Movies

It: Chapter Two’s Gay-Bashing Scene Exploits a Real-Life Killing for a Cheap Shock

The horror sequel recreates the death of Charlie Howard but has no idea what to do with it.

Bill Hader’s looks up as if in surprise/horror.
Bill Hader in It: Chapter Two.
Warner Bros. Entertainment

It: Chapter Two opens at a town fair in Derry, Maine, as a man gleefully beats a little girl in a carnival game. Another man, apparently his friend, scolds him as he collects the prize instead of the girl, and he quickly hands it over to her. She beams. The man then kisses the other man, a moment that’s meant to be a coy reversal: These aren’t boisterous small-town jerks; they’re lovers. Then, suddenly, the movie cuts to a few local teenagers who see the kiss. The teenagers taunt the men. The lovers taunt them back and walk away. But as the lovers try to leave the fair, the teens catch up to them, then mercilessly attack them. One of the victims is asthmatic and can’t breathe. The teens shove away his inhaler, pick him up, and throw him over a railing into a shallow creek below. Screaming for help, his boyfriend runs down to the side of the creek, only to find Pennywise, the murderous shape-shifting clown, holding up the man’s battered body. Pennywise smiles and then begins eating him.

Fans of Stephen King’s novel It will recognize the slain man as Adrian Mellon, who suffers roughly the same fate in the book. (He’s played in the movie by wunderkind Québécois filmmaker and actor Xavier Dolan, well known to gay cinephiles and critics.) People from Maine, especially Bangor, King’s hometown, may recognize him instead as Charlie Howard, a 23-year-old asthmatic gay man who was beaten by three teenage boys in the town in the summer of 1984, before he was thrown off a bridge into a stream 15 feet below and drowned. One of the teens later told the police they just wanted to beat up a “faggot.” They were charged as juveniles and released from prison by the time they were 21. The case did not earn the level of national attention of, say, the murder of Matthew Shepard more than a decade later, but it left an enduring scar on Bangor, and it affected King. He included a barely veiled version of the case in It two years later.

It features many horrors, some supernatural and some all too grounded in the real world. The first movie opened with a 6-year-old boy’s arm being bitten off in the clown’s jaws. This new one features brutal domestic violence and an attempted rape in the first 30 minutes. The various human evils that fuel and are fueled by Pennywise are essential to the story, and often, the brutality makes sense. But what director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman do with this opening murder—not to mention a bizarre subplot that appears designed to counterweigh it—exploits a ghastly real-life killing for a cheap shock, delivered without context or any clear thematic underpinning. It’s obvious they failed to fully reckon with what they’ve put on the screen, and the results are grim.

Perhaps Warner Bros. or someone close to the production knew they had a potential problem on their hands with the sequence, because before almost anyone had seen the movie, Muschietti and star Jessica Chastain were out to the press to frame it not as exploitative but as “important.” “It was very important to me because it is of relevance,” Muschietti told Variety. He went on:

I probably wouldn’t have included it if it wasn’t in the book, but it was very important for Stephen King. When he wrote it, he was talking about the evil in the human community. He was talking about how dark humans can get in a small American town. … For me, it was important to include it, because it’s something that we’re still suffering. Hate crimes are still happening. No matter how evolved we think society is going, there seems to be a winding back, especially in this day and age where these old values seem to be emerging from the darkness.

Chastain, the movie’s female lead and an outspoken critic of screen depictions of sexual assault and violence against women, offered a very similar defense, right down to using many of the same words. “I think you need that scene because [King] writes about the darkness that’s under the surface, the dirt under the fingernails of these small towns or of mankind,” she told the same reporter. “That’s what It represents. It’s the darkness of human behavior. I think it was important to see Adrian’s scene and not to change it from what it is in the novel because we’re living in a time right now where it is very much a part of our culture and part of our conversation and we haven’t moved past it.”

These explanations—that it was part of the original source material, and that anti-gay hate crimes still happen today, so it was “important” to depict this particular one—suggest a half-baked understanding of what calls for different kinds of violence on screen. Yes, as Muschietti says, anti-gay violence remains “of relevance,” and it was a major moment in the original novel. But the fact that King was moved enough by a hate crime in the 1980s to memorably explore it in the book does not mean it automatically has a place in a much different medium (especially in an adaptation that frequently picks and chooses which parts of the book to include) or that it functions the same way in this severely truncated form. And that a type of crime still happens in real life does not mean extremely graphic depictions of it are always justified.

The murder in the book takes place in the summer of 1985, one year after the event that inspired it, and the novel includes an extended description of the victims, the teens, their motives, and the police investigation that follows (“The guy was a fruit, but he wasn’t hurting anyone,” says a sympathetic district attorney), along with a brief but evocative read of the town’s gay milieu. It imagined far greater consequences than the real-life boys received. Even the Pennywise element, which plays out similarly, became a crucial point in the novel about how the town’s residents perennially ignore the real threat they face.

In It: Chapter Two, the murder takes place in 2016, and then it’s never mentioned again—unless you count the brief reappearance of Adrian as a swishy, flirty zombie who shows up to torment Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), one of the grown-up kids now back in Derry. The brutality plays as a stand-alone moment, nothing more than a sign that Pennywise has returned from his hibernation. Crucially, the movie’s assorted other horrors, including a scene of sexualized violence involving Chastain’s character, are part of its long arc about abused outsiders who each fight individual and collective battles against their tormentors in town and at home. They avenge the crimes against them, turning each of their threads into a survivor’s story, which is probably why an outspoken actress like Chastain is starring in this movie rather than crusading against it. Adrian Mellon’s arc, such as it is, is far from a survivor’s story. Instead, as filmed, the sequence trades on the profound anxiety borne of real-life hate violence for the sake of shock value.

I can’t tell if Muschietti and writer Dauberman sensed this disparity, but a different subplot, heavy on suggestive close-ups and implication, appears designed to offset it. When Adrian does reappear and startles Richie, there’s mention of something Richie has kept from the group, and perhaps from himself. In a fit of panic, Richie tries to flee town rather than face it. What is this great secret? As in the novel, Richie has a special bond with Eddie, another member of the Losers’ Club. In fact, some enterprising fans of the novel have long surmised that Eddie is gay and in love with Richie (a dynamic played up in the 1990 It miniseries, which notably excludes the hate crime). It: Chapter Two seems to reverse this subtext and then make it more explicit. In this version, Richie has grown up to be a stand-up comic who makes sexist jokes, but it seems he is gay and in love with Eddie, a suggestion that grows somewhat louder in the movie’s epilogue. With the camera somberly trained on Richie’s face, a voice-over implores him to be “proud” as he looks on from a carving of his and Eddie’s initials together. The scene is, frankly, ridiculous, not least because of how it asks him to be “proud” while being too timid to say what precisely it means out loud. Why is this even here? Could it be an answer to the earlier violence, a tenuous attempt to extinguish it the way other characters directly confront their own abuse? Regardless, what does it say about this movie that it feels comfortable depicting every crushing blow and desperate cry for help from gay men as they’re being bludgeoned but then relies on a retro, coded treatment of its only apparently gay principal character, who never even gets the dignity of saying who he is?

Movies—even (especially!) genre movies—can and should show the worst things people do. That can include echoes of real-life violence. At their best, they summon their power from projecting real horrors onto a fantastical monster, so that we might exorcise them. That’s not what It: Chapter Two does with this opening. Instead, it reduces a particularly vicious attack into a swaggering signal that no brutality is out of bounds and a self-deluding bid for “relevance.” The scene is savage and ugly, but not for the reason the movie thinks.