More than once in It: Chapter Two, someone onscreen mutters “you gotta be f—in’ kidding me.” It’s hard, from the cheap seats, not to start to agree; the film spends so much of its two-hour-and-45-minute runtime shoving scares down the audience’s collective throat that they eventually crossed over to the other side (at least at this particular New York screening) and start giggling at the sheer bogey-man lunacy of it all.
To be fair, Chapter Two is mostly more (and more) of the same that made 2017’s It one of the highest-grossing horror films of all time: There be mad clowns, and bad drains, and gushing, Costco-size buckets of blood. Except the scrappy kids of the Losers’ Club have now grown past the Stranger Things follies of their ‘80s youth and become grown adults.
Or more accurately, grown movie stars: James McAvoy is Bill, a novelist and screenwriter still mourning the violent long-ago death of his little brother, Georgie; Jessica Chastain‘s Beverly remains the sensitive redhead with supernatural visions, only now she’s married to a rich creep who casually beats her; Jay Ryan’s Ben has shed his baby fat and become a sleek real-estate mogul; Bill Hader’s Richie has successfully graduated to stand-up comedy, and James Ransone’s nervous Eddie now does risk assessment, fittingly, for an insurance company.
Andy Bean’s nebbishy Stanley doesn’t get much new backstory, but he seems to be in a nice, stable marriage. Only Mike (Isaiah Mustafah) has chosen to remain in tiny Derry, Maine — a picturesque village that just happens to sit over some kind of cursed carnival hellmouth.
After an ugly incident there, it’s Mike who calls the gang back together to honor their long-ago blood oath, the one that pledged to finish the job if Pennywise (Bill Skarsgaard) ever returned to wreak his red-nose havoc again. It helps to have read Stephen King’s doorstop novel, or at least have seen the previous film, if you have any passing interest in the mythology of how and why Pennywise does what he do — which here, apparently, is mostly eat children by the handful like Skittles, and work chortling insult-comic material into his escaped preys’ nightmares.
Otherwise, you’ll have to trust Argentinian director Andy Muschietti to methodically woodchuck his way through 1,100-plus pages of terror, and toss nearly every horror trope into the maw as he does so. It’s as if the film can’t trust that something is scarier when it’s implied than when it’s constantly, literally personified by demonic old ladies, skittering man-faced spiders, and murderous, reanimated Paul Bunyans. They’re under the bed, in the basement, inside fortune cookies and bathroom stalls and, but of course, a nefarious, disorienting hall of mirrors.
Hader and Ransone do a lot to mitigate the long slog from one relentlessly ghoulish set piece to the next; their dry, side-mouthed humor brings much-needed levity in a movie that seems determined to reduce accomplished actors like McAvoy and Chastain to so much panicky meat-snack for Pennywise.
Some of Muschietti’s other filmmaking choices feel problematic too: the brutal gay-bashing incident that opens the movie (and to be fair, comes directly from the book) seems to signal nothing, really, other than that it’s safer to tolerate a nasty bully than confront them; and the lone black character, Mustafah’s Mike, is also the only one who seems to have no discernible personality, other than Guy Who Stayed in Derry.
But really, the main problem with Chapter Two is that it goes on, and on, for so very long. If brevity is not necessarily the soul of a good scare, it would certainly serve a story that sends in the clowns, and then lets them just stay there — leering and lurking and chewing through scene after scene — until the there’s nothing left to do but laugh, or leave. C+