Fear is a funny thing. You wait two years for the second part of a movie you loved, based on a book you also love, see said movie, love it, and fear that you missed something when it seems no one else does.
I want IT Chapter 2 to be a hit. I think it deserves to be a hit. But in the five days since I saw it, that Rotten Tomatoes critical score keeps getting lower. So, what gives? Why did I love this movie and everyone else seems to think it’s over-long, self-indulgent, and nowhere near as good as the first movie?
This is kind of new territory for me, I’m usually the one who is defending good movies from Louise in our joint articles. While it’s not my intention first and foremost to have popular tastes (my Once Upon a Time in Hollywood article should prove that), it’s also not my intention to blindly defend the blockbuster. I’m afraid that I’m missing something obvious, a flaw so big that it sinks the movie. Even a series of tiny flaws would do, but I can’t see them. Is this it? Is this what Pennywise does? He can’t scare me with monsters because I’m not a kid so instead he gives me anxiety because no one thinks the movie I love is a classic? That fucking clown! That devious fucking clown!
That’s what fear does. Whether it’s a movie clown, or anxiety over your own ability to discern whether something as subjective as film is good or not, it can rock your confidence. It’s in this second, very grown-up fear that IT Chapter 2 has to contend with, because as adults we are scared of different things. We are scared of being poor, of being sick, of not being good enough, and it’s all we can do sometimes to keep the wolves away from the door. It’s not until you become a grown-up that you realize that the child-like fear of actual wolves at the door (even if you live in a block of flats) are a lot easier to deal with than the ideas the figurative wolves represent. At least you could hit the real wolves with a shoe, or something.
If horror is about one thing (it’s obviously not but just go with it) it’s trauma. All of the best horror has something to do with trauma: whether it’s the trauma of the actual horror itself, past trauma that informs the story, even the traumatic events that created monsters like Freddy or Jason. Horrible they may be, but they didn’t die pretty. Pennywise feels like the embodiment of trauma. If you’re any kind of storyteller then your monster can’t be just a monster, and Stephen King created the perfect representation of that in Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
This must be how horror fans felt when A Nightmare on Elm Street came out, before it was sequelled to death. In a very real way Pennywise is the modern Freddy, a being who can manipulate your own consciousness to kill you, brought to life by a very special actor and some iconic real effects. Let’s take a moment here to just bask in the glory of what Bill Skarsgard has done with the character – even when he doesn’t have the make-up on he’s still fucking terrifying, and, just like the Joker in The Dark Knight, you can’t wait for him to be onscreen again.
Pennywise, for all his glory, is the easy bit. And, honestly, IT Chapter 1 was also the easy bit. When critics and fans say that the first movie was better, it’s because director Andy Musscetti crafted the simplest version of half of the source novel. That’s not a criticism, Chapter 1 is one of my favorite horror movies, but a lot of the heavy lifting, the really complicated stuff was being left for a possible sequel. When I first heard that Chapter 2 was nearly three hours long, I thought that sounded about right. When looking at it that way, it’s easier to see why Chapter 2 has had a cooler reception than its predecessor; there’s so much more to fit in, where the first movie could focus on being a retro, charming little throwback coming-of-age nightmare. Of course it’s not going to be as fun.
Even with those huge challenges, I think IT Chapter 2 is a masterpiece and I generally think that time will be kinder to it than the polarizing reviews of the present day. The cast were perfect, each feeling like more complex versions of their younger selves while also hilariously regressing when they are around each other once again. The set pieces were incredible – scary as hell, and you can really tell how confident the director is this time around, especially as those scares are less about childhood fears and more about monstrously real adult ones.
That’s Chapter 2’s secret weapon, which does change and update certain parts of King’s book. Instead of getting attacked by the massive Paul Bunyan statue, grown-up Richie (an outstanding Bill Hader) is forced into a situation that is more about how he wants the world to see him so they can’t see what he’s hiding. Bill’s scares revolve around the guilt of Georgie’s death, like before, but that fucking clown was kind enough to update it for him into something far more interactive. Beverly must contend with the markers of the abuse she suffered in childhood that has been reflected in her adult life, with a killer performance by Jessica Chastain to lift it out of exploitative.
It Chapter 2 is a wild ride, expertly crafted by people who clearly love the book, but weren’t afraid of updating it into something more cinematic. Just like the first movie, the main strength is the Losers Club who, despite their fear which has only lay dormant to grow bigger and more complex, come back to Derry, Maine to get the job done. That’s how you defeat fear: you tackle it head on, you make it small enough to crush, and you don’t worry if you aren’t on the same page as everyone else. I love this movie. Enough that writing review was actually not that scary at all.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Consquence of Sound)