Review: It Chapter Two Brings Scary Therapy From an Evil Clown

First things first. The makers of It Chapter Two know that the ending of the book is a mess. They know the miniseries ending felt obligatory rather than natural. And they show us they know by having adult Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) be a famous horror writer who’s notorious for bad endings, especially when he’s involved in adapting them for film. Thankfully, without spoiling, I can say the movie’s climax features the best It ending to date. Although it changes many things and may not find favor with book purists. Especially those fond of omnipotent turtles.

It’s a hoary horror cliche in part because of Stephen King, but the second go-around of the Losers’ Club versus the evil alien clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) sees the now-adult kids from the first film looking to defeat the monster with…drumroll please…a Native American ritual. This, at least, is what Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one of them to remain living in Derry, has deduced. Mercifully, the ritual, like most rituals, turns out not to be some magical be-all end-all, but rather a way to focus the mind correctly. Not unlike the Avengers, the group members have to go on individual missions to collect Infinity Stones tokens from their childhood that they’ll apparently know when they see. Get them all together, and the ritual can be performed.

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The point, however, isn’t so much in the objects themselves. Rather, it’s the fact that none of these adults save Mike can remember their childhoods with any clarity. The energy surrounding It has clouded their minds like the Shadow, in an obvious metaphor for repressed trauma. Each token is an object keyed to emotionally powerful moments from the past. Moments that everyone needs to confront again in order to truly face their fears. But fear acts as an appetizer for Pennywise. So naturally, the monster looks to use the situation to make the recovered memories unbearable.

Once again, Pennywise acts like a modern-day Freddy Krueger, immersing his victims in living nightmares based on their subconscious. But he serves a very different symbolic point this time. In Chapter One, he represented all that is dark beneath the facade of a quiet, small town. Think bigotry, spousal abuse, and everything the residents keep hidden. While Chapter Two nods to this at the beginning with a hideous gay-bashing assault, this time Pennywise better represents the shame spirals of adulthood. For those of you not in therapy, that’s a term for when people engage in internal self-loathing because of a thing in the past they either did or didn’t do which makes them “bad.” The more these adults indulge in that, the bigger the evil clown gets.

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In the book, Pennywise often borrowed the forms of pop-culture fear creations like the Universal monsters. While Warner Bros. hasn’t really wanted to spend the money to go full Ready Player One here, many of his alternate forms do look like classic EC horror comics art. And another is a gnarly (uncredited) tribute to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

A viewer could probably be fine watching Chapter Two without having seen the first one. Flashbacks with the younger cast fill in every key plot point from the 1989 era essential to understanding the story at hand. There’s more thematic richness, however, if you come to these characters already knowing their backstories. And you can better appreciate the adult recasting. Bill Hader arguably has the easiest job as Richie, being the funny one. Jay Ryan as Ben pulls off the toughest job, embodying the soul of overweight, bullied new kid Ben while being a super-hunk himself. And Sinister‘s James Ransone is a scene-stealer as hypochondriac Eddie. In a neat bit of dual casting, his needy, obese wife is played by the same actress (Molly Atkinson) as his needy, obese mother.

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Appreciating It Chapter Two might be easier for people like me who are the same age as the protagonists, and were teenagers in 1989. We live in a world that mines our nostalgia and represses the horrors of that time. (For one thing, we feared nuclear annihilation might come at any moment.) Despite being ostensibly nostalgic, this is a movie that squarely takes aim at nostalgia for being fake and not really confronting the past. Anyone still in the process of doing so may relate very much to the way the baggage of youth fuels metaphorical demons. Portrayed here by real demons.

There’s ample material here to spin-off a Pennywise prequel if Warner Bros. wants one. But it’s the rare horror sequel that’s more concerned with closure than with an endless franchise. That’s as it should be. In the end not everyone can survive their own traumas, but with the right help and support, some can. Come for the creatures and scares, stay for the insights on how to let go of your secret shames.

Rating: 4/5