Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘It Chapter 2’ Bites Off More Than Pennywise Can Chew

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Trigger Warning: This review talks about abuse, trauma, and hate crimes.

Warning: This film has multiple extensive scenes where lights flash on and off for those who might be visually sensitive.

It Chapter 2  is a scraggly beast of a film. Ambitious and visually complex and interesting in a way few mainstream films, horror or otherwise, so rarely are. But I don’t know if I could call it a horror film.

In the movie’s defense, I don’t think it’s trying to be a horror film any more than it’s trying to be a monster movie. Though it uses the trappings of both as a way to propel the story along. Andy Muschietti isn’t interested in the supernatural for anything more than set dressing.

Much like Stephen King’s book, It Chapter 2 seeks to explore the horrors of abuse and trauma and how their effects trickle down through our lives. The monsters and jump scares are just there to help release the tension.

Muschietti and his screenwriter Gary Dauberman have done an impressive job trimming down King’s sprawling epic as well as fine-tuning and molding the story to our modern times some twenty-seven years after the first movie. It Chapter 2 opens up with a gay couple in Derry, Maine enjoying a night at the carnival. Unfortunately, their openness and public displays of affection draw the ire of a gang of local bigots. 

The two men are savagely beaten with one being thrown off a bridge only to be devoured by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). The scene is violent in its banality. The teenagers laugh as they beat the two men and seem to take great joy in inflicting as much pain as possible. 

By itself, the scene would be a rarity in horror films. The violence against the two men is fueled by the hatred for their existence and reflects the realities most queer people face, in metropolises and small towns alike. Queer people are often killed in horror films but rarely is a popular lived experience such as “gay-bashing” presented as it actually is, a horrifying and disgusting reality for which there is no reasonable excuse. 

Young Richie played by Finn Wolfhard has grown up to be a comedian played by Bill Hader. It is revealed that Richie is closeted, where on the spectrum it is never explicitly stated. All we know is that he is at the very least queer, and terrified someone may find out. Pennywise, of course, knows and taunts Richie with a sing-song chant of “I know your secret!”

The opening scene is meant to show us why even a grown Richie would be afraid to come out of the closet. Muschietti and Dauber make it clear that Richie’s fear is at times all-consuming. It is not a fear of being found out so much as a fear of being shunned, beaten, and alone.

The way Muschietti frames the scene of young Richie offering a token for another round of Street Fighter to a boy he clearly has a crush on is subtle and heartbreaking. Already at a young age, he’s having to navigate a new way of expressing himself so as to be able to deny his true meaning for his own safety’s sake.

Moments like this help It Chapter 2 soar and make it an engrossing character study. For the most part, Muschiettit and Dauber succeed. The film flows back and forth between the past and the present in such a way that allows for the possibility that you may not have seen the first It. They catch us up while moving the story forward and fleshing out scenes from the first one by adding the perspective of age and point of view of different characters.

If the film begins to drags at all it is because of the almost ungainly amount of core characters and how much their emotional state feeds into their decisions. Muschietti, to his credit, gives ample time to each character. Except it highlights a weakness in Dauber’s script.

Dauber’s adaptation pares down King’s original story by necessity. In so doing he inadvertently minimizes other characters in favor of others and causes the themes of the movie to miss their mark towards the end. It Chapter 2 is about pain and trauma and how it affects our lives.

The Losers have all but forgotten what happened that summer twenty-seven years ago in the sewers under Derry. It is not until they are called back one by one by Mike (Isaiah Mustafa). Since Mike stayed behind he is the only one who remembers everything. Much like trauma those who fail to move on fail to heal properly and will find themselves reliving the traumatic event almost constantly. 

While those who have moved on to find themselves remembering less and less of the event while still feeling the emotional scars left behind. Until they are reminded of the trauma and then they are thrust back into the past forced to deal with fresh new wounds. It is a near-perfect metaphor which loses its impact because though while each character is given the due time they are not given the due exploration.

As a child, Mike (Chosen Jacobs) he blames himself for the fire that burned down his apartment building and killed his parents. But it is only ever hinted at. The same goes for young Beverly (Sophia Lillis). In the first movie, she dealt with puberty and an emotionally abusive father. Grown-up Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is now a famous designer who is married to an abusive husband. 

