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There’s a lot more to It than meets the eye.

Taking It

Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard)
Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard)

It’s almost a disservice to describe It: Chapter Two as a horror movie. It’s most certainly a disservice to write it off as nothing more than a horror movie.

But. Yeah. Among the loads of disturbing visuals, there are bodiless legs doing a jig and a bodiless head sprouting limbs that bring back memories of pre-CGI Tom Savini and Rick Baker creations.

Memories, as it happens, play a huge role in Chapter Two, which begins and ends with some really powerful thoughts about the human condition. What happens in between is a fascinating study in what makes people tick. And be assured this bears virtually no resemblance to the horrible 1990 TV version of this material, the one with Tim Curry as Pennywise. (File that It under awful memories that are hard to dump.)

As expected, the story picks up 27 years after the events of Chapter One. As the lead characters are reintroduced as their older selves, there’s a comment that people are what they choose to remember. And memory is a funny thing. The further members of the Losers Club travel away from Derry, Maine — their childhood home in Chapter One — the less they remember all those horrifying events involving a ramshackle haunted house, bullies and a creepy clown floating around in the sewers.

To a person, each one has gone on to achieve some level of success in life, and some are even married. But all it takes is one phone call to set in motion a chain of events that finds the club members confronting their inner demons. Ultimately, that is what “It” is — one’s own fears.

What Time Is It?

Derry is one dreary place. It’s renowned for all the wrong reasons, most notably for having the highest murder rate per capita in the country. The survival rate for children is appalling. Grown-ups are monsters, parents are terrifying, pharmacists are creepy; thankfully, the antiques dealer seems mighty down to earth. Bullying is still a major sport, even stepping up its game in terms of violent acts.

And Pennywise has returned with his own brand of mayhem. Chapter One ended with the kids in the Losers Club taking a blood oath they’d return to Derry in 27 years to destroy this evil once and for all. But when Mike Hanlon (then, Chosen Jacobs (TV’s Castle Rock); now, Isaiah Mustafa (TV’s Shadowhunters)) calls them all to return, it’s so inconvenient. By and large, life is good. Derry, not so much.

Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) pulled off a minor movie miracle in Chapter One by conducting terrific performances from a young (early teens) ensemble cast of unknowns. It’s Steven Spielberg territory. And it also recalls another Stephen King property, Stand by Me, with its remarkable cast of fresh faces, including Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix and Kiefer Sutherland. In Muschietti’s It, there’s a terrific sense of bonding among the kids as their relationships evolve; their interactions feel natural, their comradery real. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. Not at all.

Part of the fun of watching Chapter One now is in knowing the A-listers who play those kids 27 years later. Once the gang returns to Derry, there’s a great scene in a Chinese restaurant which helps rekindle all those relationships. The smack talking returns; vestiges of all the mannerisms of their younger selves can be seen. It’s strong stuff. Then things go down the drain, so to speak.

Chapter Two offers the best of both worlds as the kids return in a significant number of flashbacks (new scenes, not just retreads of footage from Chapter One) and there’s the grown-up characters bringing a sense of world-weary depth.

No Its or Buts

A bonding moment
A bonding moment

In Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee-Wee Herman issues one of the greatest lines in motion picture history: “C’mon Simone, let’s talk about your big ‘but.’” He wasn’t talking about her secondary cheeks. He was talking about what it was that was keeping her from pursuing her dreams. She wanted to live in Paris, but something was holding her back.

It very much follows that theme of unlocking what stymies people’s lives and that’s where this second installment offers so much to consider. It’s hard to imagine a straight horror movie being inspirational in its storyline, but that’s precisely what King has crafted here. That evil clown, Pennywise? He’s simply a device, a shorthand way of bringing to the fore what makes people settle for less.

It’s always problematic when movies (horror movies in particular) pull out the “it’s not real” scare tactics — it’s a conceit that’s more of a cheat. Once something horrifying is revealed as merely a trick of the mind, then nothing is worth getting scared over. In some respects, that’s part of the plan here. Some people will find the horror elements satisfyingly scary; great. But the scares really aren’t the point of the story.

The adult Losers Club is responding to a threat: They either break the cycle of evil embodied by Pennywise or live under the cloud of meeting a grisly end. That end could encompass anything. “Grisly” could be the ugliness of a life not fully realized, dreams left unfulfilled. To that end, as a kid, Mike fantasized about moving to Florida. But he never left Derry and he was the only one to hold on to all of the memories, all of the knowledge of the Pennywise nightmares from their childhood.

Working It

It: Chapter Two works on many different levels, and that’s what the very best movies do.

It’s a horror story; there’s no denying the creep factor of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, Deadpool 2) and his mischievous, vile antics. It’s a drama. It’s even a romance with Beverly Marsh (then, Sophia Lillis (the upcoming Gretel & Hansel); now, Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game)) and her budding friendships with Bill Denbrough (then, Jaeden Martell (The Book of Henry); now, James McAvoy (Wanted)) and Ben Hanscom (then, Jeremy Ray Taylor (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween); now, Jay Ryan (TV’s Beauty and the Beast)).

It’s also a fun movie ride. Chapter Two boasts a couple superb cameos. One, Peter Bogdanovich (famed director of classics like The Last Picture Show and a Hitchcock historian), plays, suitably enough, a movie director working on a film adaptation of one of Bill’s books (with Bill feverishly trying to rewrite the ending into something people will like — a running joke throughout Chapter Two). And there’s also a cameo from King himself. He’s that rather amiable antiques dealer who can’t help but give a ribbing or two to Bill, famed author that Bill is (the antiques guy is among the masses who don’t like Bill’s endings).

That scene in the antique store ushers in a great movie moment. After Bill buys back his childhood bicycle — which he boasts is fast enough to beat the clock — there’s a moment of euphoria. He’s eager to get back on the bike and, as he leaves the store, the score hits some triumphant notes. It’s like E.T. — something exhilarating is about to happen on that bicycle. Or maybe not. The next frame is a scene of utter disappointment.

In scenes like that, Muschietti demonstrates a welcome playfulness with the characters and the material. It’s those moments that balance out the heavy drama with the pure fun of a group of people congregating in a darkened theatre and enjoying It as a communal experience.

As the movie begins, there are those comments about people’s memories driving the person they become. As the movie ends, there’s the retrospective take that people let the good stuff fade too fast while all the bad stuff is left to linger, being so much harder to shake it off. There’s guilt, there’s baggage, there’s the danger of living a life of fear. It’s Heart of Darkness set in small town America.

There are so many “its” and “buts” that get in life’s way. Ultimately, though, It: Chapter Two offers the solid advice to overcome “it” all and follow your own path, wherever that takes you.

While the book was first published way back in 1986, there’s never been a better time to appreciate It than right now.