The old saw about how you can’t go home again gets chewed on from a couple of angles in “It Chapter Two,” the follow-up to the skillful 2017 distillation of Stephen King’s ode to prepubescence and killer clowns.
There’s the story’s main thread, of course, in which the now-middle-aged “It” kids must return to the Maine enclave of their youth, however reluctantly, to see if they can get their collective monster-slaying groove back. But there’s also returning director Andy Muschietti’s bid to replicate the first installment’s surprising, terrifically affecting group dynamic.
Muschietti and his newly expanded cast — welcome aboard, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, et al. — come through pretty satisfyingly at points. But they also come up short at others, and at still others shift priorities entirely to concentrate instead on ante-upping chills.
Picking up from the first film’s clever (and financially gutsy!) elliptical sign-off, this one jumps ahead 27 years to show us that demonic Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, again supremely creepy) is back preying on the fears of sleepy Derry’s citizenry. The young Losers’ Club heroes from the clown’s last rampage have all mysteriously forgotten (or repressed?) the ordeal in far-flung adulthood, save for dutiful townie Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who does the calling and cajoling needed to get the band back together.
One of the movie’s lighter selling points is the interest its fast-forward casting holds — and just as Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things” continues to be a junior scene-stealer as wisecracking Richie, Bill Hader is inspired as his older, celebrity-comedian counterpart. (An unexpected draw, meanwhile, is Teach Grant’s kooky turn as bullying Henry Bowers, now sporting psych-ward togs and middle-aged mileage with that familiar mullet.) Still, the adult group doesn’t evince quite the same chemistry as their greener selves, as we’re reminded by the narrative lift we feel each time they show up in flashbacks. Blame it partly on uneven handling of the grown-ups’ various going concerns — abuse, sexuality, etc. — and also on a series of solo character sequences that don’t help the film’s overstuffed 169-minute running time.
Consider it a tradeoff, maybe, for how deliberately and potently the horror gets ratcheted up from the efficient scares of “It” chapter one. The character-isolating bits furnish us with immolating heroines and dread-laden glimpses of Pennywise unmasked — you know, stuff to fill the quiet moments between arachnophobe nightmares and a predatory scene even more perverse than the saga-opening storm-drain vignette. It’s enough to make a kid want to forget all about some silly blood oath to one day come back home.
IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King. Starring James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgård. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 169 minutes. R (disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, some crude sexual material).