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Non-Review Review: IT – Chapter Two

IT: Chapter Two is muddled, messy and bloated, particularly in its middle stretch.

The horror sequel opens relatively strong and delivers a satisfying emotional pay-off. Unfortunately, the film’s structure means that it meanders wildly between those two fixed narrative points. Chapter Two runs a muscular two-hours-and-fifty-minutes, a full quarter-of-an-hour longer than the original film’s already impressive run time. In fact, taken together, the two films are more than one-and-a-half times the length of the early nineties miniseries adaptation of the novel. Chapter Two spends a lot of time on repetitive storytelling beats, splitting up the cast so each of the leads has their own identically-structured adventure.

Glowing, glowing… gone.

These structural flaws feel inevitable. Part of what worked so well with IT: Chapter One was the decision to largely eschew the complicated and convoluted mythology that King wove through his beloved doorstopper of a novel. The original film was not concerned with alien invaders or local legends beyond what was strictly necessary, allowing it to offer an extended horror movie riff on Stand by Me, a coming-of-age saga about young teens on the cusp of adulthood. In Chapter Two, that bill comes due. The sequel not only has to do its own heavy lifting, but take on a lot of the world-building the original film mostly ignored.

Indeed, there is a sense that Chapter Two works much better as a companion piece to the earlier film than as a narrative in its own right. Indeed, there is something interesting in the way that, taken as a whole, the two IT films represent the first real cinematic glimpse of Stephen King as an author of the American epic. IT is the story of a group of childhood friends facing a monstrous evil, but it feels much larger than that. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Chapter Two is the manner in which it creates a sense of scale and scope that has previous eluded adaptations of King’s work.

Pennywise, pound foolish.

Chapter Two is an extraordinarily indulgent film. However, that indulgence is very firmly anchored in the good will garnered by its predecessor. It’s interesting to wonder how much of Chapter Two was shaped by the success of the original film, which is both the highest grossing horror film of all-time and the most successful Stephen King adaptation. If Chapter Two was always intended to look like this, it demonstrates a staggering amount of (deserved) faith in the original film. However, it is also interesting to wonder how much the emphasis and tone of Chapter Two changed after the success of the original film.

Watching Chapter Two only underscores the freedom enjoyed by Chapter One. The original film was surprisingly intimate. It stripped out the framing device from the novel, focusing exclusively on the Losers’ childhood encounter with Pennywise. Although the closing scene established the inevitable sequel tease, the adult versions of the characters were entirely absent from the film. Of course, this was a pragmatic choice. The critical and commercial success of Chapter One undoubtedly made it easier to secure actors like Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader for the sequel.

However, this allowed Chapter One to exist largely on its own terms as a self-contained narrative. Chapter Two does not have that luxury. It isn’t simply that the film is obviously a sequel to the original. It is that the film is also very much interwoven with it. While none of the adult actors appeared in Chapter One, all of the child actors appear in Chapter Two. The film features extended flashbacks focusing on the Losers’ during the summer of 1989, even using computer-generated imagery to de-age the young performers who are already two years older.

Some of this is necessary, stemming from a need to paper over narrative gaps that the first film left in the mythology because its interests were placed elsewhere, such as the sequences filling in the gaps between the gang’s big fight and Beverly’s abduction. A lot of this material feels unnecessary, such as the revelation that Ben built a top-secret clubhouse in the woods that never appeared in the original film. This exists largely as an excuse to watch the younger versions of the characters hang out, to watch the actors interact again. Chapter Two often seems like a nostalgia hit for a film that is only two years old.

You can’t go home again. But you can go back to that creepy-ass haunted house.

Chapter Two excuses this by framing itself as a story explicitly about memory. This is a canny use of the film’s status as a sequel, its narrative very firmly predicated on what came before. Chapter Two is explicitly a story about memory and history, as Mike neatly outlines in his introductory voice-over. Repeatedly over the course of the film, the characters are forced to acknowledge that the past is not how they remembered it. Indeed, the characters all struggle to remember Mike and their memories of Pennywise only creep back once they actually return to Derry.

Chapter Two uses its status as a sequel to play on the audience’s familiarity with Chapter One. The film suggests that the characters are all struggling to cope with the events of their childhood, sublimating their trauma in different ways. Eddie has married a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his mother, one the film reinforces by casting Mollie Jane Atkinson in both roles. Beverly has married a man who is just as abusive and possessive as her father. When Mike calls Ritchie, Ritchie reflexively throws up. None of the characters seems to understand why they feel the way that they do.

Something to sink his teeth into.

Chapter Two repeatedly draws a distinction between the past as it is remembered, and the past as it really existed. Throughout the film, the characters allow their attachment to the past to blind them to what is really important. Beverly visits her old apartment building, only to realise after the fact that it is a crumbling wreck. Bill forks out three hundred dollars to ride his childhood bike, only to realise that it (or perhaps he) is more wobbly than he remembers. Shaped by a false memory of Beverly’s romantic rejection, Ben has walled himself off from human contact and from his own feelings.