Again both are given time to show how they suffer abuse and where they are twenty-seven years later. But both are largely forgotten throughout much of It Chapter 2. Mike’s guilt over his family is given a brief scene whereas Beverly escaping and fighting back against her abusive partner is never talked about after it happens in the beginning.

The only other character whose grief and trauma is given a fair shake is Bill’s (James McAvoy). Now a famous writer he is on a movie set when he gets a call from Mike to come back to Derry. Bill’s guilt over Georgie’s death is the driving force of both parts of the story. 

Weirdly, they are also the parts I cared the least about. McAvoy and Jaeden Martell, who plays young Bill, do a superb job with allowing us to see the anguish and grief etched onto their face. The duo’s immeasurably sad eyes are a gift to Muschietti and he wisely utilizes them to great effect. I got a kick out of seeing the great Peter Bogdanovich as the director working of the film adaptation of one of Bill’s books.

These scenes are fun but they are never revisited, mentioned ever again, or tells us about who Bill is now as an adult. Though it introduces a great running gag throughout the film about how everyone hates the endings to Bill’s books. The best one involves Stephen King himself in a cameo as the owner of an antique shop. Upon seeing his book on the owner’s desk he volunteers to autograph it. “No thanks, I hated it-the ending sucked.”

The joke is a reference to King’s reputation for often having anti-climatic endings and to the ending of the popular 1990 television miniseries adaptation of the book. Speaking of which, I will say the ending is both faithful to the book while also understanding why the first the ending to the miniseries is so often derided.

It Chapter 2 refuses to engage fully with the emotional arc of all its characters. Maybe it is beside the point. It feels as if the film isn’t interested in the characters as individuals. It feels as if the film wishes to explore trauma and its effects on our psyche and memories.

Dauber spends a lot of time exploring but very little time explaining which is a huge plus in my book. Explanations are death in horror films and fairy tales. Mike tells Bill how to stop Pennywise but never really what he is or why he feeds on the townspeople of Derry. Pennywise isn’t the point of the story, the Losers are.

I found Skarsgard’s evil clown grating and deathly dull in the first It. But here Muschietti and he seem to have found a balance more to my liking. The menace is still there but the over the top antics are kept to a minimum. Scenes where we see Pennywise’s face hovering in the dark, the shadows obscuring his body, as he talks to a little girl, work because of what we can’t see.

It Chapter 2 is at times delightfully weird. I mentioned how it refuses to explain itself and I can not stress enough how much I enjoy that it doesn’t. Eddie (James Ransome) discovers a basement to the Derry pharmacy which seems more at home in a Saw movie than reality. Ransome even has a line questioning why a pharmacy would have all of this stuff in its basement. Of course, this is where Eddie must fight Pennywise alone.

At one point Eddie and Richie must choose one of three doors to escape Pennywise. The doors are marked  Scary, Very Scary, and Not Scary At All. Richie and Eddie’s back and forth as they try to outsmart a demon clown is far and away one of my favorite parts of It Chapter 2.

The scene works because of its absurdity mixed with the strange macabre sense of humor Muschietti and Dauber have sewn through the movie. For as much as the story and characters prove to be too ungainly, the filmmakers have never forgotten either the seriousness of the subject matter and the silliness of it.

It doesn’t hurt Checco Varese keeps It Chapter 2 alive with imagery as complex as the themes Muschietti and Dauber are wrestling with. Varese understands the sort of demented sense of humor of both Pennywise and Muschietti. To top it all of Varese has the audacity of reminding us that a transition from one scene to the next, need not involve harsh or bland cuts.

One-shot, in particular, involves a night sky filled with stars which Varese pans across until we see what looks like a hole in the sky with an eye peering down. It is soon revealed to be a grown-up Stanely (Andy Bean) looking through a hole in his jigsaw puzzle on a glass table. Moments like these remind us how visually boring and stunted modern mainstream horror films have become.

Enough of the movie works and the parts which don’t often come from Muschietti and Dauber taking a chance at exploring an idea which sometimes comes at the cost of shallow character development. It’s easy for me to say It Chapter 2 is a bloated movie which could use some fat trimmed. But honestly, I enjoyed myself and though I was never scared I was engaged through most of it. 

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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