Look Out! Here Comes the Spider-Clown: Josh Pearce and Arley Sorg Discuss It Chapter Two

Chapter two of Stephen King’s epic horror story opens 27 years after the members of the Losers Club — Bev (Jessica Chastain), Bill (James McAvoy), Richie (Bill Hader), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), Ben (Jay Ryan), Eddie (James Ransone), and Stanley (Andy Bean) — defeated Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) in 2017’s It. Now, evil has resurfaced in Derry ME, and the seven friends must return to their childhood town to… again fight the clown.

It Chapter Two is a pretty good movie, an entertaining one, but it’s not a great movie. It is a definite improvement over the 1990 miniseries in nearly every measurable way, but how it compares to the most recent installment of the burgeoning franchise depends on what the viewer is seeking: if you’re looking for character development and plot, then chapter one is the better film; if you want creature effects and horror tension, then chapter two is where to go.

Josh: Jesus Christ, this fucking movie.

Arley: Most important question: did it scare you?

Josh: I was extremely stressed out throughout the whole thing, and by the end of it I was exhausted. It’s such a long movie. There were one or two parts where I actually recoiled (naked demon lady), but none of the jump scares got me because they were all fairly predictable.

Arley: Maybe we aren’t the best to measure if a movie is “scary.” Only one jump scare surprised me, near the end. I wasn’t scared by the naked demon lady because that part was so fake-looking, same with the leprosy dude. They looked like rubber masks. I liked the Paul Bunyan scene, though, when he leaned down and opened his mouth. It looked cool.

Josh: …oh, really? That was the weakest part of the whole movie for me. I thought it was super goofy. But, all right, we have differing approaches to horror.

It may ultimately be one of those unfilmable books — a problematic doorstopper with lots of backstory and character development that gets cut due to time constraints. A book where every attempt at adaptation fails to encompass its full scope. A book with a cosmic turtle, a child orgy, and a giant spider. Compromises and artistic license are to be expected, even in something as long as a five-hour, two-part cinematic format.

Like its source material, the movie’s plot is a mess, filled with flimsy motivations and arbitrary rules, a lot of filler thrown in so that the Losers don’t have to go fight the monster right away. Instead of going straight to the sewer where they fought It in the previous chapter, they kick about town in a series of barely tenable quests, seemingly just to draw things out into a three hour movie. The fragmented storytelling still manages to pull the viewer along because, as each character faces their individual fears, it starts to resemble an episodic monster-of-the-week TV show, with all of the associated thrills.

Josh: I was way more entertained by this one than the 2017 It because they did such a good job of building tension and providing the “scare” over and over; even if you knew what the scare was going to be and when it was going to happen, it was a constant hook. A catch and release.

Arley: [Doppler effect.] But yeah, none of this makes any bit of sense. What is It eating? Fear or children? Both? Why? Everything comes across as random — despite some of the big adult themes that are present, at its core this is a YA plot. And it’s that particular kind of YA plot with less rigor for internal consistency, etc. but a lot of ideas instead. That’s why this movie is so hokey in parts.

Josh: “Hokey” is the right word for it. It’s very reliant on the power of belief. Their final revelation is that they can make It small if they attack its self-esteem. No you can’t. It’s an alien. It doesn’t care what you think about it.

Arley: Yeah — how did it make it across space with no one to believe in it? Too many worldbuilding problems. But the allegory or theme of unresolved child issues was cool and it would have been nice to tease that out a bit more. It’s more resonant if they ultimately have to live with the trauma. They don’t have to come to terms with it, or repress their childhoods without ever fully erasing it.

Josh: Killer clown would be a pretty big childhood trauma. I see what you’re saying, though — there is a character story of substance beneath all of the horror window dressing, but the film skimps on that in order to expend more time on gross-out imagery and jump scares.

