There were clues that Warner Bros didn’t quite know what it had when it released the new take on Stephen King’s It two years ago. The film had burned through more than one director across it extensive development, and more than one Pennywise the Clown (Will Poulter had been cast at one stage). And whilst its off-peak September release date isn’t quite the sign of a lack of confidence it once was, neither does it scream blockbuster hit.
Yet that’s just what the film was. Over $700m in the bank later, and Part II arrives in cinemas with far higher expectations, and the second half of the story to tell (teased at the end of the first). If you’re familiar with the still hugely popular 1990 take on the same book, starring Tim Curry, (or the book itself!) you may recall this was the bit where we meet the same characters nearly three decades on, and things go a little less interesting, until an overblown and not very effective ending is duly ticked off.
Without giving the game away with the new film, the structure is roughly the same. As such, the first section of the film follows the self-monikered gang The Losers from the first movie coming back together as adults. This time, they look remarkably like Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan and Andy Bean, although the excellent young ensemble from the first film reappear too.
That said, there’s some degree of expectation that you’re au fait with chapter one, and the film feels a little unforgiving if you’re not, in spite of the shifting between young and old timelines that it offers. But there is, underpinning it all, a confidence in the way it reintroduces everyone, and brings them back to the small town of Derry.
The star attraction, meanwhile, remains Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise the Clown, although much of his impact was made in the first chapter, to the point of diluting his effect in the second. There’s something just a little more effective and contained to the menace he caused two years ago, that Chapter II struggles to match. It’s curious how much he’s now under-deployed.
Furthermore, the tone shifts from tense build-up and the uneasy atmosphere of the first film to primarily jump scares this time around. And the bloated running time affords space for plenty of them. Take a cushion, folks: this one runs to just shy of three hours, and that is a bit of a problem. It Chapter Two very much takes that clichéd approach to sequels: make it bigger, pack more in, not necessarily to optimum effect.
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Tellingly, the two adaptations of Stephen King’s hardly brief source material have had now had three hours (1990) and nearly six hours (2017/19) apiece to tell the same story, and both hit similar obstacles. Both feel at their strongest in the first part of the story, both have moments where they really know how to play their antagonist, both run out of gas long before the end credits roll.
Expect It Chapter Two to be a massive success of course, and director Andy Muschietti has more than earned his horror stripes behind the camera. It, in its assorted forms, remains a story in search of a better ending than the one it got, though.
It Chapter Two is in cinemas from September 6. Simon Brew is editor of Film Stories magazine. Film Stories live tours the UK this autumn: filmstories.co.uk