It: Chapter Two (★★★½)

Rated R, 170 minutes.

Opens Friday.

In the nineties, lengthy movies were split into two VHS tapes. The double-cassette collection created a sense of an A and B side to entertainment, requiring viewers to get up from the couch to change tapes, often at the height of a dramatic moment. Fortunately, the 1990 television film adaptation of Stephen King’s It was cleanly divided into two chapters. But I have to admit, rarely did I ever watch that second tape because the adults didn’t hold the interest created by the younger cast.

I went into 2019’s It: Chapter Two with that same worry, especially after director Andy Muschietti so spectacularly captured that playful sense of youth and wonder in 2017’s It. How can you top a coming of age film that leans into growing up, observing your surroundings and all the things that make us into who we are?

That said, Chapter Two had me eating my words a bit. There is just as much meaning in this follow-up as in its predecessor. Not only is it scarier and more daring, but it has a remarkable amount of heart. It’s a horror film with the power to make you want to reconnect with old friends — the ones who taught you about true friendship and love.

The story picks up 27 years later. We begin with a hard-to-endure hate crime, which gradually leads to us being reintroduced to Pennywise the Dancing Clown (an even more menacing Bill Skarsgård). He’s back from the depths to feast on the children of Derry, Maine, and haunt the now grown-up Losers’ Club.

After swearing their allegiance to team up again should Pennywise return, Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) and Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) moved away to find normalcy. Only Mike Hanlon (Isiah Mustafa) stayed in Derry and remembered all of what happened in the summer of ‘89.

So this becomes a story about reflection and defeating evil. When the evidence of Pennywise’s return shows its ugly, bloody, sharp teeth, Mike calls the rest of the gang, so they can fulfill their promise and crash the clown’s homecoming.

One of my biggest concerns with Chapter Two was the pace. Would it feel as organic as the first film? It doesn’t. We have to catch up with a lot of characters. Not only are we juggling with each character’s stories, but we delve into what Derry is like all these years later. The characters each run their course down memory lane. And yes, that means the young actors from the first chapter return for new scenes. However, they have been digitally aged down to look as they do in the 2017 film. You can tell they’re walking around with a glossy shine, but it doesn’t rob the thunder too much.

The film skips all over, taking dips into Pennywise’s nightmarish fantasies. You never get lost, but you do have to keep up. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and Chapter Two does all it can to do that in almost three hours. And while it may get a little clunky, if you focus on each segment, they tenderly invite us into the characters’ lives to see how they’ve grown from the trauma of their youths.

There’s Ben, no longer a heavy-set kid. He’s thinned out and has the body of Thor (before Avengers: Endgame, that is). Being teased by local bullies and Pennywise took a severe toll on him. Meanwhile, Beverly is in a relationship with a man who is just as physically abusive as her father was. Audiences will probably eat up Hader’s performance as Richie. He has the funniest lines and often brings pieces of himself to craft an enjoyable character.

As Bill, McAvoy shines. His guilt over his little brother Georgie’s death gives Bill complexity. McAvoy’s deep dive into Bill’s thoughts are a sight to see. You feel his painful worry when he takes a liking to a kid who lives in his childhood home. He doesn’t want Pennywise to take him, too.

There is a sadness to all these characters’ adulthood. Whether it’s unhappy marriages, or feelings of isolation, it’s apparent these characters need each other. Muschietti’s use of subtle storytelling does wonders for the narrative.

What doesn’t work as well as it should are some of the in-your-face scares and the inclusion of Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), the bully from the first film who was puppeteered to do Pennywise’s dirty work on the side. He’s back again and escapes from psychiatric care for the killing of his father. It’s silly how it unravels, and it could have been scraped to keep the story’s eye on the prize.

Then there are the scares. Many of them will give you goosebumps or make you shriek. When Muschietti takes his time to build the suspense and dread, it throws a massive punch of terror. But Muschietti also seems so desperate to freak you out at other times that he lets shocking imagery cut in line of real horror.

The adult characters look strikingly like their younger counterparts. It’s uncanny to the point where you’d swear Muschietti adopted Richard Linklater’s patience from Boyhood. The actors also bring their A-game to their roles. Each character is squaring off with their own version of evil, and how they react to it and interact with one another makes Chapter Two a good character movie.

Lastly, I’m going to dance around what unfolds in the end, but audiences familiar with the 1990 TV film or King’s novel needn’t fret. It doesn’t get that weird. It certainly gets strange, but not to the point where it feels too dumb. What’s funny is that there are jokes all throughout the film about Bill’s character, who’s grown up to be an author and screenwriter who struggles to peg good endings. I can’t help but think this is King taking a jab at himself.

Chapter Two is an emotional finale that takes a few detours that detract from its overall quality. The only way to fix the bigger issues would make the movie longer, which would have been too much to handle. It’s the benefit of operating within a novel’s text versus images on the screen. Both mediums command different expectations and freedoms. Regardless, you’ll be entertained, scared, tickled and moved — and that may be just enough for you to walk away with a Pennywise smile.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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