Chapter Two extrapolates this theme outwards, much like Chapter One used its framework to explore the broader anxieties of teenage life. Chapter Two wonders what happens to a community that forgets such trauma and allows it to fester. The film opens with a brutal homophobic attack on a couple who are visiting from out of town, local teens violently lashing out at the affection between two men in one of the film’s most graphic and violent scenes. The implication is that Derry has remained fixed in time while life outside it has moved on.

Floating some interesting ideas.

The gang’s return to Derry coincides with the “Canal Days” festival, a patriotic celebration of the town’s history and legacy. In that setting, Pennywise’s familiar red balloon is easily camouflaged amid the displays of red, white and blue. At one point, Ritchie is menaced by a sinister Paul Bunyan statue, an American mythic figure brought to life. Although the possibility was hinted at in Chapter One, the deaths of Mike’s parents are explicitly coded in racial terms in Chapter Two. A newspaper headline reports on the death of “crack addicts”, while Henry Bowers taunts Mike that their burning corpses “smelt like fried ch-.”

With this broader social context, there’s something strangely affecting in the idea that these old wounds can heal again. Chapter Two suggests that it is possible to heal the present by reconciling with the past. The climax of the movie finds the characters casting personal totems into a fire, hoping to symbolically free themselves from the burden of what came before. Chapter Two argues that the characters might be able to find peace if they can find a way to view the past as it really was, rather than through the distorted fantasy of nostalgia. Scars can disappear. Headlines can be rewritten.

To a certain extent, Chapter Two is paying the narrative bills from Chapter One, doing the “work” that it chose to ignore. King’s source novel is packed with dense mythology and weird back story. Chapter One very shrewdly stripped down the secret history of Derry to its bare bones, allowing for the narrative to instead focus on the simple coming-of-age aspects of the story. Ben provided some vague exposition that provided historical context for the horrors happening within the city limits, but it was very broad and very general. It felt more like justification than elaboration.

In contrast, Chapter Two expends a lot more energy on providing context and history for the evil stalking Derry. Some of this back story is social, such as the implication that the monster’s favoured form has some basis in the community’s storied past; Bill Skarsgård appears in old black-and-white photographs as the patriarch of a travelling circus. Some of this back story is cosmological, as Mike regales Bill with the story of some monstrous entity that fell to earth long before the European settlers arrived.

“How did Pennywise know that what we feared most was another Alien prequel?”

At one point, Mike reveals that he learned a lot about the creature from a Native American community that lives on the outskirts of the township. This is fairly standard stuff, a stock horror story cliché; King has used Native American mythology to similar ends in stories like The Shining and Pet Sematary. However, this detail is just dropped casually and inelegantly into Chapter Two. There was never any mention of the indigenous people in Chapter One, even in Ben’s brief cliff notes history of the region. In fact, the Native American community is barely brought up again. They are just one more detail.

Chapter One kept the horror at the centre of the story deliberately vague. This worked because it reflected a child’s view of such monstrous evil. The creature was grotesque and surreal, because none of the children had any framework for understanding it. However, it also made the monster scarier. Chapter One never devoted any real effort to explaining what the eponymous “It” was or where it came from. Perhaps it was conjured from nothing, perhaps it was a shared hallucination, perhaps it was an expression of the scary things lurking in the shadows. That vagueness gave the creature a rare power.

Derry bad idea.

In contrast, Chapter Two constantly and awkwardly over-explains itself. Not only is there suddenly a history that accounts for the creature, there are also rules that govern interaction with it. Mike assembles his old friends to participate in “the Ritual of Chüd”, which comes with its own set of rules. Mike sets his friends a task, they set about accomplishing that task, and this allows them to attempt to bind and defeat the monstrous creature. The climax of Chapter Two finds the characters hoping to defeat their adversary by imposing an external structure upon it, which feels like a reflection of what the film itself is attempting.

This wreaks havoc with the film’s pacing. Chapter Two has a fantastic ensemble, but the film insists on splitting up the cast for an extended stretch in the middle of the film. Each of the characters embarks on their own journey of discovery to reconcile themselves with their own past. Director Andrés Muschietti opts against cross-cutting these sequences, which might have been the correct call. However, the result is that each member of the group walks through the same basic story in succession. The middle stretch of Chapter Two feels like a short season of a horror anthology rather than a single cohesive film.

Give it a (fo)rest.

The problems with the middle stretch of the film are compounded by how superficial it all feels. Despite the fact that Chapter Two yo-yos back and forth through time, these sequences are depressingly linear. Each of the characters has been tasked with finding something of great personal significance in Derry. The plan is that everybody will find something of value, and then bring those objects together to force a final confrontation with Pennywise. The result is something that feels like a video game “fetch” quest, looped six times over. It is exhausting, particularly in a film of this length.

To be fair, there is something interesting and compelling in this, something which suggests Chapter Two works better when examined as part of a whole than as a film on its own terms. Stephen King is one of the great American storytellers, and a figure who has had a profound impact on American popular culture. However, he has not always been well-served by adaptations of his work. Filtering King’s work through the lens of film and television offers a very narrow view of the author.

