It’s never easy to gauge where on the spectrum any given Stephen King adaptation will land. There doesn’t seem to be any set-in-stone formula for making King’s work sparkle on screen. Stanley Kubrick famously gutted “The Shining” and produced an adaptation that the author despised which was, and still is, often referred to as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Yet, films like “The Dark Tower” can deviate and do poorly. King is widely held as one of the great modern writers, however, some of the story choices he makes can be downright baffling.
Many examples of King’s strange choices can be found in the original text of “It.” Much ado has been made about a sex scene in the child portion of the epic novel – allegedly a choice made by the studio against the former director of the now two-part adaptation, Cary Fukunaga, to cut moments like that. This is a seemingly rare example of a studio making what appears to be a correct choice.
There are many moments in “It: Chapter Two,” the apparent conclusion to the 2017 blockbuster, that cover most of the childhood scenes from the book. However, these scenes feel like they were imposed upon the film by the studio and act to the film’s detriment. “It: Chapter Two” is blunt; it is unsubtle; it relies on cheap haunted house jump scares when it should be applying psychological horror; and it is often boring.
27 years after The Losers Club made their oath to return to Derry, Maine to kill Pennywise the Clown once and for all should he ever return, a series of murders leads Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) to call in the grown-up losers (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, James Ransome, Bill Hader, et. al) to fulfill their oath.
There are positives, as the performances are mostly strong. The child actors all performed well in part one, and the adults continue this trend. There is a sense of moral ambiguity and grit – both to aspects of the dialogue and the motivations of Mike Hanlon – and the movie does not shy away from killing characters, which is a positive contribution to the film’s sense of dread. Pennywise is a metaphor for a child predator, and the idea of applying the psychological traits that victims of that form of predation carry into adulthood, such as blocking out the traumatic incident or feeling a deep sense of fear at confronting the trauma, are all cleverly applied.
This all feeds into the key issues with the movie. Every scare in “It: Chapter Two” is loud, seemingly designed to operate more like a haunted house than to actually horrify the viewer. This is no doubt part of the appeal – people go to the theater and they jump a few times and hyperbolically act out how much the movie scared them – but, “Chapter Two” is ultimately worse for wear because of this. Tonally, the film is more over-the-top and borderline silly than the subject matter needs to be, which leads to a form of tonal dissonance. A moment will happen that is goofy, but the film will expect you to be scared. This is a facet of the movie that likely needed the directorial flourish of a David Robert Mitchell or an Ari Aster to sit and build a tone that seems to ride the line between horror and comedy. Instead of landing in the middle, “It: Chapter Two” lives in both arenas.
The clear weak link of the performances is Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. There are moments where Skarsgard plays the killer clown as predatory that feel tonally appropriate, and there are moments where he clearly seems to be channeling Tim Curry’s beloved performance from the “It” miniseries. His performance, in a way, represents the movie’s biggest issue: it wants to be a goofy crowd pleaser and go for the easy scares, yet, it also wants to disturb you on a psychological level. The film will accomplish the first two goals, but on the third goal, “It: Chapter Two” is a clear misfire.