It Chapter Two: shrill, overlong and largely without merit

It just isn’t good enough. I can’t take It any more. I’m over It.

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Nearly 90 years ago in Fritz Lang’s M, a single balloon snagged in the telephone wires high above Berlin was enough to suggest a child’s murder. Audiences today wouldn’t settle for such discretion, and nor are they asked to in It Chapter Two, the second half of the film version of Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel. Before the opening sequence is done, hundreds of red balloons have already drifted through the town of Derry, Maine. The message “Come Home, Come Home” has also been daubed in blood on a wall, which means either there’s a seriously committed fan of the Manchester band James on the loose, or that Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård) is up to his old tricks. Not that he’s been honking the horn on his collapsing jalopy or squirting water from the flower in his lapel. He isn’t that kind of clown. He’s more the dragging-kids-into-sewers type, the sort that tends not to get quite so much work on the birthday party circuit. 

A group of adolescent misfits known as the Losers Club defeated Pennywise at the end of the previous movie, promising that if he ever returned they would regroup to try again. Or, to put it another way, if the first part of It did well, they’d make another. Sure enough, $700m at the box office later and here they are as adults, including Richie (Bill Hader), who is now a stand-up comic, Beverly (Jessica Chastain), who is fleeing a violent marriage, and the novelist Bill (James McAvoy), whose brother was murdered by Pennywise. It’s a shame to say goodbye for the most part to the excellent young actors from the earlier film, espec-ially when the on-screen chemistry in the new one suggests that their older counterparts only met for the first time a moment 
before shooting.

The gang hold their big reunion at a Chinese restaurant where an entire Pokémon deck of bizarre, gooey creatures hatches out of the fortune cookies, among them a mewling baby head attached to a crab’s body, and an eyeball with slithering tentacles. Imagine the TripAdvisor reviews after that meal. 

Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) reveals that he has been in touch with the area’s Native American tribe and has the low-down on defeating Pennywise for good. Native American people are much beloved by film-makers for their connotations of mysticism, though they are not beloved enough in this case to be given speaking parts, or to be shown as anything other than spooky silhouettes in an expository montage.

What they have advised is that each of the gang must delve into the past and contribute an artefact to be sacrificed in a ritual burning. That’s six gang members, each with their own flashbacks and hallucinations, plus some arbitrary murders which bear no relation to the main narrative, adding up to a running time just shy of three hours. 

A horror film that relies on “Boo!” moments and visual overkill rather than modulations in pacing or suspense has no business asking audiences to stay engaged for that long, and it’s only to be expected that individually eye-catching images are lost in this carnival of unvarying excess. Trying to recall the separate spectacles of the preceding hours will turn any viewer into a contestant during the conveyor belt round of The Generation Game: “Haunted fortune cookies… haunted skateboard… severed head that sprouts legs like the one in The Thing… statue of Paul Bunyan that springs to life… charred ogre with pendulous breasts… fondue set… cuddly toy.”

Each new monstrosity cancels out the previous one, making the horrific merely ho-hum. It also has the effect of trivialising the needlessly graphic scenes of domestic and homophobic violence. What’s a punch to a woman’s face or a few kicks to a gay character’s head when we’ve seen a zombie vomiting black goo to the tune of “Angel of the Morning”?

But the most extreme horrors of all are confined to Gary Dauberman’s screenplay. It’s difficult to respect any writer who opens a scene cold with the line: “What do you mean you’ve seen all of us die?” Humour in Dauberman’s estimation is represented by someone interrupting a sombre discussion to ask, “So what did I miss?” or pushing at a door when the sign reads Pull. Following a murder in a library, Richie quips: “That was overdue.” Entering a haunted house, he says: “Love what he’s done with the place.” If the characters in a horror film aren’t going to bother to be scared, there seems little incentive for us to be frightened either.

During the climax, Richie and friends are faced with three doors, one marked “Scary”, another “Very Scary” and the third “Not Scary At All”. The door that was chosen by the makers of It Chapter Two – “Shrill, Overlong, Largely Without Merit” – seems not to be an option. A sprinkling of star cameos, including the directors Peter Bogdanovich and Xavier Dolan, as well as King himself as an amiable old coot, provoke a smile but won’t be enough to prevent discerning viewers from saying: It just isn’t good enough. I can’t take It any more. I’m over It.

It Chapter Two (15)
dir: Andy Muschietti

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war