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Review: It Chapter Two at the BFI IMAX

Just put it away Pennywise!

Sequels used to be a harder sell-in, because recreating that first-time cinematic magic is a dark art. However, in recent years, the success of the franchise system beyond blockbusters and encompassing genre, has helped ensure all sorts of spin-off projects get green-lit. Horror benefits from this trend – and although there can be a downward correlation between sequel number and quality, franchises such as Insidious and Annabelle are raking in the money, so they must be doing something right.

IT: Chapter Two is one of the most eagerly awaited sequels in horror’s recent history. It kick-started the cinematic Kingaissance (or at least propelled it in a way that The Dark Tower and Pet Sematary have failed to), and Warner Bros were keen to emulate Chapter One‘s rampant success – which turned a $35million budget into an enormous $700million return – numbers that film financiers’ dreams are made of.

That feat also enabled returning director Andy Muschietti to assemble a dream cast for Chapter Two. The biggest three names were Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader – who is now riding the crest of a wave with the success of Barry – and all are perfect additions.

For those who haven’t read King’s seminal text, the plot is simple: Mike is the only one of the Losers Club still living in Derry. 27 years after the events of Chapter One (1980s to now, rather than 50s to 80s in the book), kids and adults start to go missing again, meaning that Mike has to get the gang back together for the worst possible reason for a reunion. This is an especially hard task as people who leave Derry start to forget the town’s traumas (well you would, wouldn’t you?). Mike brings the Losers back, and between revisiting their spooky home town and being reintroduced to that good old psycho clown Pennywise, their worst fears come flooding back. Maybe this time, the Losers can defeat IT for good.

Screenwriter Gary Dauberman manages to retain the feel of King’s book (yep, women still can’t go anywhere without being followed by an ocean of blood) and expand the plot to focus on small-town homophobia, a refreshing update. Some set-pieces and attitudes feel well-worn, but these are King canon, so it’s churlish to complain. Except for one issue: bullying is basically Derry’s town pasttime, but it is discomfiting to see how this is used towards the end of Chapter Two, instead of changing the book ending to fit with more enlightened times.

IT: Chapter Two is exactly the kind of movie to be seen on IMAX wraparound dual projector system. The BFI IMAX theatre screen is huge (around six times larger than other cinema screens and the largest in the UK) and combined with multiple sound speakers, its the closest way to feel as terrified as the Losers feel when undergoing Pennywise’s reign of terror.

If this is the Losers, I don’t wanna be a Winner!

All of the actors do their jobs well, with adult Eddie (James Ransone) and Mike (Isiah Mustafa) doing sterling work. The film rewards them with positive retconning and it’s good to see the film’s one black character have a more central role, when he was effectively sidelined in Chapter One.  Sadly, James McAvoy didn’t break out into another personality at any point and Chastain is obviously an excellent Beverley. The burgeoning relationship she has with Jay Ryan’s Ben provides true tenderness from the depths of Derry’s anger and pain.

And yet the real star of Chapter Two is Bill Hader, his take on Ritchie is as a born sarcastic masking private pain, and he wrings laughter and tears.

The cast deal well with having to personalise the source material while retaining the work done by their younger predecessors, who also appear through the movie to anchor Chapter Two to Chapter One, as do some choice cameos.

A word on the horror. Although there are plenty of jump scares (thanks IMAX for those 20-feet tall monsters that will haunt my dreams) this movie is amusing and actually kind of disgusting, trading off of childhood fears, especially in relation to Eddie’s obsession with cleanliness, and it owes a significant debt to The Thing. Muschietti has spent his larger budget on cool visual effects (and he’s developing a Tarantino-level obsession with tongues yuck) and at times the movie feels like a retro Xbox game in its rendering. Of course Bill Skarsgård is wonderfully abhorrent, relishing playing Pennywise, who’s even scarier this time around, with the IMAX screen highlighting all the clever ways he resides on the fringes of the action, ramping up the tension.

At nearly 3 hours, IT: Chapter Two could trim a little meat from its bones, but this is a smart sequel that capitalises on its strengths, making modern horror fans and Stephen King acolytes equally proud.

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