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It: Chapter Two’s circus of horrors more spectacular than scary

The motor-mouthed Richie (Bill Hader) is now a self-loathing stand-up comic, while the tightly-wound Eddie (James Ransone) has found a use for his caution as a “risk analyst”. Beverly (Jessica Chastain), the only woman in the group, remains under the thumb of a husband (Will Beinbrink) hardly less monstrous than the father who once abused her.

Summoned back to Derry by the paranoid Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the heroes set about collecting artifacts from the past to be offered up in a final sacrificial ritual — a quest that cues a series of hallucinations in which they regress to childhood and confront their deepest fears.

Richie Tozier (Bill Hader ), Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone), Mike Hanlon (Isiah Mustafa ) and Ben Hascomb (Jay Ryan) revisit childhood trauma in It: Chapter Two

Richie Tozier (Bill Hader ), Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone), Mike Hanlon (Isiah Mustafa ) and Ben Hascomb (Jay Ryan) revisit childhood trauma in It: Chapter Two

This is a right-on movie in a very 2019 way: Muschietti has already confirmed that any resemblances between Pennywise and Donald Trump are wholly deliberate. It’s also one of the prestige horror packages now in vogue —running close to three hours and self-consciously weaving in as many genre cliches as possible, along with a few surprising cameos and countless explicit nods to classics such as Psycho, The Shining and The Thing. Pennywise serves as an unsettling master of ceremonies, his hoarse, cajoling voice all too closely resembling any number of beloved puppet or cartoon characters.

Even if the film is mostly too lacking in narrative momentum to be truly suspenseful, it retains a disturbing quality which stems precisely from Muschietti’s willingness to court the absurd, in set-pieces incorporating everything from a freakout in a Chinese restaurant (watch out for those fortune cookies!) to a skateboard run amok. The implication is that the false surface of the world conceals a truth at once bizarre and grotesquely banal, which is convincing at least as an evocation of what some kinds of mental illness might feel like. That the plot makes no literal sense forces us to understand it as a metaphor for the psychological effects of abuse, a theme which has become an obsession in American film and TV.

Yet even as the characters try to recover their traumatic memories, the film represses a good deal: a running joke about Bill’s failings as an author seems to allude indirectly to the crazier, more obscene portions of King’s novel, which any screen adaptation would be forced to tone down. The effort to deliver shock value without breaking the protocols of mainstream entertainment results in a degree of glibness and even irresponsibility, especially in the maudlin epilogue.

Despite the extended running time, the characters remain narrowly defined. Beverly, in particular, is a pure male fantasy, at once a traumatised victim and a gracious den mother to a troupe of adult Lost Boys. To a large extent, it’s Hader who steals the film: not that his nerdy wise-guy is less stereotyped than the rest, but he has the comic’s gift for coming off as a human being while everybody else is “acting”. Of all the protagonists, it’s Richie who seems most likely to have some kinship with Pennywise, who also sees himself as a victim or claims to. Comedians, after all, are clowns of a sort, though this, too, is a truth which the film makes an effort to repress.

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