IT Chapter 2 let its audience down

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Killer clowns from space. Pixabay

People better penny-wise up to this film.

I care a lot about horror movies. I spend a lot of time expanding on the conviction that good horror is political, that it always makes a statement, and all art should aim for the statements it makes to inspire positive change. This is why I’m going to structure my review of IT Chapter 2 with the praise first and the shortcomings second; although the praise is sincere, the shortcomings are very serious, and we should go forward reflecting on them to make horror better. Audiences were alienated and turned away from engaging in IT Chapter 2 because of what it did wrong, and honestly, in a genre meant to challenge our perceptions of reality, that is the worst effect that a horror movie can have.

In one sentence, IT Chapter 2 has many of the makings of an excellent and imagery-rich film about overcoming trauma, but it unfortunately works against its own best quality by making age-old mistakes of casual racism and political neutrality. This lack of bravery and sensitivity means many of IT Chapter 2’s viewers felt their wounds were re-opened by the film without any attempt to heal them along with the rest of the audience.

You should know that I’m an enormous fan of IT, and that the first movie is one of my favourites. I love the franchise and the story, conceptually, for two reasons: One, it’s about healing from the hardest experiences we’ve had. Characters in IT extensively battle with abuse, grief, shame, and systematic oppression, and the film is brave enough to drag these extremely painful wounds into the light;Two, this internal battle is beautifully paralleled with an external, literal one, as Pennywise embodies the demons each character has to face with his psychoanalytic shapeshifting. This is the essence of what monsters are – fears and traumas, embodied – and IT is so iconic for horror fans perhaps it’s finally a movie starring what we all seem to agree we fear most: fear itself.

My praise for IT Chapter 2 is widely centered around the fact that I am an enormous monster nerd (monsters are, in fact, the topic of my honours research) and every time I see a scary movie I want to know what kind of new creature will emerge onto the scene. The scares in the film were predictable and nothing special, but the visuals of those scares were interesting enough for me to forgive. The movie crafts a few really engaging scenes structured around the deep, troubling mental landscapes of its characters. The monsters take inspiration from this patchwork of soft spots and manifest as incredibly conceptually complicated creatures as a result. They are fascinating to look at.

There is also a great deal of humour sprinkled throughout, which breaks the tension of the scares in a way that might not be for everyone. It’s emotional whiplash, but I think that in a movie about trauma, this was kind of thematically appropriate. When people live with PTSD (and every main character in this story does, experiencing amnesia and physical responses to traumatic memories), the experience of constantly being on high alert often swings between being deathly serious to being something you can have a laugh about when you realize it was just your brain tricking you. Bill Hader’s performance is really fantastic, and he brought humour to this movie which I think ultimately helped its therapeutic aspect. The movie genuinely tried to be hopeful about surviving and thriving after something horrible happens to you. That’s a message I think more of us need to receive more often

All of this being said, though, there are serious problems with the adaptation and some of the decisions that were made are downright bleak and disappointing. These are things that I will admit I didn’t think about as critically while I was in the theatre, but this is because I am fortunate enough not to have been seriously affected by them. There are people who saw the movie that night who did, as I found out reading through some first impressions online, have a seriously upsetting experience because of these writing decisions. I can anticipate further that there were probably far more negative experiences than were being publicly talked about.

In a nutshell, these problems are a lack of concern for black, Indigenous and gay or 2SLGBTQ+ members in the audience. The movie was about trauma, and stood a chance at being a movie that worked towards healing, but there were people who saw that movie and actually left feeling more pain about their trauma because of it. And this was because the movie only really looked out for its white, straight viewers, and forgot that trauma includes experiences of systematic violence.

People like me who read Stephen King’s novel knew that there was a graphic gay-bashing scene at the beginning. In fact, this scene was based on a real hate crime that King read about in the news, a crime that inspired It, a story about evil growing in a city full of hatred,  but many movie-goers didn’t know this, and filmmakers no doubt knew that probably a majority of people were going to be surprised seeing two gay men brutally beaten and one of them murdered in the first fifteen minutes. I want you to hold on to the kneejerk reaction of “what do you expect in a horror film” and understand that trauma porn and horror are different things. Gay men opened up about this on twitter: “I felt sick and it threw off my entire movie experience,” said @TheSalingerSays, sending out a warning to everyone that received over 12,000 concerned retweets.

The exploration later on of IT Chapter 2’s closeted character probably tried to follow up this scene in a supportive way, but it ultimately didn’t offer this character any real recognition or liberation. We’re left with the message that, basically, “homophobia is bad.” I mean, yes. What we want to know is how do we keep living under it?

In a similar way, Indigenous viewers of the film were disappointed but not surprised when the movie held onto King’s tired stereotype of the “ancient Native American ritual” to defeat the monster they faced. The generic sweat ceremony, shockingly tone-deficient flashes of substance abuse on the reservation Mike visited, and all-around exoticism and appropriation of imagery reflect the stain of racism we still can’t seem to remove from horror tropes. What’s more, Mike (the only black character in IT 2) received by far the least character exploration and was more or less treated as a means of the plot advancing. No doubt Indigenous and black horror fans have further criticism to deliver here, as these are pervasive problems in King’s work and in the genre.

Since racism and the violence it causes is very much a source of trauma for racialized people, and since the same is true for queer people and gay-bashing, I would argue that ultimately IT Chapter 2 turned around and damaged the core message that made the good parts of it good. These scenes said to me, “This is a movie for you to heal through – as long as you are a straight, white settler. Otherwise, you might have to keep searching.” I am hoping, as a horror fan, that the search ends soon.

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