Pennywise the clown has scared up a storm with his return in this week's IT CHAPTER TWO.
The notorious Stephen King monster (played by Bill Skarsgard) resurfaces in Derry, Maine 27 years after his defeat at the hands of the Losers Club. This prompts the older likes of Bill (James McAvoy), Bev (Jessica Chastain) and Richie (Bill Hader) to return to their home town for one final confrontation with their dreaded nemesis.
Director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman up the horror as King's chilling saga comes to its conclusion. Given the first IT movie is currently highest-grossing horror movie of all time ($700 million against a $35 million budget), expectations are sky-high for the second instalment.
So what's the critical response? Many agree that although the film's ambition and scope are admirable, the storytelling focus sometimes gets lost amid the 165-minute running time, although the performances have generated acclaim.
"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," writes Peter Debruge in Variety.
"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."
Time Out's Joshua Rothkopf says: "Even as it drifts into narrative indiscipline, you appreciate the movie's attempt to make sense of a troubled, beclowned present...
"Returning director Andy Muschietti did an effective job with his young cast in the first It (they all come back in flashbacks or nightmares, including standout Sophia Lillis as teenage Bev), but his work with the adults is superior. In the wake of Hereditary’s Toni Collette, we’re evidently in a brave new world where the heightened emotions of horror can yield finely frayed performances. Hader, especially, anchors the mania of several gross-outs (including one targeted expressly at fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing) with a lived-in bonhomie."
A somewhat more negative response comes from The Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore. "Literally doubling the number of actors that played key roles in its predecessor, 2017's Chapter One, the film puts excellent thesps in the parts but winds up feeling much less satisfying.
"Though Muschietti occasionally finds lovely filmic ways to transition from one to the next, the stories don't get to resonate with each other in a meaningful or emotional way — as they might in a series of well-crafted hourlong episodes. A moviegoer who just sat for 169 minutes is loath to say it, but there needs to be more of this IT — just not in this form."
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By contrast, Empire's Alex Godfrey lauds the movie with a five-star review. "Confidence runs through Chapter Two. The (almost) contemporary setting means it’s less burdened by superficial nostalgia, allowing Muschietti to more forcefully own it, and it’s tonally perfect.
"Comedy aside — humour often undercuts the horror, mostly successfully — there is little brightness here, the film shrouded in shadow. Everything conspires to creep you out. Nothing is spared with the set design, especially as things get weird: you can taste the dankness. It is unforgivingly tense, giving you both shivers and jumps. It is spooky on a gut level.
"Yet for all the darkness, the sweetness survives. The film has much affection for these Losers, and as an ode to friendship — or at least to age-old bonds — it does fine work. With so many leads, the emotion is handled economically, but sincerely. Muschietti walks a constant tightrope. He never falls off."
Playing devil's advocate, here's a mixed response from Entertainment Weekly's Leah Greenblatt: "Really, the main problem with IT CHAPTER TWO is that it goes on, and on, for so very long.
"If brevity is not necessarily the soul of a good scare, it would certainly serve a story that sends in the clowns, and then lets them just stay there — leering and lurking and chewing through scene after scene — until the there’s nothing left to do but laugh, or leave."
Writing for The Telegraph, Tim Robey is magnanimous in his praise of Bill Hader: "The undeniable standout, though, is Hader, who slides into King’s universe so naturally it’s as if, like Pennywise, he's been waiting a whole 27 years to show up. The film needs his pained wit and gets a bucketload.
"When he’s being pursued by the town statue of bearded lumberjack Paul Bunyan – an ultra-virile hero of American folklore – the daylit sequence isn’t exactly scary, but his priceless expressions give it point.
"Chapter Two ranks, eventually, as a plateauing of the first part’s promise, rather than the escalation we may have wanted. But Hader’s wonderful ability to meld humour and horror, using each to animate the other, is the best special effect that money can buy."
Finally, in her review for the London Evening Standard, Charlotte O'Sullivan says the movie belongs to Hader. "IT CHAPTER TWO isn’t better than CHAPTER ONE. It’s certainly not scarier. Here’s the thing, though: when it counts, it’s every bit as thrilling. Muschietti and his team have made a bold, fitfully stylish, frequently shocking film that somehow does justice to King’s mad, and very hard to pin down, novel.
"Here’s a story that no one could have seen coming, a story that no other blockbuster in 2019 wanted to tell. It’s all about Richie. The atypical avenger of IT CHAPTER TWO, [Richie Tozier] is a lover and a fighter, a real clown and the joker in this year’s pack."
You can cast your own verdict on the movie before long: click here to book your tickets for IT CHAPTER TWO, now on release in Cineworld cinemas.
And if you can't get enough of Pennywise's mischief, don't forget about our IT and IT CHAPTER TWO double-bill on Thursday 5th September.