The hardest part of any film franchise is making a final chapter that sticks the landing: expanding enough on the original to warrant the extension, and tying everything up in a satisfying manner. Following the unprecedented success of 2017’s It, which still holds the record for the highest-grossing R-rated horror movie, Chapter Two has big shoes to fill, and while the second half of Stephen King’s 1986 novel is notoriously weaker than the first, this film does a splendid job of bringing the horror back, twenty-seven years later.
The children of Derry, Maine, who defeated the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) back in 1989 are all grown up for Chapter Two, with a cast of adults headed by James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain forcibly returning to their childhood town to bring down It once more, following its re-emergence in a grisly opening scene – depicting an incident of homophobic-abuse-turned-assault – that sets the tone for the horrors to come. It’s a shocking sequence that could easily have felt exploitative, but director Andy Muschietti’s finesse in using the scene (particularly its emphasis on homosexuality) as a reintroduction to Pennywise, and a backdoor hint towards a certain character’s arc throughout the film, means it doesn’t reach Once Upon a Time in Hollywood levels of poor taste.
It’s not too long – about half an hour – before the Losers Club are reunited, with a fresh-faced mix of established A-listers and relative newcomers filling the boots of Finn Wolfhard et al. It Chapter Two‘s casting is impeccable – Bill Hader, in his first-ever horror role, is the spitting-image of Wolfhard’s Richie, and inherits the character’s mannerisms and dialect effortlessly. Hader’s is a memorable, touching but often comedic performance that makes the less noteworthy characters – particularly Isaiah Mustafa’s frustratingly-underwritten Mike – somewhat pale in comparison.
With the group back together, their joint promise to rid Derry of Pennywise comes to the fore. The evil spirit manifests itself in a plethora of ways, with varying success. Deformed old women and giant statues, despite sounding ridiculous, provide some of Chapter Two‘s most successful scares, yet at other points the horror sequences are almost laughable: a series of body parts, attached to legs, flying around a Chinese restaurant, far from being scary, is close to facehugger levels of absurd. Pennywise is strongest when in the body of Bill Skarsgård, who once against provides a deranged physical performance. He’s the backbone of the film’s success, and steals every scene he’s in, paving the way to join the ranks of Leatherface and Jason Vorhees at the pedestal of cinematic horror icons.
Now reunited, the Losers split up to find their individual artefacts – objects that tie them to their experiences in 1989 with Pennywise – to perform the ancient ritual of Chüd, destined to eliminate It once and for all. It’s in this second act where the film’s structure really falters: with each characters off on their own quest, it plays as a plodding, formulaic rhythm of introduce character – pull off jump-scare – find artefact. On its own this doesn’t sound awful, but when this exact structure is executed five times in a row within an hour, it becomes pretty dull. That said, it’s in these moments where the characters get deeper individual exploration than as a group, with some particularly good character moments involving Beverly (Jessica Chastain), who delves into the past of both her family and Pennywise the Clown, and Ben (Jay Ryan), as he unpacks his affection for Beverly and his past insecurities. Paired with this is arguably the film’s best visual sequence, as Billy (James McAvoy) ventures into a carnival funhouse to confront Pennywise, a scene which really feels perfect: claustrophobic, vivid and horrifying.
Artefacts found, the group take It on once and for all, in a battle that ramps up the almost non-existent stakes so far in the film, and produces the more emotional plot developments. Without delving into spoilers, it’s a long encounter that feels at times somewhat bloated – certain plot twists and revelations are glossed over amid the action – but at others very satisfying and intriguing, expanding upon the first film’s battle with Pennywise in a interesting way, and fulfilling character arcs that have been bubbling since the 2017 original. To explain the situation without revealing specifics is difficult, but it takes the good parts of the 1990 It miniseries’ climactic battle and expands upon them both mythologically and in terms of action and emotional investment, while doing away with the elements that made the 1990 adaption at times unwatchable.
For a three-hour film, It Chapter Two simply races by, greatly improving on the 1990 original while also providing a satisfying, ambitious and thrilling extension to the story told in 2017’s It. While Us provided a new take on horror in 2019, It Chapter Two comes close to perfecting the monster-movie formula we’re so familiar with, by ramping up the scale of the thrills and telling a story that – unlike Bill’s ill-fated screenplay as seen in the opening – sticks the landing successfully. It’s at times bloated, and would certainly benefit from a less rigid second act, but its ability to make us invest in characters, establish atmosphere and tell a vast, gripping story is to be praised. It’s not as focused as It 2017, but Chapter Two is one of the year’s very best films, and gripping the whole way through.