Why isn’t Pennywise the clown as terrifying in “It Chapter Two” as he was in the first half of this story?
Maybe it’s because when Pennywise bares his teeth and zeroes in on a potential victim, it’s easier to feel empathy when the potential victim is a kid from “Stranger Things” and not Bill Hader.
And I love Bill Hader.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s still a lot of life (and death) left in the creepy-ass entity with the light-bulb-shaped head. There’s no shortage of jump-from-your-seat GOTCHA! moments in director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to his 2017 horror insta-classic (both movies based on the 1986 Stephen King novel, of course).
Yet for all of Muschietti’s visual flourishes and with the greatly talented Bill Skarsgard again delivering a madcap, disturbingly effective, all-in performance as the dreaded Pennywise, “It: Chapter Two” had a relatively muted impact on me.
This time around, the main storyline takes place when our beloved “Losers’ Club” are no longer kids — they’re a bunch of 40ish, neurotic, wisecracking, self-aware adults. Even as they’re fighting for their survival, they can’t help but acknowledge how there’s something inherently ludicrous about them facing off against a clown most people can’t see.
Still, this is a solid, extremely well-crafted, great-looking and occasionally quite chilling film, with terrific performances by the grown-ups as well as the returning kids.
After a brutal and nasty (and narratively unnecessary) prologue, we catch up with the various members of the Losers’ Club some 27 years after the events of the first film.
Let’s take a look at your opening day roster:
• James McAvoy is Bill, the former leader of the Losers’ Club, who has become a best-selling mystery novelist — although readers (including his wife) are always telling him he doesn’t know how to end a story. (Jaeden Martell returns as young Bill.)
• Jessica Chastain is Beverly, who was abused by her father and was the subject of hateful rumors at school. Beverly has become a successful fashion designer but has been trapped in a horrific marriage with an abusive husband. (Sophia Lillis is young Beverly.)
• Bill Hader as the foul-mouthed smart-aleck Richie, who has put his talents to good use as a popular stand-up comic. (Finn Wolfhard is little Richie.)
• Jay Ryan is the formerly overweight, picked-on Ben, who has become a hunky architect.(Jeremy Ray Taylor is younger Ben.)
• James Ransone is the hypochondriac Eddie (with Jack Dylan Grazer as young Eddie); Andy Bean is the reluctant Losers’ Club member Stanley (Wyatt Oleff is 27-years-ago Stanley); and Isaiah Mustafa is Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs in the flashback scenes), the only member of the Losers to stay in Derry.
Convinced Pennywise is back, Mike calls the Losers, who have scattered far and wide, and reminds them of the blood oath they swore more than a quarter-century ago: If the clown of their childhood nightmares resurfaced, they would return to Derry to kill it.
Weirdly, Mike seems to be the only one who even recalls what happened when they were kids. The rest barely even remember each other, let alone any of the details of their epic battle against the supernatural clown.
That changes when they come home to Derry, and the memories grow ever more clear. The grown-up losers are quickly reminded of Pennywise’s powerful abilities to get inside their heads when a laugh-filled reunion dinner at a Chinese restaurant turns super-gross (and kinda funny).
This scene sets the tone for a series of separate set-pieces in which adult Beverly, Bill, Richie, et al., individually experience moments of absolute terror, all courtesy of Pennywise’s handiwork. An impromptu knock on the door of a former childhood home, a stop in the town square where a kitschy statue looms large against the sky, the sighting of one’s beloved childhood bicycle in a store window — each scene begins relatively innocently before exploding into a waking nightmare that preys on the worst fears and repressed memories of each of the Losers.
All good stuff, but more often than not, director Muschietti and the first-rate special effects team deliver gross-out visuals in favor of truly chilling and tense psychological terror. I mean, the Losers have to deal with a LOT of arachnid-inspired imagery.
(The scariest scene in the entire 2 hour, 49 minute film is a stand-alone interlude in which a little girl with a birthmark on her face encounters Pennywise under the bleachers at a baseball game, and feels for him because he says he, too, knows what it’s like to look different.)
Chastain as Beverly, Hader as Richie and Mustafa as Mike create the most effective and authentic grown-up versions of the childhood characters. (This is not a knock on the other adult actors; they just feel less “connected” to the younger versions of themselves.)
The production design is rich with detail and wonderfully forbidding. The cinematography conveys a deep and dark sense of doom — even in the bright of day, even when there’s a parade or a carnival and everyone seems to be having such a wonderful time.
Even as the second-best chapter in a two-part horror epic, this is a movie with enough scare power to tap you on your subconscious just before you fall asleep tonight.