By CORY WOODROOF
It’s the laughs that get you.
Of all the decisions Andy Muschietti made in his 2017 adaptation of It, Stephen King’s beloved kids-fight-interdimensional-murder-clown tale of overcoming fear and utilizing turtle power, what stands out is his insistence on making the worst thing you hear shrill, unforgiving laughter.
You know what you’re getting into when you buy your ticket for the sequel, and so does Muschietti. The film opens with a screeching choir of childlike laughter, signifying that we’re not exactly in for an afternoon of clowning around with Krusty or Bozo. They’re laughing at you, not with you.
If It Chapter Two feels a bit facsimile, don’t hold that against it. It’s designed to feel like a rancid reunion, a painstaking re-creation to conjure the same chills it elicited the first time you went to Derry, Maine, and met our good friend Pennywise the sadistic clown. But it’s in repetition that this film finds its bite.
It’s not as much a fresh fright as it is a lingering nightmare. It hurts more this time because we’ve felt it before. The studied horror fan in you has always known what this series is about, but thinking does not account for the visceral, emotional punch of It Chapter Two. To Muschietti’s credit, he’s made a film that doesn’t need to poke too hard at your emotions to get them to balloon.
Twenty-seven years after the Losers’ Club first encountered and beat back Pennywise, they return to Derry. Confrontation of the past is a trope that’s spanned art for centuries, but the story of Pennywise hits you differently. Muschietti uses an almost objectionable 169-minute runtime to flesh out each Losers’ Club member’s jogged memories — peppered by vivid visits from Pennywise — and you can’t avoid self-reflection. With such varied backstories at play, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find yourself in the film. Great fiction spares no realities. It’s universal because it’s true.
The film is anchored in two kinds of nostalgia. Amblin Entertainment apostles, who define childhood with films like E.T. and Back to the Future, are already pumped up by Netflix’s hit Stranger Things. But on a deeper level, It Chapter Two invites you to confront your own past and kill your own clowns.
The cast — highlighted by Bill Hader’s wired, salty, Marc Maron-in-a-haunted house Richie Tozier, and James Ransone’s deer-in-the-headlights Eddie Kaspbrak — mirrors the same “we’re actually freaking out right now” vibe that the 2017 film’s excellent young cast nailed. The actors’ terror is believable, perhaps because looking into the attic of your mind for what used to scare you — and what still might — doesn’t necessarily require performative lessons from Lee Strasberg. Past experiences are motivation enough.
Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise deserves all due credit for being pants-wettingly horrifying, a now-iconic turn that’s as darkly playful and nimble as it is grisly and punishing. He’s the judge, jury, executioner and court jester of this world, and the films do not work unless we’re all shaken up by how cruel and catty he can be. The story focuses more on the Losers, so the Clown Prince of Sewers only gets limited time to torment. But Skarsgård makes the most of it, crushing our desire for Amblin magic in one fell swoop of sickening Pennywise violence.
But we don’t come to Derry to feel Spielbergian whimsy, do we? No. We come back time and time again to confront the realities of what fear can do, what happens when it feasts on us and what happens when we fight back. In that regard, It Chapter Two is a rousing success. It’s as imperfect as it is bloated, but it’s also remarkable in its barbed pathos.
Despite the inevitable psychological torment, we keep going back to Derry to put our hands down the drain. Childhood trauma doesn’t just dissipate when we grow up, and there’s not as much laughter on the other side.