'It Chapter Two' Review: A Massive, Messy Horror Blockbuster That Understands What Makes Stephen King So Special

"Maybe there aren't any such things as good friends or bad friends," Stephen King wrote in his epic horror novel It. "Maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you're hurt and who help you feel not so lonely...people who build their houses in your heart." If there's one thing It Chapter Two, the highly-anticipated sequel to 2017's blockbuster adaptation of King's book, understands, it's this.

Not just the words King wrote, but the beating heart behind them. It Chapter Two, a lengthy, messy, not-always-successful sequel, is one of those rare Stephen King adaptations that acknowledges that there's more to King's work than things that go bump in the night. There's humanity.

King's tome of terror was so lengthy that, as was the case the 1990 miniseries adaptation that came before, the story was split into two distinct parts. The 2017 film focused on the pre-teen members of the Losers' Club – a group of outcasts in the 1980s, banding together to fight the ultimate evil: a supernatural shape-shifting force that tends to prefer the appearance of a circus clown named Pennywise. The Losers assumed they defeated Pennywise the first time, but they also made a promise: if the clown ever rears his ugly, grease-painted head in their home town of Derry, Maine again, they'll all come back to stop it once and for all.

Jump ahead 27 years. All but one of the Losers has left town, and as a result, forgotten all about their childhood traumas. But sure enough, Pennywise returns, making his presence known by participating in a ghastly hate crime against a gay man (played by Xavier Dolan) and urging the Losers to come on home. "I've missed you," Pennywise says to one of the Losers later in the film, and there's no reason to doubt this sentiment.

Now in adulthood, the Losers are – for the most part – prosperous. Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy as an adult; Jaeden Martell as a kid) has grown-up to be a successful novelist currently in the midst of adapting one of his books into a film. Bev Marsh (now played by Jessica Chastain, originally portrayed by Sophia Lillis) is a successful fashion designer stuck in an abusive relationship with a husband not all that different than her abusive father. Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan and Jeremy Ray Taylor) is a wealthy architect – and he's dropped a few pounds to boot. Richie (Bill Hader/Finn Wolfhard) has become a hot-shot stand-up comic. And Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone/Jack Dylan Grazer), the eternal worrywart, is now a risk analyst. Then there's Stan (Andy Bean/Wyatt Oleff), chosen profession never explicitly underlined in the film (he's an accountant in King's novel).

All of these people made it out of Derry, leaving one of their own behind – Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa/Chosen Jacobs), now toiling away as the town librarian and amateur historian. It's Mike who first catches wind of the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, once again delivering a scene-stealing, highly physical performance), and it's Mike who calls the Losers' Club home. With understandable trepidation, the Losers return to Derry, and have to decide to either stand and finish off Pennywise once and for all, or get the hell out of town and let the bloodthirsty clown chow down on innocent children.

For the first hour or so of It Chapter Two, director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman seem to be in an awfully big hurry. Even though Chapter Two runs for a whopping 169 minutes, Muschietti and Dauberman apparently have no interest in letting their film catch its breath. As a result, the first act of the film is a clumsy, crashing, awkward mess, forcing the characters back together in the most hamfisted, unbelievable ways imaginable. One of the truly wonderful elements of 2017's It was the unmistakable chemistry the young cast had together. Sadly, the adult Losers lack this. You could argue that since they've been separated for nearly 30 years, that lack of chemistry makes sense. But the Losers are supposed to fall right back in line once they reunite, and the script is eager to have them all fit back into their established roles. But while the casting here is spot-on – nearly every member of the adult cast really looks like grown-up versions of the kids – the commandery is never there, even as the group bands together more and more to fight evil.

That's not to say the cast does a bad job. Everyone here is delivering. Chastain and McAvoy, the biggest stars of the group, do the most they can with oddly undercooked parts. Chastain is one of the best actresses working right now, but the script gives her little more to do than scream and act confused. McAvoy has a bit more on his plate, but even he feels adrift at times. It's the rest of the cast that truly gets to shine. Ransone is consistently funny and likable as the flustered Eddie, while Ryan's Ben is dashing and even charming. There was a legitimate complaint that the young Mike had very little to do in the first film, and thankfully the adult Mike has a bigger part to play, with Mustafa making good on the task.

The real highlight, though, is Hader, who turns Richie into the default lead of the story. Sure, Bill is the leader of the Losers, and Bev is a major player with more screentime. But it's Hader's Richie who feels the most alive; the most vibrant. He's also the character who has a genuine arc, shouldering secrets and emotional issues that slowly make themselves known. Hader does a fantastic job with Richie's smart-ass antics, but he's equally wonderful handling the more serious emotional beats.

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Once the Losers are back together, and back on track, It Chapter Two picks up steam. It never quite reaches the horrific heights of the first film, but not for lack of trying. Muschietti and company have adopted a "go big or go home" approach to this material, conjuring up a huge horror extravaganza – the type of epic, exhausting narrative that usually gets reserved only for blockbuster superhero movies these days. Studio-based horror isn't very daring, but It Chapter Two is willing to take risks, and draw its story towards increasingly weird places. The climax dips into full-blown cosmic horror by way of H.P. Lovecraft in ways that most studio flicks tend to avoid like the plague.

Not only is Chapter Two not afraid to get weird, it's also unapologetically nasty, delivering several graphic, blood-drenched set-pieces that have the power to shock. The film is never quite as scary as it should be, but it's often disturbing and upsetting to the point where you're guaranteed to feel uncomfortable – and that's exciting.

It truly is exciting to watch a horror movie this big. You'll be hard-pressed to think of a recent horror movie that's as massive as this. Even the wildly successful Conjuring franchise keeps things small and self-contained. It Chapter Two isn't interested in playing by those roles. The success of the first film has given Muschietti unprecedented freedom – and he exploits it to its fullest. In fact, the exploits it too much – a little reigning-in would've helped stabilize some of It Chapter Two's more wobbly elements. Yet it's hard not to thrill over a studio horror pic that's willing to be this unconventional, and bold.

As exciting as that boldness it, the most rewarding element of It Chapter Two is the way it so perfectly nails down Stephen King's prose. King is known as a master of horror, and with good reason – he's been terrifying constant readers for decades. But King isn't just a guy who conjures up spooky scenarios. He's also – and I mean this is the most loving way possible – a big old nerd. Beneath all the horror is a genuinely sweet dweeb who actually cares about his characters. King's biggest gift isn't his ability to tell a story – although he's great at that, too. What sets him apart from so many other horror novelists is his unique ability to create instantly sympathetic characters. With only a few brief descriptors, King is able to summon forth people we feel we've known all our lives. And that's what makes his books sing. Because who gives a shit about horrors befalling characters we don't care about? King knows that to make the situations befalling his characters scary he has to make us care about them first. Care about their likes, and dislikes. Care about the things they care about. When they fall in love, we need to fall in love right along with them.

It Chapter Two gets that, and for all its clumsy storytelling faults, here is a movie that faithfully understands what makes Stephen King's prose so powerful. Beneath all the big special effects and geysers of blood of It Chapter Two exists people who build their houses in your heart. We live and die with these characters. We feel their longing, and their fears, and their desires. "Maybe they're always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for," King wrote of the group of friends at the center of It. "Maybe worth dying for too, if that's what has to be." It Chapter Two may never quite live up to its built-in hype, but it delivers on King's message – and how can you beat that?/Film Rating: 8 out of 10