It Chapter Two opens with a horrific, homophobic hate crime that Stephen King plucked from the headlines and incorporated into his 1986 novel. After a group of very human bigots attack Adrian Mellon and his boyfriend, they unceremoniously dump Adrian over the side of the bridge, and just as he begins to drown, he sees a figure beckoning him from the shore. A clown.
It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what happens when Adrian makes it to the shore and takes Pennywise’s hand, believing the being is trying to help him. He dies, gruesomely, and the entire scene is made that much more stomach-turning by the fact that Adrian’s boyfriend witnesses what the clown does to him. In that moment, you understand that like all of the insidious things lurking in Derry, Maine, the town’s homophobia isn’t just the product of garden variety hatred. To some extent, it’s an outgrowth of Pennywise’s presence and its ability to influence the minds of people.
It Chapter Two builds on this idea with some of the more subtle bits of characterisation King wove into his novel, revealing that one of the Losers has been living in the closet – something that Pennywise taunts them about. At times, the subplot works as a moderately interesting exploration of how not feeling able to come out can devastate a person’s life and literally kill them, but the issue is that ultimately, the film doesn’t know how to really go for the ideas it’s already touching on. The concepts are all there, but the execution’s not.
In the original novel, it’s made much more clear that Derry, as a city, has a rampant problem with bigots scrawling homophobic graffiti and other hate speech in public spaces that give you a sense of what kind of hell the town would have been like for young, queer kids living through the ‘80s. Homophobic a place as Derry is, the town had its share of openly queer residents and even a mildly successful gay bar. But those things could only do but so much to counteract the larger culture of bigotry pervasive in the town, a culture that plays into the ways that Pennywise ends up targeting certain children.
One of the curious changes from the source material made in Muschietti’s first It film is the way that Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) first meets Pennywise. In the book, the dilapidated house that the clown emerges from in an attempt to kill the boy is also known to locals as a place where homeless men sometimes have sex, and when Pennywise bursts from the basement in the form of a diseased leper, the demon makes sexual advances towards the child. Because Pennywise always purposefully chooses to take the form of whatever scares a person most, it’s possible to read the novel’s scene with Eddie and the leper as a manifestation of both his fear of germs and a potential fear of his own sexual identity. That, coupled with Eddie being written as a stereotypical mama’s boy and the 1990 miniseries adding in dialogue where Pennywise questions Kaspbrak about his sexuality, have made it possible to interpret the character as queer.
Bill Hader as Richie Tozier. (Image: Warner Bros.)
It Chapter Two borrows a number of the elements of reading Eddie as queer and instead works them into the Richie Tozier character (Finn Wolfhard in the past, Bill Hader in the present), who’s revealed to have been hiding a secret about himself for his entire life that Pennywise has managed to deduce. Here, Eddie’s revealed to be in a loveless, dysfunctional relationship with an overbearing woman who’s more or less a facsimile of his mother.
In flashbacks, it’s illustrated how homophobia’s always been a part of Derry’s culture and 27 years before Adrian Mellon was murdered, arseholes just like the people who killed him were bullying the younger Richie. Though he never says it verbally, it’s implied that Richie might have something of a crush on another boy he’s met at the local arcade. When the other boy insists he’s got to get going, Richie offers to pay for another round of games, which the other boy considers, before sociopath Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton in the past, Teach Grant in the present) and his goons come through to tease Richie for being friendly.
All of this would work as perfectly fine character-building if it actually ended up leading to a more direct statement about Richie’s identity in the present. While a shy kid in 1988 being unable to verbalise his feelings for another boy makes a certain degree of sense, the fact that the adult Richie is never able to verbally express it about himself feels weird for a movie set in 2016. Yes, his queerness is something he’s still clearly grappling with and distracting himself from by pouring himself into his job as a comedian, but being brought back to Derry to confront Pennywise is precisely the kind of event that would logically lead this particular character to deal with his sexuality in a more open way.
In addition to being a horror movie, It Chapter Two’s a movie about emotional growth following devastating traumas. In the process of figuring out how to defeat Pennywise once and for all, each of the Losers embarks on their own (unnecessarily long) side quests to confront their fears and recall things about themselves. Richie ends up going back to the arcade to get a token, suggesting that it, and perhaps that boy, might have really meant something to him. Or he could have just liked video games. Who knows?
In It Chapter Two’s defence, there is an excellent, high-camp scene toward the film’s end where Pennywise flies in with a mass of balloons just as a group of cheerleaders are practising their routines in front of an enormous Paul Bunyan statue. In between these two hyper-stylised forms of masculinity and femininity stands Richie, dumbstruck, because there’s a goddamned clown flying towards him and he’s singing a horrific song about...his secret.
But even when it’s trying to be nightmarishly on the nose, It Chapter Two’s inability to just come out and say that Richie’s gay makes it feel as if the film’s too scared to own up to what it’s trying to say. One of the film’s most tragic deaths (Eddie’s) is meant to be a particularly emotional moment because it’s revealed that Richie was always in love with him....perhaps. And yet even when it’s trying to talk about those emotions, the film settles on simply having Richie carve his and Eddie’s initials into a fence.
While there’s nothing wrong with subtextual queerness when it heightens aspects of characters who are already explicitly identified as queer, characters like Richie end up feeling kind of hollow. Not because all queer characters in cinema have to be out immediately, but because in a movie in which a group of best friends fight a primordial evil to save their town, coming out seems like the sort of thing you might do if you ended up making it out alive.
You can read Richie’s moment as being sweet, it’s also just kind of tragic in the end and doesn’t exactly feel respectful to the person that Richie is. His identity’s never properly affirmed, he never gets to openly express his love, and the man he loved (who might not even have loved him back) was murdered by a demon.
That’s scary, but not for the right reasons.
Featured image: Warner Bros.