This two-part version of It is mostly a remake of the 1990 miniseries, with better effects. It’s been almost 20 years since that version, theoretically giving the filmmakers plenty of opportunity to update the material, interrogate problematic issues, as well as improve the plot. If the creators wanted to hew faithfully to the book, flesh out all of the character subplots, and provide a slew of highly rendered CGI monsters, this could have been done as a six- to eight-part miniseries with all the necessary pacing (but perhaps lacking the necessary budget). Alternately, It could be streamlined into a single movie by removing the seven or so separate subplots about individual fears, and instead focus it down on an alien clown that changes form into a giant spider. Narrowing the focus to one threat (in a single film) would make things scarier and keep the runtime down to a manageable level.

As a compromise between those two formats, these movies probably strike the best possible balance. Strict fans of King’s work may be disappointed by excised details and scenes, but the remaining material hangs together in an entertaining enough fashion that retains more of the novel’s spirit better than, say, the disastrous 2017 attempt to cram the entire Dark Tower series into a single movie.

Josh: I didn’t see the 1990 miniseries.

Arley: With Tim Curry? I did. It wasn’t scary at all, but I saw it only a year or two ago, and a lot of it probably would have been better if I’d seen it as a teen back then. So many people told me it scared the shit outta them.

Josh: Did you read the book?

Arley: I never read it — was tired of the ramblings by then. I like his short fiction.

Josh: Okay, so between the both of us, we probably have most of it covered. All I remember about the book is that there’s a clown in the beginning and a giant space spider at the end and a thousand fucking pages in between. All anyone ever really remembers about It is that there’s a creepy clown. He’s the most memorable character, and I thought Skarsgård’s Pennywise was awesome.

Arley: He looks so cool in so many scenes!

Josh: He was my favorite part, and I wish the movie had been more focused on him. The funhouse scene was probably the strongest scene.

Arley: It reminded me of a futility nightmare — one of the best moments.

Josh: I do like Stephen King’s monsters and creatures. You can usually count on him to come up with something that nobody else has done before, or to dig up an obscure legend that hasn’t ever been brought to public attention and bring it forward into an everyday setting. Using an ancient evil to slowly eat away at civilized structures is an effective horror, because it undermines everything we think keeps us safe.

Arley: King is also good at writing young male buddy stories (Stand by Me, for example), which is a strength of the 2017 It; the kids and their actors clicked together really well. But I kinda felt that was missing from this one. The adult versions of the characters didn’t have the same banter and chemistry. I also noticed that this film utilizes classic horror sets, like a messed up mental hospital, a closed school, sewers, and such. A very ’80s horror film feel to it, and I’m not sure if it’s doing that because the novel is from 1986 or because the filmmakers wanted to specifically call back to that old-school horror feel.

Josh: There’s also, in Stephen King’s work, a focus on trains, and amusement parks and small town Americana where bad shit happens. King and Spielberg (and Bradbury) hit that feeling really hard while trying to recapture their youths in white America. Making stories about, “What if all the things we daydreamed about while riding our bikes through town became reality?” The same kind of thing that Stranger Things is leaning on — it’s a nostalgia for someone else’s nostalgia (and hello there, Finn Wolfhard!).

Apart from Skarsgård, Bill Hader’s performance is a standout, providing comic relief. And yes, it is easy to favor the funny character, but even still, Hader’s Richie seems to move to the forefront in this chapter. Whereas young Bev (Sophia Lillis) was previously a leader of the action in chapter one, adult Bev takes a backseat role here, reduced to deciding which man she wants to fall in love with at the end of the movie. James Ransone, playing Eddie and antagonizing Richie, also provides humor.

Arley: I didn’t like Eddie at all. He was a despicable character.

Josh: I didn’t think so. I mean, he’s a fairly stereotypical character, like Howard Wolowitz in Big Bang Theory, but he’s got a definite character arc — the coward’s redemption story — and he’s an asshole who deep down secretly loves his friends and doesn’t reveal it until it absolutely matters. I can see how he’d be annoying, but not entirely unsympathetic.

