Muschietti: It: Chapter Two (2019)
Although Stephen King’s It has passed into popular culture as a novel about children fighting a monster, it actually follows two discrete stories. In the first story, set in the 1950s, we follow the Losers’ Club, a group of adolescent misfits living in the small town of Derry, Maine, who battle It in the form of Pennywise, a malevolent clown. However, the second story takes place twenty-seven years later, when It returns to haunt the Losers Club as adults, forcing them to relive the parts of their childhood that they have repressed. Since Andy Muschietti’s recent adaptation of It started in the 1980s, the twenty-seven year cycle means that It: Chapter Two, takes place in the 2010s, where the members of the Losers’ Club are forced to come to terms with their childhood when they return to Derry as adults.
This immediately creates a different generational focus from the novel, which was preoccupied with the ways in which the 1980s were haunted by the failed promises of the 1950s. Here, instead, Muschietti focuses on the way in which the 2010s is haunted by the failed promises of the 1980s, mining the decade so obsessively that Chapter Two often recalls Stranger Things in the way it exhausts the 80s nostalgia that has become so prevalent in recent years. While Chapter Two does capture something of the scope of King’s novel, it also plays as the most mercenary and mechanical adaptation of King’s work during the last decade. In the opening ten minutes, we’re treated to cameos form both Xavier Dolan and Peter Bogdanovich, as if Muschietti were looking for additional directorial support to translate the baggy, meandering screenplay into a convincing or compelling film.
Part of the challenge of Chapter Two is that it is quite difficult to make a monster film about adults that is genuinely scary. That may be why Chapter Two often holds off on the scares, playing more as a reflection on the nature of memory, and the way in which memory operates across a group, in its opening scenes. King tends to be weakest when he aims for “systems” stories about characters going “crazy” in the face of trauma, and that’s the version of King that’s on display here, as Chapter Two often recalls series like Under the Dome and films like The Mist that are so bogged down by their social commentary that they forget to be scary. Indeed, Chapter Two often plays more like a collection of Gen Xers reminiscing about the first time they read the book, or watched the original miniseries, rather than a group of characters who really belong within the lifeworld of King’s narrative.
This produces an ungainly structure that, among other things, stretches out Chapter Two to a staggering three hour running time. While the Losers’ Club converge on Derry at the start of the film, they’ve all forgotten the specifics of how they fought Pennywise the first time around, or even – in some cases – the fact that Pennywise existed at all. This is itself a bit awkward, since there’s not much of a pretext for them to regather without Pennywise, while their collective trauma – which gets tedious pretty quickly – doesn’t really make sense without some shared awareness of Pennywise either. Beyond a certain point, the Losers’ Club just exude the collective horror of being Gen Xers, revisiting the 80s as a bad trip they all shared, as they meet after two and half decades of downward mobility. While they’ve had some modest achievements, all of them have failed in some way, and while some of them have had children, their children are never in the picture as a source of futurity, instead forcing them to fall back upon what remains unresolved about their own childhood.
The irony of the Losers’ Club, then, is that surviving Pennywise turned out to be their greatest achievement, both individually and collectively. While they’re horrified to gradually recall their experience of him, they also realise that they need Pennywise to return in order to recapitulate the crowning moment of their childhood. The twenty-seven year cycle between It’s appearances thus corresponds with the period between childhood and mid-life crisis, as the Losers’ Club try to broker a connection between past and future, appointing themselves as guardians of the past to protect the future for the next generation. One of the main texts that Gen Xers have used to process and resolve their past in this way has been Stranger Things, which has become a handy way for Gen X parents, in particular, to reimagine their 80s childhoods as a way of putting into touch with a future that is increasingly indifferent to them. No surprise, then, that Chapter Two often looks like Gen Xers doing Stranger Things cosplay, brokering an uneasy connection between a past they can’t escape, and a future that has already exceeded what their generation had to offer it.
In other words, the real horror of Chapter Two is the horror of Gen X recognising its own finitude, as well as the lifespan of the various forms of horror it used to define itself. Since horror was such a powerful vocabulary for 80s children to negotiate their world, there’s a curious second-degree horror in the way these forms of horror fail to really ramify in the present, at least in Muschietti’s version. Early in the film, Beverly Marsh, played by Jessica Chastain, reveals that she has foreseen all of the Losers’ Club dying – and yet they all feel dead already, barely existing in the same spaces as the younger or older characters in the film. Detached from any semblance of a public sphere, the Losers’ Club largely replicate or recall the events of the original film, all the while shacking up at a hotel that is devoid of staff and completely dissociated from the town around it, allowing them to run riot with their memories and fantasies, as the film drifts from one interminable flashback to the next.