King is best known as a writer of horrors like Carrie or Dreamcatcher, with an occasional concession to his ability to craft compelling dramas and fairy tales like The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile. However, King is undervalued as an architect of the American epic. As a mainstream blockbuster writer, King has a unique flair for scale and scope in his work. This is perhaps most obvious with books like The Stand or sagas like The Dark Tower, but it is also reflected in the sheer length of some of his books. King often elevates the mundane and ordinary into something much more compelling and revealing.

To be fair, there have been shades of this in earlier adaptations of King’s work. To pick an obvious example, The Shining managed to transform one man’s psychotic breakdown into a bleak analogy for the horrors of American history. Even individually, both Chapter One and Chapter Two do something very similar. Chapter One treats Pennywise as an anthropomorphic expression of universal and primal childhood fears – fear of sex, fear of death, fear of changing bodies. Chapter Two transforms those fears into adult anxieties – the creature feeding on homophobia and racism.

Not kidding around.

However, the two halves of IT accomplish something unique. They give a sense of scale to the story. IT clearly aspires to be an “epic” horror, which is a fascinating narrative choice. This is a story that unfolds across three decades, and and arguably far beyond. Of course, that’s nothing new. Horror films often come feature protagonists reeling from childhood trauma and centre on ancient evils. The difference here is the sheer scale of the project, reflected in the idea of a single story with a combined run-time surpassing that of Gone With the Wind.

The structure of the film is a large part of this. The twenty-seven year gap within the narrative and the two year gap outside of it combine to create an impressive sense of scale. Chapter One and Chapter Two seem to position themselves as the Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame of Stephen King adaptations. It is remarkable that the two films do this without ever sacrificing the intimacy or the immediacy that makes the story so compelling. In hindsight, it seems bitterly ironic that Chapter One was released the same year as the misbegotten adaptation of The Dark Tower.

State of the Reunion.

This attempt at epic scale creates its share of problems. Chapter Two is much more beholden to King’s text than Chapter One was, which means that the script includes a number of superfluous and unnecessary narrative elements that could easily have been streamlined. Most obviously, Chapter Two resurrects the character of teenage bully Henry Bowers to torment the gang on their return to Derry, but his presence clutters an already messy narrative. The film suggests that Pennywise is hoping to attack the heroes through Bowers, but Bowers is so ineffectual that he exists primarily to drive a few action sequences.

Still, the sheer scale of Chapter One and Chapter Two is breathtaking. In some ways, this idea of “epic” horror feels like another prong of the genre’s recent evolution and development, existing in parallel to the “blockbuster horror” of the “Conjuring-verse.” In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of digital ink spilled about Joker as an attempt by the superhero blockbuster to colonise other narrative forms, but less attention has been paid to efforts with horror. Regardless of how messy Chapter Two might be, it is striking when approached on those terms.

“Let’s put a smile on that face…”

Chapter Two occasionally feels like a middlebrow awards drama cross-pollinated with a horror, much as Chapter One was Stand by Me filtered through a horror lens. Hader is genuinely impressive as the adult version of Ritchie Tozier, and he’s ably supported by Chastain and McAvoy. The three leads lend the film greater dramatic heft than a lot of contemporary horror. Even the structure of the film recalls those “adults coming home to a small town to confront their past” dramas that pop up at film festivals starring comedic actors looking to break out dramatically; The Skeleton Twins, This Is Where I Leave You, Garden State.

Again, there’s something very clever in that structural choice. Chapter One worked because it reflected the classic coming-of-age stories of the era in which it was set, those eighties tales of young teenagers exploring the world and discovering their place in it. To a certain extent, the structure of Chapter Two reflects the coming-of-age films of its own era, the stories of thirty-somethings who have never really put their childhoods to rest. Chapter One adhered to the structure of films about the passage from childhood to adulthood, while Chapter Two evokes the structure of films about childhoods that never ended.

The film is thematically consistent on this point. One of the film’s recurring motifs is the idea that the central characters have all left their stories unfinished. There is a wry, winking and self-aware joke about Bill’s status as a successful novelist-turned-screenwriter who has never been able to properly finish a book. He offers a halfhearted justification that real life refuses such conveniences, but the film instead suggests that he is just writing from his own experiences. Chapter Two suggests that the kids from Chapter One never really grew up, that they never completed their journey, that they are still ultimately kids.

There is a lot of interesting stuff happening in Chapter Two. The film is a fascinating glimpse at the modern studio horror framework, and a novel adaptation of one of the ubiquitous novelists of the past century. Unfortunately, Chapter Two feels over-burdened by the acts of adaptation that Chapter One so cleverly eschewed. As interesting as these individual elements might be, and as fascinating as it might be to contextualise them, none of them are as compelling as simply watching a group of kids confronting the horrors of looming adulthood.

2 Responses

  1. Insightful review as always! Still looking forward to watching the film, probably on dvd.

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