IT: Chapter 2 Drags Amid Some Solid Scares and Strong Performances

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2017’s It: Chapter 1 is the highest grossest horror film of all time, raking in $700 million globally at the box office. Already, there are rumblings that Chapter 2, also directed by Andy Muschietti, is going to smash box office records and surpass the $123 million opening weekend that its predecessor had. Chapter 1 resonated primarily because of the story-line of the Losers, a group of misfits and outcasts who come together to battle not only bullies but Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), an ancient, cosmic entity who feeds upon human fear. Chapter 2’s greatest strength is the continuation of that story-line, when the Losers return to Derry, Maine to defeat Pennywise 27 years later, after children start disappearing. When the adult cast is together, the film soars. At a near three-hour running time, however, there are moments when the film feels bogged down by meandering side adventures and a CGI fest, especially during the prolonged finale.

The film’s opening 15 minutes are as powerful as Chapter 1’s beginning when poor Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is sucked into a sewer by Pennywise. Without giving much away, I will simply state that the opening  sets one of the main themes of Chapter 2: bigotry is alive and well and the only way to confront it is by banning together, hence why a grown-up Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only Loser who still lives in Derry, calls his scattered childhood friends and urges them to come home to confront Pennywise one last time. The initial reunion of the Losers (Jessica Chastain as Beverly, James McAvoy as Bill, Bill Hader as foul-mouthed Richie, Jay Ryan as Ben, and James Ransone as Eddie), is one of the film’s strongest scenes, especially as they go around the table ribbing each other, while clinking beer glasses and toasting to the Losers. The casting is perfect and each of the adult performers give it their all. In fact, I venture to say they’re as likeable as the kid actors in Chapter 1.

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The Losers as adults

After the reunion, the film sprawls out into several side adventures, focusing on each individual Loser, as they attempt to recover an “artifact” that pertains to their childhood and a traumatic encounter they had with Pennywise, who fed on their deepest insecurity. Some of these side stories are scarier than others, and, at times, I wish that Pennywise was on the screen more. In fact, I wish that Skarsgård had more to do in the film in general. Too many scenes feature CGI zombies instead of the clown. For the most part, the film is faithful to the second half of Stephen King’s novel, but sometimes what works on the page doesn’t work as well in film, especially the flashbacks featuring de-aged child actors. Weird. That said, there are some great scares, especially the Paul Bunyan scene from the novel and a scene involving Pennywise, a little girl, and a ballpark at dusk. This particular scene reminded me of  the monster’s encounter with Georgie and how terrifying Skarsgård can be just in the make-up, tricking children and luring them to a grisly death. I wish there was more of that and less CGI.

It’s clear throughout the film that if the Losers are separated, they’re in greater danger. It could be said that the film drags the most when they’re dispersed, wandering around Derry. When they’re united, going toe to toe with Pennywise, or joking around, the film hits some of its highest emotional notes. Out of all the cast, Hader especially steals the show. He’s as funny as his childhood counterpart Finn Wolfhard in Chapter 1. He also has some of the greatest character development that takes Richie way beyond the one-liners.

There’s no doubt that It: Chapter 2 is going to bring in the big bucks this weekend. Pennywise is now as iconic as Freddy Kreuger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. It’s just a shame he wasn’t given more screen time, especially more one on one scenes with the children of Derry or the grown-up Losers. He’s far more terrifying as a human-sized clown than a CGI spider. That said, when Chapter 2 has the right beats, namely when the Losers are on screen together, the film is quite arresting. Adapting a 1,000 page novel loaded with surreal imagery about an ancient, evil presence was never going to be an easy task. Chapter 2 would have benefited from a little less fidelity and firmer editing. If trimmed more, it could have been as strong as Chapter 1.

Make sure to look out for the fun cameo by Stephen King and one of the original Losers.

Overall grade: B

Let’s Talk about It

Lately, this blog has become a venue for writing about the horror genre, especially horror films. Horror has consumed part of my life as I work on putting together a horror lit and film class for the spring semester. Because of that, all of my reading lately has been a lot of film criticism and re-reads of classic horror novels. I wasn’t going to offer any commentary on It, but the movie is deserving of thought (and criticism) because of the massive opening weekend it had, raking in about $117 million, thus having the biggest opening weekend for any horror movie and the third highest opening weekend of 2017.

I want to theorize on why It is such a draw and also part of a larger trend. I also want to offer some criticism of the film, where I think it fails, what I believe it does well, and what I hope to see in the second chapter, set for release in 2019.

