Epic It sequel leaves Pennywise a spent force
By my count, more than 40 Stephen King stories have been turned into movies, but none as profitably as It, Andy Muschietti's 2017 saga that grossed over $700m and became the most successful horror film of all time. A sequel was always intended, as the first film had only got halfway through the labyrinthine plot of King's 1986 novel, which was set in the town of Derry, Maine, and told the story of an evil, sewer-dwelling entity that preyed on children and often took the form of a chuckling clown.
In the first film, which was set in 1988, a young boy called Bill, whose younger brother George was taken by the clown, joined forces with a group of outsider children to confront It and find a way of killing it. They succeeded, or so we thought, but as It: Chapter 2 opens, Pennywise the Clown makes a dramatic comeback. It's 2016, but not all of Derry's residents have evolved with the times, and when a couple of gay men wander through a fairground holding hands, they're followed by a gang of knuckle-draggers and attacked.
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They're badly beaten, and one is left for dead and thrown in the river. On the muddy bank, a gloved hand offers rescue - the poor man takes it at his peril. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) is back and pretty soon, Derry's children start disappearing all over again.
Of the original gang who stopped the clown in 1988, only one has remained behind in Derry. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) lives in cramped quarters above the old library and has remained transfixed by those awful late childhood events. After they vanquished Pennywise, the group made a blood oath to return if ever he resurfaced, but when Mike starts ringing around his old friends, he finds them very reluctant to do so.
Eventually, they show up, but Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Richie (Bill Hader), Ben (Jay Ryan) and Stanley (Andy Bean) can remember remarkably little about the traumas they endured in their early teens, and are not keen to take on the resurgent entity.
But the longer they stay, the more Pennywise gets into their minds, reviving old nightmares and adding new flourishes. It emerges that none of them have ever been able to move on from 1988 and have even replicated childhood problems in their adult lives (an interesting but half-explored theme).
Bill, still traumatised by the loss of his brother, has sabotaged every intimate relationship, while Beverly has found herself a husband every bit as brutal and abusive as her mercurial father.
In the film's scariest scene, she visits the ratty old flat she once shared with her father and is greeted by a kindly, tiny lady, who offers her tea. But as Beverly searches frantically for hidden signs of her old life, strange noises emanate from the kitchen.
It: Chapter 2 boasts plenty of fine moments: Andy Muschietti has good instincts as a horror director, and knows how to ramp up the terror by increments in delicately assembled scenes. But this film never reaches the giddy heights of its sleekly efficient predecessor, and that's all down to shoddy construction.
The King novel flitted back and forth between the characters' childhoods and their adult present, but with It, Muschietti and his writers made the decision to divide the time-line neatly in two. Which might have worked, had they not then decided to so slavishly draw out all the adult threads in the story here.
After Beverly, Bill and co arrive in Derry, we are reintroduced to their various problems. The film then formulaically goes through their separate encounters with Pennywise and his agents, at some length, one by one. As a result, the film's a stop/start affair that's never allowed to gather any dramatic momentum.
In the first film, Pennywise appeared as sparingly as the shark in Jaws, but here we see a lot more of him, and however brilliant Bill Skarsgård's pantomime portrayal of him is, he grows less frightening, more tiresome, every time he appears.
There are good actors here: Hader provides welcome moments of humour, and Chastain makes Beverly the character you care most about in this film. But the Spielbergian charm of the original is largely absent, and this sequel feels contrived and rambling by comparison.
Ninety minutes is a good length for a horror film, two hours is hard to justify, three seems obscenely long. When I interviewed Muschietti, he told me his original cut was four hours: he should have kept cutting.
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Aniara (No cert, IFI, 106mins) ***
Based on a singularly gloomy 1950s poem by Harry Martinson, Aniara cogently makes the point that if mankind ever does manage to leave this blighted planet for another, we'll bring our problems with us. In the future, freak storms and raging fires have made life on Earth a purgatory, so Sweden's wealthiest file on board a luxury spaceship bound for Mars. The Aniara is a bit like one of those pimped-up cruise liners, but early in the voyage, something goes amiss, the ship drifts off course and the well-heeled guests succumb to their worst excesses. The special effects are at times pedestrian, but this is a film full of ideas.
Thank You Come Again (18, 104mins) **
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The Shiny Shrimps (15A, 103mins) ****
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