It: Chapter 2 (R)

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As Stephen King writes his way through his fifth decade, he holds the most credible claim to the title Greatest Horror Writer of the 20th Century. Others may have reached greater heights (say, for instance, William Peter Blatty), but those who did cannot match King’s prolific output. Those who have published comparatively often (this time we will use Dean Koontz for comparison) never produced anything that lived up to the best of King’s bibliography. This combination of copiousness, quality, and popular appeal gives King a high probability of representing his age when future historians examine the literature of the era. King has also seen a large number of his stories and novels adapted into television shows, television miniseries, and feature films. In fact, as of 2019, King is enjoying something of a cinematic renaissance; his most popular novels, having been once adapted for cinema in previous decades, are undergoing a season of being remade at the hands of new creators. At this juncture, it seems likely that his 1986 book It, both for its literary merit and its continuing cinematic attraction, will stand above the other titles in the King oeuvre in terms of historical significance.

When It: Chapter 2 hits movie theaters in September of 2019, it is likely that most who see the film will have a prior relationship to the material portrayed. The novel, of course, has been capturing new readers for over thirty years. A prior cinematic adaptation from 1990 on ABC Television remains part of the pop culture collective consciousness (in no small part because of Tim Curry’s delightful performance as Pennywise the Clown). The predecessor film from 2017 reigns as the highest-grossing horror movie of all time.[1] What is it about King’s story that continues to captivate both readers and viewers?

While King’s acumen as a horror writer deserves top billing, when considering his characteristics as a writer, we should also note his less recognized but comparatively powerful abilities to convey a sense of nostalgia and morality in his writing. King, a child of the 1950s and 1960s, often places children and adolescents at the heart of his stories. Carrie, his first novel, is built around a young woman just entering puberty. His novel The Shining leans heavily on a young boy as a central connection for the audience. Christine, a novel adapted into a horror film of considerable merit by no less than John Carpenter, follows the high school exploits of a young man and his first car.  King’s ability to capture a real innocence in his younger characters without glossing over their capacity for wickedness as well as foolishness is an underappreciated aspect of his writing, and these powers are never better captured than in The Losers Club of It. Each of the young members of this club are given plenty of space by King to round out into the sort of children that fill the readers’ neighborhood streets and memories.

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Andy Muschietti (and his sister Barbara) have filled their cast with exceptional young talents who give the viewer the exact same kind of believability and sympathy that a reader finds in the pages of the novels. Like King, children as leads in horror cinema are enjoying a kind of Golden Age, and the various members of the It cast are at the heart of the phenomenon. Sophia Lillis (as Beverly Marsh), Finn Wolfhard (as Richie Tozier), and Jack Dylan Grazer (as Eddie Kaspbrak) are stars in their own rights, largely due to the It film of 2017 and Netflix’s Stranger Things. Muschietti wisely chose to give these actors and their characters a large footprint in the 2019 film, with a pleasant surprise despite the latter film’s dedication to telling the story of the adult lives of the children we met in 2017. The pleasant surprise coming out of It: Chapter 2 is the emergence of Wyatt Oleff (playing young Stanley Uris), who gives a performance that not only sets him credibly among his more widely celebrated co-stars but also provides the viewer with a courageous, unsure young man that draws in the audience’s affections in such a way that his adult counterpart’s role is enhanced. Muschietti’s casting is interesting in other ways as well. In one scene we see the now-adult actor who played young Ben Hanscomb in the 1990 miniseries working as a company man for the adult Ben Hanscomb of the 2019 film’s world. Also, Eddie Kaspbrak, the son of an overbearing mother, has been unable to escape his mother’s influence as an adult. We learn early on that Eddie is a married man and the same actress who played his mother also plays his wife.

The return of these characters, met first in the events of the 2017 film as children, draws the viewer into a kind of reunion by proxy. As the group renews acquaintances nearly thirty years after their separation, the audience is emotionally seated at the table with them, enjoying the jokes (often at each other’s expense) over Chinese buffet food in the restaurant’s back room. So, too, does the audience feel the weight of [adult] Stanley’s absence and, even more powerfully, the horror of the evil Pennywise’s supernatural intrusion upon their reunion. Here, again, we see the Muschietti siblings’ skill in casting. Almost to a person, the adult versions of these characters bear a striking resemblance to their child counterparts. Beyond that, the ensemble cast delivers remarkable, emotional performances that enhance the sense of coming home while never quite being able to fully capture the remembered sweetness of that childhood home. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain deliver their standard high-quality performances as the adult Bill and Beverly. Andy Bean’s adult Stanley Uris finds a gravity that exceeds his importance to the story in either book or cinematic form. James Ransone’s adult Eddie Kaspbrake becomes the emotional center of the peer group and the key to its success in the war against Pennywise. Bill Hader takes a star turn in this film as the all-grown-up but still broken Richie Tozier and will likely be the actor involved who receives the greatest celebration.

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Stephen King has written that his inspiration for the evil Pennywise the Clown is the older motif of the troll under the bridge, lurking to lure unwary children in to serve as a meal.[2] As mentioned previously, the previous cinematic adaptation of It in 1990 featured a widely praised performance from Tim Curry as Pennywise and thus the later adaptations had a high standard to meet. Bill Skarsgård delivered his own deeply compelling version of the character in 2017, playing Pennywise as an alien creature skilled at deceiving its prey through the physical form of a clown but one which could never maintain the façade for long. The 2019 sequel is, for good reason, a playground for Skarsgård’s talents. Most pointedly, Muschietti provides Skarsgård broad license to employ his gangly, off-putting physicality not only in the form of the clown but also in the form of various proxies used by Pennywise to torment his adversaries. Like Hader, Skarsgård has demonstrated an attention-getting level of skill as an actor in his portrayal of Pennywise and Hollywood will surely take note. One scene, in particular, is noteworthy for the power of Skarsgård’s performance. Chastain’s Beverly is caught in an illusory basement as Pennywise removes his human makeup in order to emerge in his truer clown form.  Skarsgård hunches and tears and drools in a way that lingers, both as a source of fear and acting expertise.