It is part of a trend of 1980s nostalgia,which follows the success of Netflix’s original series “Stranger Things,” which draws on a few of Stephen King’s stories and adaptations, including It and Stand by Me, namely because it too is a coming of age story about a group of less-than-popular adolescents. It  stars one of “Stranger Thing’s” actors, Finn Wolfhard, who plays foul-mouthed Richie. His one-liners drew audible laughter when I saw the movie on opening night. Yet, before “Stranger Things,” there was the success of the independent film It Follows, which is one of my favorite horror films of the last few years. That flick also has 80s nostalgia, not only the soundtrack, but also the set design. There are scenes in the film where it is unclear if we’re watching something David Lynch directed in 1985 or a contemporary horror film. Prior to It Follows, there was 2009’s House of the Devil, also one of my favorite horror films of the 2000s. Directed by Ti West, this film is set in 1983 and follows the story of financially-strapped college student Samantha Hughes, who eventually encounters a Satanic cult. This film is very much Ti West’s love letter to the 1980s period of horror, specially the rash of movies that deal with Satanism, but the film is strong because of its character development, its use of sound, and the unnerving, slow burn storytelling. These are the same reasons that I like It Follows so much (and it also has one of the best on-screen uses of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” that I have ever seen).

It is hard for me to pinpoint why there is such an interest in 1980s nostalgia in the horror genre right now. Some directors may simply feel that the 1980s is one of horror’s last great periods, before the constant rehashes and remakes. It was also a time period pre-9/11, pre-economic recession, pre-Trump, so there may be a fondness for that time period that overlooks some of its real issues (such as trickle down economics, economic inequality, and the Iran/Contra scandal).

This brings me to It. One of my main gripes about the film is that the 80s nostalgia is overdone. There are posters of 80s movies, including Gremlins, that are center frame in several shots. The outfits of the members of the Losers Clubs, the group of geeky outcasts that confront Pennywise the Dancing Clown, are, for the most part, 80s-themed. Yet, none of this really does much to advance the story. Instead, I wanted to know more about the town of Derry, Maine. Why, for instance, does Pennywise even chose to haunt that town? Does he have any relation to it? Why does he emerge after so many years?  Was he tortured or killed by residents of the town? One character, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), spends much of his time in the town library, researching local history, but what he finds doesn’t deepen the setting. It also doesn’t provide any context or background to Pennywise. Instead, we’re taken on a 1980s trip, complete with the kids riding around on their bikes in the burbs, similar to “Stranger Things.”

My other complaint about the movie is its lack of character development and its reduction of Pennywise to jump scares and CGI. The challenge of bringing It to the screen is its ensemble cast.  Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) has the most character development, after his little brother, Georgie, is killed by Pennywise in the opening scene, which is also the most effective scare scene in the film because Pennywise is not reduced to CGI. He talks, and he is seductive and terrifying in the way that he plays on Georgie’s fears. Georgie’s death looms over the rest of the film and haunts Bill.

The second film will feature the Loser’s Club as adults, just like King’s novel. Pennywise will return to haunt them, and I hope the film will rely less on CGI jump scares. I would like to see more natural effects. Tim Curry was more believable as Pennywise because of the simplicity of his make-up and his dialogue. He truly could be something realistic from our nightmares.

There are parts of the film I really liked, however. As I stated, the opening scene was perfect, everything from the mood, including the pouring rain in the burbs and the mass of gray clouds, to Pennywise’s introduction. I want to see more one-on-one, unsettling encounters like that in the second film. Let Pennywise linger beneath the surface, in the sewer grate where he lures Georgie to his death. Show us the way he exists beneath the surface, in the subconscious of the characters. That makes him a lot more chilling than over-the-top CGI scenes.

I also loved the coming-of-age scenes between members of the Losers Club, how they bond over being outsiders, how they eventually confront the real-life bullies that torment them. In fact, I wanted to stand up and cheer when they pelt the bullies with rocks and force them to retreat. My favorite scene in the film, other than the opening, occurs in the final moments, where they hold hands in a circle and vow to confront Pennywise as a team if he ever returns, and, of course, we know that he will. I hope that this group of misfits is developed a lot more in the sequel so we can feel for them more individually and not just see them as one group of people that a demented clown wants to kill.

I recommend people see the movie. Buy some popcorn and enjoy the ride because it’s a fun one. I just hope the sequel relies less on rehashed tropes and jump scares and instead develops the Losers Club and their nemesis Pennywise much more.