What is it with clowns, eh? Pop culture’s obsession with the painted jester has often seemed sinister, but back in 2016, something changed. A new craze had swept the world, with countless sightings of people dressed up as killer clowns, sometimes brandishing weapons and threatening passers-by. In California, one woman reported that a clown tried to snatch her baby daughter from her arms, while another man in Texas shared CCTV footage of a red-nosed prankster breaking into his home at night. They were crazy, unreal times.
Enter It — the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s classic 1986 novel. Largely indebted to the iconic ’90s TV two-parter, It was a box office smash, traumatising a new generation of horror fans while raking in more money than ever before. The inevitable sequel was soon confirmed, It Chapter Two. But with two years to get over the fad and new movie Joker stealing all the headlines, has Pennywise let rip that throaty cackle for the last time?
Set 27 years after the events of It, It Chapter Two finds the gang getting on with their lives. Most notably, Bill writes bestselling novels and funnyman Richie is now a famous comedian. The Losers’ Club may have outgrown its moniker, but each character is haunted by their past. Eddie’s new wife resembles his overbearing mother, Beverly’s husband is a copy of her abusive father and now-hunky Ben can’t escape his formative years as a chubby target for bullies. Eventually, a devastating phone call threatens to pull them back to Derry where Pennywise awaits.
Played by Bill Skarsgård, the clown prince of mime is on top form here. Stuffed with deliciously creepy scenes, the film’s mid-section follows each character as they revisit their most terrifying encounters with Pennywise. By the time we reach the epic climax, we’ve met baby-faced crab-wasps, mouldy decapitated heads which sing in a fish tank and a dead friend’s noggin suspended by huge, furry spider’s legs. Director Andrés Muschietti has been given full license to spook in this sequel — and It Chapter Two works best in its weirdest, most off-the-wall moments. Elsewhere, it’s a smorgasbord of genres, packing in nods to history’s greatest slasher, psychological, gross-out and zombie horrors. Love The Shining? You’ll want to pay attention. There’s even a hilarious Stephen King cameo, where the world’s scariest writer plays a sassy antiques dealer in a Neil Young t-shirt. It’s a horror nut’s dream.
Cast-wise, the film’s famous stars don’t always live up to their reputations. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are fine individually, but Bill and Beverly share little chemistry. At the same time, Isaiah Mustafa is unconvincing as Mike and James Ransome’s quirky take on hypochondriac Eddie sometimes feels like an impression. Fortunately, none of this matters because Bill Hader is a revelation. Funny, compelling and often moving, the Superbad star steals every scene he’s in — which is most of them. When Hader’s on screen, the movie zips along with a levity that’s missing in the drawn-out opening.
At two hours and fifty minutes, It Chapter Two is unreasonably long. But it’s hard to know what to take out and every section is loaded with memorable action moments. There are some missteps, such as the film’s anticlimactic ending, but at least the writers tried to fix the miniseries’ biggest problem — even if halfheartedly. For the most part, Muschietti’s sequel is a tightly-constructed potboiler that balances humour and horror in a satisfying way. As a bonus, Derry’s bloodthirsty harlequin has a hinted-at backstory that’s perfect for a prequel. Who knows? Pennywise may have the last laugh after all.