It is Pennywise, the clown-faced shape-shifter who preys on the innocent, that reveals King’s broader framing of It as a morality tale. In fact, the nature of It: Chapter 2, despite its portrayal of brutal evil, is refreshing as a film with bold, clear moral lines. In the world of It, for instance, the murder of children is still seen as objectively evil (rather than, say, the means to personal liberation). Furthermore, the protagonists of It realize they have a moral obligation to oppose this evil directly, even at great cost to themselves. John Blake, writing for CNN’s “Belief Blog,” reveals much about King’s moral sensibilities – specifically that King’s mind is rooted in the Christian religious tradition of his childhood (even as King rejects organized religion):

“If God brought lawsuits, Stephen King would face a charge of plagiarism,” says J.M. Rawbone, an English horror novelist who has written an essay about the Christian themes in “The Stand.”

King, whose publicist did not answer a request for an interview, has talked about his faith before. He describes himself as a Christian on his website and elsewhere has said he was raised as a “hard-nosed” Methodist taught to believe in the Antichrist.

Some of his literary influences are Christian authors. In one interview, King said he was shaped by C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings.” Both Lewis and Tolkien were devout Christians who layered their fiction with Christian themes.

“I’ve always tried to contrast that bright, white light of real goodness or Godliness against evil,” he said in a 1988 interview.[3]

It is this contrast of bright goodness against evil that explains, in part, the continuing interest King’s 1986 novel continues to draw out from new generations of readers.[4] In print, the 1990 television adaptation, and the 2017/2019 films, this presentation of a (comparatively) well-ordered moral universe provides a place of respite for those beleaguered by ever-increasing moral relativism.

Do not be misled, however – It: Chapter 2 is definitely a horror film. In a way comparable to the unleashing of Bill Skarsgård as a physical actor, Andy Muschietti is turned loose on It – Chapter 2 with a green light befitting the follow up to the highest grossing film in its genre of all time. Muschietti brings real horror credibility to the It project, having proven himself in raw scariness with 2013’s MamaIt: Chapter 2 allows Muschietti to explore the full extent of his horror sensibilities, both in terms of the classic jump scare and the general sense of unnaturalness that is vital to the sensation of eeriness. Muschietti’s Pennywise is everywhere and in almost every form. He appears in camouflage to dupe a school boy in a classroom and gives the fleeing boy no respite, joining the student in the locker he has taken refuge in. He dances, all bent and perverse, in the form of an old woman lurking in the background of a scene where a woman recovers personal treasure – and this before he bursts from a darkened room to chase his prey around a small apartment. In It: Chapter 2, Pennywise floats and stalks, gloats and belittles, leaps out in surprise and lingers over the prey – all to the horror of the audience. Muschietti in particular appears to find the art of Amedeo Modigliani unsettling as characters displaying Modigliani’s signature warped countenances appear often in It: Chapter 2 (as well as Muschietti’s Mama).

This does not mean, however, that all of Muschietti’s choices end in success. One strange scene, involving regurgitation and a quick clip of Bonnie Tyler’s “Angel of the Morning” is, yes, uncomfortable, but in a way that pushes the viewer to laugh rather than shrink in fear. Similarly, Skarsgård’s delivery (as Pennywise) of a taunting request for a kiss from a young boy plays more humorously than horrifically. Muschietti also chooses to introduce a slight suggestion of homosexual attraction from young Richie Tozier toward Eddie Kaspbrak. This creates a twofold problem for the film: the new sexual element works to undermine the forthright friendship that is at the core of The Losers Club dynamic, while also largely (and woodenly) replicating Ben’s unrequited love for Beverly, a relational element at the very heart of Ben’s characterization. Neither of these character changes serve the interest of the movie.

In the final estimation, It: Chapter 2 does not quite live up to the standard set by its predecessor. It would have been quite difficult for the sequel to have met that challenge, considering the success of the first film. What It: Chapter 2 does is deliver a high quality film that carries on and completes the narrative arc of the first film and delivers both legitimate scares and a happy ending. In It – in all forms – friends commit to each other, deeply, as they sacrificially give themselves to put an end to an actual evil. The result, if one cares to look a bit under the surface, is more of a Shakespearean comedy (ending in a wedding) than an exercise in horror for horror’s sake. I trust this film, like the novel it is based on and its 2017 predecessor will continue to invite and reward those who sit down to see it.

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/29/stephen-king-it-the-exorcist-highest-grossing-horror-film-ever

[2] https://www.stephenking.com/library/novel/it_inspiration.html

[3] http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/02/the-gospel-of-stephen-king/

[4] Readers of the novel will note a conspicuous scene in the first confrontation with Pennywise that, in all honesty, held the potential to end King’s career when the story was published in 1986. Thankfully that scene and the depravity it represents is never even approached in Muschietti’s films.

Jeff Wright is a husband, father, pastor, educator, and podcaster. He lives in very rural Middle Tennessee and watches a lot of movies. You can hear more from him on The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast.

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