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The Return of Pennywise

Jessica Chastain
Jessica Chastain
Warner Brothers
 169 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByAndy Muschietti
Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain
It Chapter Two

Thomas Wolfe famously noted that “you can’t go home again,” but that’s what the members of the Losers Club do in It Chapter Two, the continuation of the hit movie based on Stephen King’s classic horror novel. But while the point of Wolfe’s quote is that the past is never what you remember, the adult members of the Losers Club find out, once they do remember, that the demonic being they defeated 27 years earlier is back and even worse than before. Similarly, the movie It is back and a bit worse than before.


While Stephen King’s novel had a non-linear storyline and repeatedly switched between events involving the main characters as children and as adults, director Andy Muschietti and the screenwriting team wisely made the events in the two timelines into two separate films. The evil being in It preyed on fear and usually took the shape of a murderous clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). But the youngsters overcame their fears and defeated Pennywise. Shortly afterward, six of the seven left Derry, and their memories of the earlier events vanished when they left.


Of course, as the storyline in It suggested, the creature wasn’t gone forever; instead, as It Chapter Two begins, it’s 27 years later, and mysterious killings and disappearances are starting again. The one member of the Club who stayed in Derry, town librarian Mike (Isiah Mustafa), summons the others to return, and most of them do, although they aren’t sure why. What they discover over dinner at a Chinese restaurant is that they aren’t the same group of losers that they had been as children, when they banded together out of necessity as much as friendship. Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful novelist, Bev (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer, and Richie (Bill Hader) is a popular stand-up comic. Ben (Jay Ryan), who caught abuse for being overweight as a child, is now a very buff and trim architect. Eddie (James Ransome) is still a hypochondriac but also a successful risk assessor, and Stanley (Andy Bean) is an accountant.


While the others have been seeking fame and fortune over the last 27 years, Mike has turned Pennywise and the other demonic forces into a research project. He informs the other former Losers Club members that the evil haunting the town dates back centuries to Native American days, and can only be defeated by performing a sacred ritual. The others are skeptical at first, but when little creatures start emerging from the fortune cookies and attacking them, the group is convinced. 


To perform the ritual, each member of the group must bring a personal artifact from his or her childhood. Finding these artifacts entails revisiting some very unpleasant childhood experiences, made even more unpleasant by the appearance of Pennywise. Each of the former Losers eventually acquires the talisman, and, to perform the ritual, they must go to the same cave below an abandoned house where they defeated Pennywise 27 years earlier.


The first It movie was just over two hours long and had a leisurely pace as much of it dealt with the coming-of-age stories of the seven protagonists. Indeed, one of their most epic encounters was a rock fight against a group of bullies and not anything supernatural. It Chapter Two, on the other hand, is about 45 minutes and sometimes feels bloated and overstuffed. While the first movie had its share of CGI effects, It Chapter Two boasts a bigger budget and considerably more. The current film’s plot structure, which splits up the group as each goes on his or her individual quest, diminishes the group dynamic that made the first movie so compelling. Instead, we get what is essentially an anthology in a single film, with every character having to overcome a personal fear.


The result is a mixed bag. The best scene involves Bill in a house of mirrors in which he sees a little boy being stalked by Pennywise. He tries to reach the boy before the clown does, only to be repeatedly frustrated by the glass walls of the maze he’s trying to traverse. Other sequences don’t work as well, such as one in which Richie is stalked by a giant statue of Paul Bunyan come to life.


As in the first movie, scenes involving children are far more effective than those involving the adults. The scariest moment in the entire film is an encounter between Pennywise and a little girl beneath the bleachers at a high school football game. Realizing how effective the use of children is in It Chapter Two, the movie brings back the seven actors who played the members of the Losers Club through children. The script adds flashbacks that provide additional depth to some of the crucial moments in the first movie and also juxtaposes the reactions of the adults and their childhood selves to similar horror. 


When the children are away, and the adults are in play, It Chapter Two suffers. Too many of the CGI effects seem old hat (and also seem to have been recycled from the first film). The worst example is a dismembered head that sprouts crablike legs and begins crawling around. John Carpenter used a similar effect far more effectively in The Thing without the benefit of anything other than puppetry. And, after all the CGI overkill is said and done, the final showdown with a version of Pennywise proves rather silly. 


One of the best scenes in the movie doesn’t involve any CGI or anything supernatural at all. It occurs when Bill pays a visit to a second-hand store to buy a bicycle, only to find that the proprietor is played by Stephen King himself. The scene is probably King’s most extensive screen work in decades and brought back pleasant comparisons to the Stan Lee cameos that enlivened Marvel movies. Here’s hoping that King finds good roles in some more filmed adaptations of his works.


It Chapter Two would probably resonate better with audiences if there were no ready comparisons with the first film. However, the filmmakers doubtless felt that they had to one-up the earlier movie, and the only way to do so was to up the scare and effect quotient. At times, this works. Bill Skarsgard in his Pennywise makeup is truly unsettling as Pennywise, with the teeth ever-so-ready to come out from the clownish visage. And the presence of the younger actors is a big help as well. All in all, It Chapter Two could have used a half hour or so of judicious editing, but it still captures the essence of what might be Stephen King’s best novel. This film isn’t the best film of a King book by any means, but it’s still unsettling and creepy enough for King and horror fans in general.

In this featurette, the cast play a trivia game based on the movie, with scary consequences for the loser.

Read other reviews of It Chapter Two: 

It Chapter Two (2019) on IMDb