One of the curious byproducts of this generational anxiety is that It becomes more and more dissociated from Pennywise, the form that It took in the 80s. We learn, early on, that It arrived during the time of First Nations, and appeared every twenty-seven years, taking on whatever form would most terrify society at the time It appeared. In effect, It historicised horror, tapping into the collective and unconscious fears of each generation. While Pennywise might have been terrifying in the original film and miniseries, he was just the form of It that was most attuned to this particular moment in American history, gathering all the perversions and paradoxes of suburban masculinity into one of the greatest horror creations ever committed to the big screen. In the present, It still takes the form of Pennywise at times, but also seems to be changing and evolving to fit a new generation and conception of horror. Again, in a strange second-order form of horror, what terrifies the Losers’ Club is precisely that Pennywise is no longer really scary, since this means that the collective hopes and anxieties of their generation have also started to fade.
Conversely, It tends to be scariest when It is in a state of flux, forcing the images in the film to curve around It’s evolving presence, growing tauter, like a series of ever-expanding balloons, until the screen feels as if it is going to burst. In Chapter Two, the signature red balloons feel less like an accessory for Pennywise, and more like the process by which It expands to fit the contours of each new generation. When we do see Pennywise’s face, it is much more distorted and fluid than in the first film, as if Pennywise himself is now just a point of transit between It’s other states. At the same time, It often falls back upon Pennywise as if uncertain what form to take for the current generation – or as if the current generation, with its unprecedented media literacy, poses a peculiar problem to horror, and to It’s project of trying to condense the collective horror of each generation to one persona.
As a result, It is eventually abstracted to a giant, ravenous, insatiable mouth, eating, screaming and threatening every image that It encounters in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the current generation. In that sense, the Losers’ Club need Pennywise to remind them of their fear, since they can’t technically fear It in its transitional form. The first two hours of Chapter Two therefore take place as a ritualistic remembering, in which each character breaks off for a miniature film, revisiting and recalling their earlier experiences with Pennywise. This places Chapter Two in a lineage of anthology films and series based on King’s work that stretches back through Castle Rock to Sometimes They Come Back, which is quoted in the opening scenes, to Creepshow, Cat’s Eye and the earliest of King compilations. Yet try as he might to use these vignettes to draw out flash points in 80s horror, only one of them is really suspenseful – and its exceptionality meant that it was excerpted and used for the Chapter Two trailer months before the film aired, effective neutralizing its impact here.
For the most part, then, this rotation of Gen X horror tropes is grotesque rather than scary, playing as both an assemblage of King’s classic style and an exhaustion of King’s classical style. Watching it reiterated my sense that the best recent King adaptations have been somewhat off-brand, whether by focusing on works that have passed beneath the critical radar, such as Gerald’s Game, or by focusing on works that extend King’s sense of horror into other genres, such as the police procedural of Mr. Mercedes. By contrast to these more adventurous adaptations, Chapter Two plays as King pastiche, adapting the look and feel of his works as they percolated through 80s and 90s cinema as much as the novel It itself. This may be why Chapter Two feels so indebted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, since it feels more like a mercenary exercise in world-building than an organic or authentic narrative world, just as the Losers’ Club work as an assemblage more than a real collection of friends.
The overall structure of Chapter Two also replicates the broader sweep of the MCU, taking us through three stages in which the Losers assemble, gather tokens from their respective flashbacks, and then ritualistically stage a showdown with It. This final sequence lasts for about an hour, and is the direst moment of the film, playing as a repetitive pastiche of the previous It film as much as King’s broader 80s lifeworld. Once again, the Losers’ Club descend to a cave beneath Derry, but this time the cave lends on to a second cave, where they gather in front of the spaceship that It arrived in thousands of years ago. Like Stranger Things, this turns into a series of free-floating “references,” ranging from Alien to The Shining, that quickly dispels any genuine suspense, and quickly becomes irritating, especially since there’s no effort to really diverge in any way from the end of the previous adaptation.
Worse still, It grows more annoying, banal and boring, leading to the cheesiest ending imaginable – both in the cave, where the Losers defeat It by showing that they are not afraid, to an epilogue in which a turgid Stand By Me pastiche indulges all of King’s worst “writerly” tendencies. The final note occurs when Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafah), a descendent of the “magical negro” tropes of The Green Mile, and the only Loser to remain living in Derry rather than trying to make it in the big city, communes for the last time with First Nations people, thereby confirming for the other Losers’ Club that It has gone for good.
Only the moments with Richie Tozer (Bill Hader) redeem the film, since Richie, a comedian, often comes close to breaking the fourth wall to comment on the absurdity of it all. Yet this absurdity is also part and parcel of the capitalist realist logic of the MCU, which concedes that the cinema it offers is awful, but also insists that this is the only realistic way that a studio system can operate. Weirdly, Richie is also the only queer character in a film that, like the novel, starts with a queer hate crime. While It pushes Richie back in the closet during his miniature film, Chapter Two doesn’t really examine the meaning of this gesture in any detail, nor plays around with the new ways that It ramifies in a transvisible era where pronouns have often replaced phantoms as a source of Gen X horror. In that sense, Hader’s presence, and Richie’s character, is like a charismatic and conceptual conundrum the film never wants to address, let alone resolve, leaving a queer residue lingering, frustrated, over the most normcore adaptation of King’s work I have ever seen, in this decade or any other.
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