'It: Chapter Two' and the Weight of Expectations
When Andy Muschietti's It was released in 2017, the hype surrounding the film was monumental, a historic marker for the horror genre. Working in the film's favor was not only the popularity of Stephen King's titanic novel and the desire for the long-gestating feature film adaptation, but also the uptick in quality for studio horror and the popularity of '80s-set Stranger Things and its nostalgia-driven children-in-peril plotlines. New Line's It became the film that almost everyone came out to see, whether they were devoted horror fans or not. From Bill Skarsgard's transformative performance as Pennywise to the cast of kids' chemistry and the '80s setting, Muschietti's film offered something for everyone. It wasn't a shock when the film ended its theatrical run with $700 million worldwide, topping the 18-year-old record set by The Sixth Sense (1999) and its $672.8 million in earnings.
What did prove to be a shock, at least for those who hadn't read King's novel or seen the 1990 TV movie and weren't savvy on production details, was when the film concluded with "Chapter 1" and tuned viewers in on the film being only the first part. While this revelation may have been common sense to many viewers, it caught just as many by surprise and once again served as a testament to how many audience members, who weren't typically invested in this sort of thing, were encouraged to float with the dancing clown. The question then became how It: Chapter Two could top the film that topped every other horror movie at the box office and became not just a success, but an event.
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The event horror film is a rare breed. We're not talking films that simply succeeded with their core audience or found enough success to launch a franchise. These are films that are seismic in their reach and leave those who missed seeing them in a pop culture blindspot. The Exorcist (1974), Jaws (1975), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Conjuring (2013) and Get Out (2017) form an exclusive club. Even rarer is blockbuster horror, those films with budgets of $50 million or more and set pieces to rival any Hollywood superhero production: Sleepy Hollow (1999), Hannibal, (2001), I Am Legend (2007), The Wolfman (2010), World War Z (2013) and Crimson Peak. It: Chapter Two falls into both the event and blockbuster horror category. While its increased budget, impossible expectations and nearly three-hour runtime do cost the film some of the tightness and terror of the first, It: Chapter Two, much like the latter half of King's novel, admirably and simultaneously teeters between doing too much and offering a refreshing perspective in its giant ambition.
We are living in the heyday of horror. While some will make a case for the '80s, horror has never been more creative, diverse and far-reaching than it is in this moment. And part of that is because horror, for the most part, is a famously frugal genre. Its lack of expenses allow for greater risks and the opportunity to alienate audiences. Yet, Muschietti's star-studded It: Chapter Two, written by Gary Dauberman, finds a way to tap into creativity and a larger audience pool with the kind of excess typically reserved for PG-13 IP. Chapter Two takes a carnival funhouse approach to King's novel that isn't consistently terrifying but never ceases to entertain and impress. There's certainly a case to be made that the unseen is more horrifying than the seen, but even at the cost of a few nightmares, there's something compelling to Muschietti going all out with creatures that include the walking dead, a flaming corpse, a terrifying Paul Bunyan statue, and the kind of creatures that would fit right in amid the collection of monstrosities that make up John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). It's as if Muschietti was asked to look at the concept art and chose what he liked and decided on all of it.
There's an element of fan service at play, not only in monsters, which for the longtime horror fan may do more to thrill than terrify, but also in the character interactions. While It caught many by surprise, Chapter Two opts to give audience members what they want while managing to stay mostly true to the themes of King's source material even if the tone doesn't always sync up. The emotional resonance is there among the cast comprised of James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa and Jay Ryan, but there also seems to be an awareness of the fact that a clown, regardless of the shape he takes, is less terrifying the second time around and lacks a certain menace with adults when compared to his target victims: children. As such, Chapter Two's humor feels more playful, and delivered with a slight wink at an audience that is now familiar with this world and Pennywise's antics. The result is not so different from New Line's Nightmare on Elm Street sequels from 30 years ago. Part five, The Dream Child, even gets a direct reference on a marquee sign. The scares in Chapter Two are different because the level of awareness and expectations are different.
Make no mistake, It: Chapter Two may have followed its prequel on a shorter time schedule, but it is the horror equivalent of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 (2011) or this year's Avengers: Endgame in that it values providing the most experience over subtlety. In the same way those films encompassed everything we love about Harry Potter and Marvel superheroes, Chapter Two aims to give us everything we love about Stephen King's lens of horror, right down to its sentimentality and baby boomer-born humor. Even the film's runtime, which has been discussed in almost every review ad nauseum, is part and parcel for an event film. Some complaints have stated that the film has no right being nearly three hours. But doesn't it? Even if we ignore the elephantine fact that King's novel is well over 1,000 pages, there's no reason why it shouldn't aim for the same amount of spectacle that fans have enthusiastically cheered for when it comes to other properties. In its length and expense, It: Chapter Two breaks several of the rules associated with horror, but it also feels like something we won't see again for a long time.
It: Chapter Two delivers an R-rated horror spectacle filled with blood, monsters, stars and set pieces, all of which is presented with a level of showmanship befitting its budget. No, It: Chapter Two is not the most frightening horror movie ever made, or the best, but it's a hell of a good show and true horror epic that shows just how big the genre is at the end of the decade.
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