It was the best of times, It was the worst of times. Andy Muschietti’s decision to untangle the non-linear narrative of Stephen King’s book has yielded one pretty good piece of pop horror and one overcooked nothing-burger.
The essence of the book is there, but what initially looked like a bifurcation of the book’s two time periods – following the child and adult versions of the same characters in the small town of Derry – made the cack-handed exploration of lasting trauma a little less sledgehammer-like. It: Chapter One made past present, more implying the future of the children at its centre rather than spelling it out.
And after all that, the only thing Chapter Two can do is spell out. Why Muschietti ditched his pretty great translation of King’s book – separating the children’s storyline from the adults’ – for generic nested flashbacks is anyone’s guess, although some early jokes from James McAvoy’s Bill (adult version of Jaeden Lieberher’s character in the first film) about his wife being a “studio man” might accidentally be clues to Muschietti’s loss of will. What we do know is… well, everything. This film is almost all narrative, almost all contrivance. When Mike calls The Losers’ Club back to Derry to fight the resurfaced Pennywise, he explains that they must take part in a ritual to expel the alien force from which the dancing clown originated – The Ritual of Chûd, as it is known.
It is, frankly, nonsense, and so spelt out by the film’s main cast – more notable for their spot-on impressions of previous, child-actor selves than their actual performances – that the only distractions they can fit into the empty space are rehashes of previous “scary” set-pieces from Chapter One. I don’t air-quote “scary” to sound derogatory of Chapter One; on the contrary, whether it scared me or not was less important than its capacity for thrilling me, which it always did. It had muscles, orchestrating its scares with a confidence and maximalism that I found enjoyable, in its multiplex-y way.
Chapter Two’s set pieces, on the other hand, often re-tread old ground so we may be repeatedly reminded of how the past affects the future (we got that the first time without the clutter of the future). They’re desperately unimaginative. Nearly always an ill-advised voyage into a classic shadowy area to which nobody should every go, they’re a reduction of this duology’s unique position as pop-horror, Paranormal Activity with a budget. Jump scares are the tools of horror directors without ideas. Has Muschietti lost his?
It’s enough to make one believe this second chapter, in which the story evolves not one iota, might as well have not existed. There’s only slivers of interest in the darkness-behind-small-town-America metaphor (Derry’s once thriving, idyllic “town with a secret” is now a deserted model village with a shuttered cinema – apt!), which is surely the whole point of these main characters reliving their trauma. We’re supposed to understand the pain of coming home, especially when it’s not much of a home at all. I either got too little of that or had it shouted in my face.