Arley: Every character was pretty generic.

Josh: One thing I remember from the book, about halfway through, is that King spends a lot of time setting up backstory and character motivation. Really human characters. But with so many of them to get through, they kind of blend together. And I had a hard time remembering which kid was which adult until they did a couple rounds of flashbacks. I couldn’t tell them apart by name: Ben, Bill, Bev, Mike, Richie, Eddie, Stanley? Those names just bounce off.

Arley: They could have killed off more characters. I think part of what makes this movie not so scary is that Pennywise is toying with them. I never feel like they are in any danger. Why doesn’t he just kill one, if he knows it will take all of them combined to defeat him? Killing one or two would build tension and streamline the plot at the same time. And if he eats fear, I’m sure the others would be more scared if someone suffered actual consequences.

Josh: Mike, the one Black guy, had nothing to do. Everyone else went off on a quest and he’s like I’ll just chill in the library. That Chekhov’s tomahawk, though. Real subtle, huh?

Arley: The Black guy gets saved three times by white dudes. That doesn’t happen to anyone else. And he has no time devoted to his backstory, unlike the others — even the dead guy, Stanley, does. He does have a bit of a role because he does the research and comes up with the solution, but in this movie more than others there are moments of like why don’t they just do the obvious. Like, why doesn’t he microdose everyone at once so they all know what’s going on, and skip a lot of the filler. Also, if you’re not going to kill off characters, then it could’ve at least been three women, and some of them could even be of color. Instead of having the sole female character be the victim of wife beating.

Josh: Why hasn’t Stephen King been cancelled yet? He’s always Magical Negro this and Noble Savage that, in like every single one of his works.

Arley: Like we said, they could’ve updated all kinds of shit. Gender. Like for example in the newer Pet Sematary some of the gender roles are reversed, the wife makes decisions, advances the plot, and plays the hero. Race. The natives are real magical. How did they figure out how to capture an alien?

Josh: Someone in the movie said, “It’s been here for a couple of billion years,” and I was like, “Wait a minute, how long has this tribe lived here, exactly?”

Arley: It would’ve been cool if he’d been like, “The clown represents colonialism.”

Josh: If they’re going to remove the orgy scene anyway, they can rewrite the other problems. I did not like the opening of this movie at all. It was a pretty brutal gay bashing that didn’t lead to any redemption or revenge, or even furthering the plot in any way (like the partner debating whether or not to tell the police that he saw an evil clown).

Arley: The message is keep quiet, be a good gay person, and you’ll be safe. Hader’s character and this violent scene in the same movie.

Josh: Did you like this better than the original?

Arley: Yes, there are better effects. The spider clown boss fight at the end was awesome, with kind of a Smaug moment when Eddie threw the spear. The lair looks SO cool.

Josh: Did you like this better than chapter one?

Arley: I think I did, and I don’t know why. I think it was the strength of the visuals. Not much else was that good. There were some decent ideas and aspects but they were underdeveloped. The visuals were enough to keep it entertaining despite all the problems. And I think the visuals will play better on a big screen than on a laptop. It is all about Pennywise, who is really the star of this movie.

Josh: Agreed about the visuals and Pennywise. I have a hard time finding Stephen King books I like (or can even finish), but I do have better luck with his TV/film adaptations: for example, Gerald’s Game, The Shining obviously, Castle Rock, The Shawshank Redemption. And I think that, even with all its problems, this is one of the better Stephen King movies. I was engaged with it, and entertained for three hours.

Arley: You know it’s a Stephen King story when one of the main characters is a writer.

Josh: Thought it was funny that they kept going on and on about James McAvoy’s character being unable to end a story and they still couldn’t end this fucking movie on time.

Arley: This has also probably been our longest review.

Directed by: Andy Muschietti

Written by: Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King

Starring: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs & Jeremy Ray Taylor

Josh Pearce, Arley Sorg (by Laurel Amberdine)

ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.

JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.

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