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Pennywise, a frightening-looking clown, looms out of the darkness.
Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) returns in It: Chapter Two.
Warner Bros. Pictures

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It: Chapter Two is more contemporary fantasy epic than horror movie

The supernatural ramps up in the Stephen King sequel

The appeal of 2017’s It arguably wasn’t horror, but the simple spectacle of a bunch of friends tackling seemingly insurmountable odds by sticking together, without ever diminishing their worries and woes because they were children. It’s the same rough formula behind the Earthbound games, The Goonies, and Stand By Me, and the more recent success of Stranger Things. That grounding is part of why it doesn’t feel like a total shift when It’s sequel, also directed by Andy Muschietti, begins leaning more heavily into science fiction and fantasy than horror. It also speaks volumes as to why the movie begins to fracture when the characters spend a good chunk of the movie separated.

Picking up 27 years after the events of the first movie, It: Chapter Two reunites its now-adult characters as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) resurfaces to wreak more havoc upon the little town of Derry, Maine. Mike (played as an adult by Isaiah Mustafa and as a young man by Chosen Jacobs) is the only one of the self-proclaimed “Losers’ Club” to have remained in their hometown, and as a result is also the only one to remember what happened to them. Everyone else — with the semi-exception of Beverly (Jessica Chastain and Sophia Lillis), who has been plagued by nightmares — only remembers a vague sense of dread.

It’s a killer premise, especially as It has always concerned itself with inherited trauma, memory, and the way adults tend to dismiss the fears of children. It doesn’t, however, always land when the characters are sent on separate paths. This is an ensemble piece — the characters are most colorful and the action is most interesting when they’re together.

Richie (Bill Hader), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Bill (James McAvoy), Eddie (James Ransone), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), and Ben (Jay Ryan) convene in the woods.
The Losers’ Club, back in Derry.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Initially, it makes sense, as the characters have all grown up to live disparate lives. Mike is the town librarian; Beverly has become a fashion designer; Bill (James McAvoy and Jaeden Martell) is a successful author; Ben (Jay Ryan and Jeremy Ray Taylor) is an architect; Richie (Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard) is a comedian; Stanley (Andy Bean and Wyatt Olef) is an accountant; and Eddie (James Ransone and Jack Dylan Grazer) is a risk analyst. It’s fascinating catching up with them, especially as it becomes clear that their childhood neuroses have plagued them into adulthood, and their reunion in Derry pays off spectacularly as they fall back into their old rhythms.

What follows makes sense as far as a novel goes, where it’s easier to intercut between action, but cinematically, it breaks down to following one character for a while as they figure out what they need to do their part in the ritual to defeat Pennywise, then another, and then another, until each character has had their moment. It breaks up the film’s momentum — and also makes it a little predictable. One character, one encounter with Pennywise. Easy peasy.

That such floundering doesn’t sink the film comes down to Muschietti’s eye for monsters and for action, which launches It: Chapter Two into contemporary fantasy epic territory. Realism has been forgone in favor of cooking up the most grotesque scares possible, with truly gross monsters pursuing the Losers as they get closer and closer to performing a cosmic ritual to seal away the supernatural entity haunting the town.

Visually, the film is a treat, with darkness rarely hindering clarity and a few set pieces, including one that almost feels as though it had been pulled out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, helping to keep the film’s nearly three-hour runtime feeling relatively snappy. An increased roster of monsters also means that the things that go bump in the dark are continuous surprises, spooky treats to look forward to as the movie progresses.

The three adults recoil from something in a dusty house.
Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), and Ben (Jay Ryan) react in shock.
Warner Bros. Pictures

It also helps that the cast is uniformly terrific, with each adult uncannily believable as the grown-up counterpart to the younger actors. Whether it’s a particular verbal tic, the way they carry themselves, or just the look in their eyes, the connective tissue between them is tangible. The only exception to the rule is McAvoy, who doesn’t — at least to my eyes — bear much physical or behavioral resemblance to Martell, though he’s still compelling as the de facto (and occasionally slightly asshole-ish) leader of the group.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some fat to trim. A few scenes kept from the book — and a few added on — either come across as unnecessarily or a little thoughtlessly tacked on. New character details feel almost retcon-esque as to pack on extra emotional heft to a finale that would have still packed a punch without it.

Though the use of horror to address trauma that’s passed down from generation to generation is, by now, old hat, It: Chapter Two manages to make it feel fresh through sheer verve. Even if it doesn’t manage to counteract some of the sillier moments (the finale has a “the real treasure was the friends we made along the way” feel to it, and not completely in a good way), the monsters and mayhem are perfect end-of-summer blockbuster fodder, just exciting enough to keep your adrenaline flowing. That said, if you’re looking for scares, It: Chapter Two may not be the place to find them: The only time I truly gasped was at Peter Bogdanovich’s cameo.

It: Chapter Two opens in theaters Sept. 6.