This contains some spoilers for IT Chapter Two.
It’s not that IT Chapter Two isn’t scary, it’s that IT Chapter Two doesn’t even seem interested in being scary. It’s as though the filmmakers decided that the tone of the first movie was a little too dark, a little too tense, and decided to lighten it up… and they lightened it all the way up. There are a couple of moments that are intense – the opening hate crime, for instance – but almost every single scare in IT Chapter Two is either immediately undercut by a joke or is interrupted by a joke at its heaviest moment.
Somehow, Andy Muschietti turned IT Chapter Two into a comedy.
Look, comedy and horror are neighbors. They’re all about timing and tension and the release of that tension, just coming from different angles. Comedy-horror is often the hardest genre to pull off, despite the fact that comedy and horror seem to go along like peanut butter and chocolate. The larger problem is that the comedy almost always overwhelms the horror, and it takes a truly deft hand – a Sam Raimi, for instance, to modulate just the right amount of yuks.
But there is a rule that I kind of believe in when it comes to comedy and horror – yuks should turn into shrieks, and shrieks should rarely turn into yuks. You can take a scare scene and turn it into a laugh moment only if the atmosphere is so heavy, the scare so intense, that the audience needs a laugh. But a good scare scene is itself a laugh scene – the audience leaping in fright is the release, and if you’ve ever been in the audience for an effective horror movie you’ve seen this in action – the tension rises, the fright lands, the audience leaps… and then they laugh, both at their own reactions and to the feeling of the tension being expelled in a scream.
But it’s rare that a scary scene can effectively be turned into a funny scene. The comedy undercuts the horror, and you’re releasing tension just as fast as you’re building it. This is where IT Chapter Two has its weird tonal issues – Muschietti wants to, without fail, turn a scary scene into a funny scene, but he almost never wants to take a funny scene – and the way humor relaxes us – and turn it into a weapon to frighten the audience.
Let’s take one scene as an example. Henry Bowers, sprung from prison by Pennywise the Dancing Clown and the living corpse of Hoftstetter, corners Losers Club member Eddie Kaspbarak in the bathroom at the inn where the Losers are all staying. Bowers drives his switchblade into Eddie’s cheek, a horrifying act of violence that happens suddenly. But rather than stay with the intensity, and build it, James Ransone plays the scene as a comedy beat; when he steps into the shower to hide from Bowers – a trauma response – Ransone has Eddie do a funny face as he pulls the shower curtain closed. It’s straight goofy, and it deflates the menace of the sequence. When Eddie stabs Bowers through the curtain it’s a laugh moment, and then as if this cake wasn’t iced enough, Eddie drops a zinger on his way out of the bathroom, mocking Bowers’ mullet.
This scene isn’t bad, but it’s just not a horror movie scene. It could have supported the zinger at the end (although I feel like the movie made Eddie too funny), but I don’t think it can support the physical comedy in the shower. It’s like Muschietti doesn’t want you too upset about Eddie getting stabbed, because it would ruin the mood.
That mood, I think, is ‘party movie.’ This is a film designed to be experienced with a rowdy crowd, one that whoops and hollers and laughs a lot. Which is weird, because the movie is also a three hour long epic about the lasting echoes of trauma and eldritch gods who are child killers. IT Chapter Two is a truly bizarre tonal blend, and I think it’s largely the goodwill radiating from the first film and the excellent casting of the adult Losers Club that allows the darn thing to work at all.
The first IT was still impacted by the vision of Cary Joji Fukunaga. Here’s a story I heard at the time when he was leaving the project, and while I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this, I was told it by someone at Warner Bros who could have known. What I was told was that Fukunaga wanted to take the infamous ending of the book, wherein the kids run a train on Beverly in order to ‘grow up’ and get past the powers of It, and turn it into a scene where they did a big circle jerk. Fukunaga was gonna go for it, and while obviously the second decade of the 21st century is no place for a preteen circle jerk (imagine if the internet found the movies of the 70s, like Pretty Baby. Woof), it shows that he at least got the larger thematic concerns with which King was playing.
And I think that the development process of the first film kept some of Fukunaga’s touch. The movie is, without a doubt, better than the sequel, and not just because the weird bifurcated structure of the films meant the less-interesting adult stuff was saved for the second movie. The first film takes its time with its scares, and it builds sequences. The sequences are scary, and there is real menace.
Take the leper at the Neiboldt Street house. In the first film I found the leper legitimately scary. The creature was weird looking and shot with a deep intensity that shook me; it really recreated the experience of being a kid and coming across a street person who was… bizarre, or gross. But the leper returns in IT Chapter Two and he’s kind of a joke. I get that this is partially purposeful – Eddie understands the key to defeating Pennywise because he makes the leper smaller, sillier, in his mind. And the way the movie does it is fine – Eddie, a ball of rage, is finally in a place to take out his frustrations on this monster and when he sees past the grossness and just wraps his hands around the leper’s neck, the creature almost visibly shrinks. This works.
