The now-grown-up members of the Losers Gang reunite to take on evil clown Pennywise once again

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(The now-grown-up members of the Losers Gang)

With seven key human characters – grown-up versions of the Losers’ Club, the kids who fought malevolent clown spirit Pennywise in It: Chapter One – facing individual horror sequences before uniting in a final battle, It: Chapter Two suffers quite a bit from the bloat that affected the novel.  At 169 minutes, it sets a record for longest theatrically-released mainstream English language horror movie, displacing the Suspiria remake (152 minutes), the longest cut of The Shining (146 minutes), and the comparatively trim The Conjuring 2 (135 minutes).

Industry wisdom has always been that horror – like comedy – loses impact at epic length but, in an era of binge-watched streaming shows like The Haunting of Hill House, that rule may no longer apply. Indeed, it seems likely audiences who made It Chapter One a hit in excess of expectations will return for the follow-up – which has the added bonuses of a starrier cast, more elaborate monster effects, and a definitive ending.

The second film in Andy Muschietti’s diptych adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel also aspires to be the Avengers Endgame of horror. Bedsides picking up the story from It Chapter One, the film references King’s whole literary and cinematic oeuvre (a key line from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is repeated) while drawing on scary images from the entire corpus of American horror cinema. The novel (and the well-remembered 1990 TV miniseries) had the nightmare clown Pennywise (aka It) manifest also as the creature from the 1958 drive-in classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf.  As part of the updating process, shifting 1950s childhood flashbacks to the 1980s, the werewolf is replaced by a monstrosity from John Carpenter’s 1983 version of The Thing (also complete with catchphrase).  

Additionally, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) represents a strain of sinister carnival horror embodied by Lon Chaney and Ray Bradbury, but turns out to be an extra-terrestrial predator out of H.P. Lovecraft with – of course – a backstory involving Native American legend and lore.  Muschietti, whose first genre hit was the small-scale ghost story Mama, adds an array of contemporary film references, with many spindly, grinning, long-armed spectres related to the apparitions found in the Insidious films or Guillermo del Toro’s nightmares.

The main hook for Chapter Two is an ugly incident of homophobic violence at a funfair in Derry, Maine, which summons Pennywise from a twenty-seven-year slumber to sink its many teeth into multiple victims. Librarian Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who has stayed in town while his friends have left to forget what happened in Chapter One, calls up the rest of the Club, who have prospered but have cracks in their lives that date back to their childhoods.  

Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a best-selling horror writer who has trouble with endings. Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) lives in a mansion but has a husband as abusive as her dead father was. Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comedian, once-chubby Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is a buff architect, jittery hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk assessor and thoughtful Jew Stan Uris (Andy Bean) is the lone no-show for reasons that take a while to become clear.  

Reuniting in Derry, the Losers are beset by the clown in many horrific/comic forms – goblins sprouting from fortune cookies, a disturbingly friendly little old lady (Joan Gregson), even an evil puppy.  Like the Avengers, they have to split up on their own quests, which means starring in a succession of scary sketches (it was a canny marketing move to release self-contained clips in addition to conventional trailers) which are individually effective but pall with repetition

Despite its epic length, this – like many King adaptations – tends to reduce nuanced, tormented everyman characters to soap opera stereotypes.  Because the Losers are split up for much of the film, the returning young cast – Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor – get more of a showcase in flashbacks than higher-profile adult actors (Chastain, returning from Mama, probably does best), who have to take character cues from the kids. 

While the film stumbles and meanders, however, there’s no denying that it delivers enough set-pieces for three regular horror films.  All the forms of Pennywise, blending Skarsgård’s bucktoothed grin with special effects, are at once awe-inspiring and terrifying, especially in a final battle for the soul of the town and the lives of the Losers.

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