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It Chapter Two review – a tonally-strange and disappointing follow-up

It Chapter Two is the much-anticipated sequel to Andy Muschietti’s 2017 It, following up twenty-seven years after where It left off. The child members of the Losers’ Club have grown up and grown apart. Apart from Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who stayed in their childhood home of Derry, Maine, all of the other Losers moved across the country and have completely forgotten about their previous battles with the homicidal supernatural entity which appears to the children as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). After a string of child disappearances, Mike calls the other Losers, instructing them that it’s time to make good on the promise they made twenty-seven years ago to return if Pennywise ever comes back.

Of course, it’s important to note that It Chapter Two is not only a sequel to the 2017 film, but is also based on the second half of Stephen King’s novel, It, originally published in 1986. There is a precedent of putting this novel on screen, as evidenced by the made-for-TV 1990 mini-series directed by Tommy Lee Wallace and featuring Tim Curry as Pennywise. Before diving into my review of It Chapter Two, I want to take this moment to mention that I entered the movie theatre incredibly biased. Both the novel and the mini-series are deeply important to me as I first encountered them at key moments in my development as a reader, a horror fan, and as a person in general. The Losers’ Club helped me to navigate the strange and often lonely transition between high school and college, and Tim Curry as Pennywise gave me my first experience of genuine on-screen terrors when I secretly watched the mini-series while staying home sick in middle school. Plus, I enjoyed the first It film the Muschietti directed in 2017. For all of these reasons, I was really excited to see and review It Chapter Two. I was, unfortunately, disappointed.

The opening scene delivered my first pang of disenchantment. In order to set up the fact that Pennywise has awoken from his twenty-seven year slumber, the audience is shown a brutal scene of a violent homophobic hate crime. A group of young men who appear to be anachronistically dressed as greasers locate and follow a gay couple from a Derry town carnival. Once they are isolated on a bridge, the greasers hurl insults at the couple and eventually proceed to beat the couple up before dumping Andrew Mellon’s (Xavier Dolan) nearly unconscious body off the bridge and into the river. The greasers flee the scene, but Mellon’s partner runs down to the water in an attempt to rescue Andrew, only to witness Pennywise take a big bite out of Mellon. This scene felt incredibly problematic and exploitative in its interest to pull entertaining frights and gory fun out of the all-too-common and real-world terror of hate crimes against the LGBTQ population. This scene felt disjointed from the rest of the film, as it had no real connection to any larger themes, nor did it contain any relevant information beyond the fact that Pennywise is back, but that message could’ve been delivered in a much less exploitative way. This scene, of course, is in the novel, but I’d argue that King does a much better job of portraying this moment with the care it deserves. In the novel, it’s clear that this scene is here as part of a larger attempt on King’s part to display the non-supernatural evils of Derry, as well as to show how Pennywise feeds off the hate and fear that pervades the small town. Instead, the film seems to just want to show audiences two gay men get beat up and killed for no reason other than to exploit the very real fears and traumas this sort of violence can conjure. It also felt incredibly outdated – not only were the attackers dressed like relics from the past, but Andrew attempts to deflect their aggression with a joke about a Meg Ryan haircut. It felt like screenwriter Gary Dauberman may have just lifted the dialogue straight from the 1986 novel. There is a great missed opportunity here. Since it was supposed to be set in 2016, why not play off the fact that the United States was in the midst of a majorly divisive election year?

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Even more unfortunately, the opening was not the only egregious aspect of the film. There were others. Stephen King has a history of attributing horrors to American Indian religious practices, such as the burial grounds featured in both Pet Sematary (1983) and The Shining (1977); however, this doesn’t give license to continue this practice of appropriation and exploitation to anyone bringing a Stephen King novel to the big screen. In It Chapter Two, audiences are provided countless images of American Indians combating “It,” as Mike excitedly explains to Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) and other members of the Losers’ Club that they could defeat It by recreating the Ritual of Chüd. This ritual, like the American Indians’ storyline, are quickly swept aside as meaningless and ineffective for the purposes of the Losers. Why bring this in if it’s just going to be discounted? Sure, it’s from the original source material, but that’s not a good enough excuse to bring out a tired mystical Indian stock character.

Besides these problematic elements, It Chapter Two is also extremely tonally weird. I’m all for incorporating a few laughs here and there in a horror film, but it has to be done effectively. For example, it makes sense to include a joke just before something terrifying happens. The joke will relax the audience and make them particularly vulnerable and easy to scare. This isn’t how It Chapter Two weaves their jokes into the film. Instead, jokes are made immediately after scares, causing the members of the Losers’ Club to appear as if they aren’t really scared or threatened by what’s happening. For example, after getting black bile puked on him by It in the form of a leper, Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) stands in shock. This makes sense, given the fact that contagion is one of his major fears. However, a pop song plays almost immediately after the bile lands. This was clearly meant for a laugh, but I had a hard time getting what exactly the joke was – the lyrics had to do with an angel. Is this saying that the leper is Eddie’s angel? Is Eddie’ the leper’s angel? Is It an angel? What’s funny about any of this? I have a sneaking suspicion that the song was randomly selected and that the joke is just working off of “ran-dumb” Internet humor. The scary moments of this film are so repeatedly undercut by these sorts of jokes, that I also wonder who this movie was made for. Although it’s been given an R-rating, the structure of the film makes me think that it was primarily made for pre-teens or anyone new to the genre who can’t handle anything truly frightening. The jokes may act like training wheels in this way, allowing those who aren’t fans of horror to experience a brief milli-second of fear before their terror is taken away by a light chuckle.

Despite the many problems of this movie, there were some highlights. Bill Skarsgård continues to deliver an outstanding performance as Pennywise. His voice and mannerisms are perfectly creepy in all their evil clown glory. Unfortunately, the film relied so much on CGI that Skarsgård’s performance often got lost. His creepiest moments occurred when he was allowed to just perform the role and deliver his lines without a spider’s body or a stretched-out face. There was also a fantastic scene in which Bill chases after Pennywise through a carnival fun-house in order to prevent the clown from killing another child. Through strategic lighting and prop-placement, Muschietti delivers disorienting and disturbing effects. Finally, the master of horror himself, Stephen King, has a lengthy cameo. It’s an incredibly charming role for King, as it allows him not only to speak in a heavy Maine accent, but he also makes fun of Bill Denbrough’s inability to write a good ending for his novels. As any King fan knows, this is a common criticism he receives; it’s nice to see that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

I really wanted to like It Chapter Two, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me. The combination of exploitative depictions of marginalised characters and its tonally strange writing made it difficult to experience the sense of awe and inspiration I felt when I first encountered King’s murderous clown and band of misfits.

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