Then the leper vomits on Eddie. This also works! It’s a reversal of the scene, it’s a gross-out jumpscare, it elicits a terrific response. AND THEN THE MOVIE GOES INTO SLOMO AND PLAYS JUICE NEWTON’S ANGEL OF THE MORNING. It’s fucking wild, and it’s the scene that I think most exemplifies the film’s problems, even as it’s the most drastic example of them.
The music cue is a bizarre fourth wall break, because it’s non-diagetic, and I’m pretty sure it’s not some kind of callback to the first film. If anything, to modern audiences it’s a callback to Deadpool. But more than that, the vomit scene doesn’t need the joke – it’s darkly funny all on its own. It works as a tension releaser all by itself; the song is gilding the lily, as they say. And the scene of Eddie returning to the inn covered in vomit is more than enough comedy, yet the scene also includes him having trouble with the door to the pharmacy and being insulted by the grown up gum-smacker from the first film. It’s just joke on joke on joke, and these scenes, by the way, slide into the aforementioned Eddie vs Bowers scene that also plays like a joke.
And yet I liked the movie. Not a lot, and I’m not sure I’ll ever revisit it (I saw the first one twice in theaters), but at the very least the three hours kind of breezed by. The movie may be too funny for me (I feel like a Snyderhead saying that), but I do appreciate how weird the film gets; in giving up any attempt to be frightening, IT Chapter Two gets a little more psilocybined out. Things get downright trippy at moments, and the creatures are more hallucinatory and odd.
And yet the film pulls its punches at the end, where it could have really gotten weird. The final battle against a giant spidery Pennywise feels sort of… blase in the current moment of cosmic superhero movies. We, as an audience, have been primed the last few years for something truly out there and weird, something approaching the Lovecraftian shit that Stephen King was trying for with his villain in this story. The ending never really gets there, although it gets close – a sequence wherein Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is held in thrall by the Deadlights within Pennywise’s head has a certain echo of cosmic horror of which I would have liked to see more.
Bill Hader is getting a lot of praise for the film, and rightly so, but I think the impact of his performance is part of what makes the movie so unbalanced. He’s too important in the film, and in fact I would argue he’s the central character of the movie. The book is very much about Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), the Stephen King stand-in (made the butt of an endless series of meta “can’t write a good ending” jokes, by the way), but the movie is Richie’s movie.
Part of it is the tone, which makes Richie feel less like comic relief and more like the lead in an Adam McKay movie. But more than that, the film has made Richie a closeted homosexual who has feelings for Eddie, something that’s a departure from the book (and which King says he didn’t intend, but he’s perfectly okay with it). Because the film opens with the anti-gay hate crime at the Derry Canal Days that also opens the novel, we get a throughline from the opening to Richie’s story, which makes him kind of the backbone of the whole thing. He’s the only one of the Losers with a larger emotional arc; even Beverly (Jessica Chastain), whose abusive husband played a big role in the novel, has been kind of shuffled off to the side.
It’s not a problem that Richie is the focus of the movie, but by putting a comedian as the focus the movie really shows its hand – it wants banter and jokes and riffs and references more than scares. As Pennywise subjects Beverly to a torrent of blood and abusers in her mind, there’s a sudden “Heeeere’s Johnny” reference that reinforces the jokiness of the whole endeavour (that it happens in parallel with a sequence where Richie and Eddie confront It in the form of… a Pomeranian doesn’t help).
What’s really weird is that this tone would have worked better for the first film. A lighter, more adventure-oriented tone (think Temple of Doom rather than Poltergeist) works for kids. They’re pliable, they bounce back. And it would have fit the themes to reveal, in the sequel, that maybe the Losers didn’t bounce back as much as it seemed at the time, that the fun and lightness left a dark mark on them all.
When adults are involved in goofy shenanigans everything seems terribly unserious. Even scenes that are supposed to be serious take on a comedic tone. Look at the scene where Bill revisits the sewer where Georgie disappeared – the scare and emotion of that moment is broken by the appearance of a kid. The kid is one we met earlier, who also appeared to break the tension of a scare scene in a Chinese restaurant; we learn he lives in Bill’s old house, and he shows up to find Bill jabbering at a sewer opening. There’s a comedic beat here and then the kid reveals he hears voices coming from his bathtub drain. But what happens next is contaminated by the kid being a comic relief character – Bill freaks out and starts shaking the kid and telling him to leave Derry. This plays as a joke! It’s already so emotionally big that even in the context of a more serious film it could slide into silliness, but in the context of IT Chapter Two it’s almost spoof-level dopey.
As a night out at the movies, I enjoyed IT Chapter Two, but as an adaptation of the King novel and as a follow-up to the superior first film I found it tragically wanting. I’m not even interested in breaking down how poor the final battle is, with its blatantly a soundstage cavern and yet another scene where heroes escape a collapsing underground lair, or what indignities it serves up to characters like Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who it turns into kind of an obsessive jerk. I won’t even get into how Bowers is reduced to a shuffling joke, after being such a threat in the first film. What really bums me out about this movie is how inconsequential it feels, despite having such rich thematic stuff to play with.
The opening hate crime is unsettling, difficult and brutal. It’s upsetting. This is what a horror movie is supposed to be. IT is a horror story, and yet they made it into a party movie.