How many pages does it take for seven kids to defeat a killer clown? And how many hours does that translate to when adapting the story to screen? For fans of Stephen King, the answer always seems to be “never enough.” The pop pulp shiver-giver inspires in readers a kind of ravenous insatiability that has thwarted his false-alarm retirement and felled more trees than the fires blazing in the Amazon rainforest. That same appetite helped feed the excitement for director Andy Muschietti’s “It” — a monster hit two years ago, earning more than $700 million — and ought to bring audiences back in even greater numbers for “It: Chapter Two,” an elaborate fun-house horror movie that springs pop-up gimmicks and boogie-boogie scares steadily enough to excuse its been-there story and self-important 169-minute running time.
From the “Lord of the Rings” saga to the “Avengers” sequels, length confers a kind of false legitimacy on middlebrow entertainment, no matter the medium. When first published in 1986, “It” was by far the longest-winded of King’s prolix books (outgassing “The Stand” by more than 200 pages), and its sheer heft gave the semblance of significance among the prolific author’s oeuvre, despite the doorstop’s relatively silly plot. Quality was almost irrelevant to the discussion. Teenagers who couldn’t be bothered to read Joseph Conrad’s slender “Heart of Darkness” in English class boasted about having conquered “It” on their own, inevitably touting it as King’s freakiest novel.
And then they moved on. The fear faded. They forgot. Now, dear reader, it’s time to reunite and confront the specter of those things that frightened us most. At least, that’s the added-value appeal for King devotees, whose experience conceivably mirrors that of his characters: seven adolescent outcasts who dubbed themselves the Losers Club and thought they had vanquished Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), the supernatural child-killer with the oblong skull, splayed eyes and shark-like grin.
Twenty-seven years after they sent Pennywise back to whatever parallel dimension “It” came from, these unlikely heroes are called upon to make good on the blood oath they took as teens — a device that allows the movie to re-cast its adolescent ensemble as better-known movie stars. Of the group, only Mike (Chosen Jacobs before, now played by Isaiah Mustafa as an adult) has stuck around in Derry, Maine, working at the library, where he can freely obsess about the monster’s origins and how to defeat the creature should It ever return.
Now It has, like some kind of malevolent cicada, with no explanation of how It spent the interval. Instead — and more interestingly — Muschietti catches up with the original protagonists, cycling through where each of them is when they receive Mike’s urgent call. Richie (Bill Hader) has become a stand-up comic. Ever nervous, Eddie (James Ransone) is a natural for a career in risk assessment. A successful novelist, Bill (James McAvoy, a curious choice) has found work in Hollywood. No longer the tomboy, Beverly (Jessica Chastain) married a rich creep, who knocks her around. And Ben (Jay Ryan) has hunked up to become the gang’s unofficial swan, leaving no trace of the misfit duckling (Jeremy Ray Taylor) we knew before.
Credit the hair and wardrobe team for an uncanny job matching the kids’ earlier look, good for a few bonus laughs as the adult stars channel their younger counterparts’ more colorful idiosyncrasies (Ransone is a ringer for Jack Dylan Grazer’s already spazzy antics, Hader amplifies Finn Wolfhard’s goggle-eyed awkwardness). The teenagers get a fair amount of screen time here, too, dragging out the second act with flashbacks as each recalls — and is forced to reckon with — those personal It-related encounters they banished from their memories when they moved away. Young Bill (Jaeden Martell) still blames himself for his brother’s death, Beverly (Sophia Lillis) realizes where her attraction to abusive men comes from, and so on.
As often happens with small-town escapees, their lives have changed far more than the place they left behind — although the movie omits some key details on how Derry has fared in their absence: Have no other children died during that time? Were no murders committed? Have the sewers smelled only of roses? Depriving us of answers, director Muschietti skips the intervening decades, opening “Chapter Two” with a horrific gay-bashing scene — a hate crime that’s true to the book and to Maine history (see the 1984 murder of Charlie Howard) but confusing in this context. Was it the sheer evil of this attack that brought Pennywise back? Did the clown somehow cause the incident (in which queer auteur Xavier Dolan plays the victim)? Or did It merely show up to deliver the finishing blow?
It’s a hard scene to stomach in a film that doesn’t feature all that many killings — certainly fewer than one would expect, and none as unnervingly realistic as the one depicted here. What happens to the perpetrators of this awful event? Clearly the news — paired with a red balloon and the words “Come Home” scrawled in blood under the bridge — was enough to convince Mike that Pennywise was back. But why, after upsetting us so, would the film let these homophobes go, unpunished and ignored for the rest of the film?
Muschietti has a strange narrative challenge to overcome here: On one hand, he’s obliged to compress all the plot that King could indulge in more than 1,100 pages (which explains why other killings and the local police’s dead-end investigations don’t make the cut), while on the other, he’s motivated to delay the final confrontation between Pennywise and the reunited Losers Club for as long as possible.
Nearly all the scares that follow are hallucinatory in nature, most of them sight gags made possible by CGI: Tiny digital monsters burst out of fortune cookies at a Chinese restaurant; a Paul Bunyan statue lumbers cartoonishly after Richie with his giant ax; virtual spider legs sprout from an old friend’s decapitated head, skittering around like something out of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (a lot of the movie’s Lovecraft-ian moments owe a debt to that film, which achieved its trippy creature transformations practically). Spending too much time in flashbacks is risky, despite the creative “A Nightmare on Elm Street”-style surrealism, since audiences already know these characters don’t die as kids.
But King has saddled the director with an even bigger problem: At a certain point, the novel goes off the rails, veering beyond the merely supernatural into full-blown metaphysical mumbo-jumbo (enter King’s cosmic space turtle, the Matubin, and other “macroverse” oddities). The movie has almost no choice but to rethink the final act, anticipating the overhaul by way of a running joke. As the group’s resident novelist-screenwriter, Bill is teased constantly for not being able to write a satisfying ending. King has often suffered the same criticism. Can this movie fix the fact the book ends badly?
Yes, it can. “It: Chapter Two” is much longer than it needs to be, but it builds to something significant — and a lot of that filler feels justifiable in terms of how audiences’ consumption patterns are changing. Whereas the three-hour 1990 miniseries version was split across two nights, viewers now binge an entire season of “Stranger Things” — a shameless “It” knockoff that improves on King’s novel — in a single weekend. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the 2017 film (already long at 135 minutes) was just a glorified trailer for this movie. Still, Muschietti could have used “It” to launch a franchise or an open-ended TV series, but instead, he recognizes the value in closure.
In a way, closure is what “It” is all about: You start something as kids, and then life happens. You lose interest, or confidence, or maybe just your nerve. Such evasion is a kind of fear, and one that King confronted head-on with this novel. It’s as if he’s daring you to come back and see how much worse It can get. And Muschietti obliges, embellishing the childish phobias we thought we’d outgrown en route to defeating that creepy, fearmongering clown once and for all.