ransone’s Eddie Kaspbrak in the hotel and Hanlon in the library, but Tozier kills Bowers before he can do any lasting damage, which is one of the film’s biggest disappointments. Bowers was such a menacing character in “It,” and the build-up to his return at the beginning of “It Chapter Two” filled each scene in which one of the heroes was alone and unprotected with absolute dread. But, for all the anticipation, Bowers is removed from the storyline after hardly impacting the heroes at all. Without Bowers stalking them and with their memories back, the group descends through the tunnel below Pennywise’s haunted house in Derry, and into his lair.
The climactic battle is full of action, and there are scary, sad and, surprisingly, amusing moments, but the final few scenes aren’t a convincing death for a villain as good as Pennywise. When Hanlon’s Native American ritual fails to kill Pennywise, the alien transforms into his true form — a spider-crab-hybrid with Pennywise’s face — and kills Kaspbrak during the final battle. While Kaspbrak’s death is genuinely upsetting, especially with the reveal that Tozier had been in love with him since they were children, the Losers Club’s solution is to bully Pennywise until the alien is forced to physically mimic what they compare him to. Again, “It Chapter Two” should have clearly expanded on the boundaries of Pennywise’s power so this solution — repeatedly yelling at a demonic spider-clown that he’s small and weak — made more sense.
It’s also during the final battle that one of the film’s most prominent issues is impossible to ignore: poor use of computer-generated imagery. The CGI in “It Chapter Two” is not good. Most of the monsters look like normal people with a common Snapchat filter pasted over their faces, and seeing Pennywise’s face sprout from the poorly-rendered body of a spider-crab wipes away any fear I felt for the clown. Part of what makes Pennywise and his story so scary is how he blends in with society — he’s a human-like clown who appears in broad daylight, feasting on children’s fear. That single aspect of his character is far more terrifying than anything that appears in the last few scenes of “It Chapter Two.”
The film ends on a bittersweet note, with the remaining members of the Losers Club consoling the normally fast-talking, joke-cracking Tozier over the death of Kapsbrak, and each character returning to their adult lives with the promise of always staying in touch.
Despite all its flaws, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the film. Information about Pennywise is missing, and about half of the jokes fall flat or take away from the more frightening scenes, but “It Chapter Two” does a beautiful job with its characters. I genuinely care about each one, and the deaths of Uris and Kapsbrak broke my heart.
The jump scare tactics of modern horror films is a tired cliche, but it’s each of the film’s characters, including Pennywise, that feels so refreshing. At its core, “It Chapter Two” is a coming-of-age story — it just happens to be one bathed in death, gore and a killer clown.