Let’s Talk About The Gay Stuff in ‘It Chapter Two’

This article contains spoilers for It Chapter Two as well as the preceding film and the original novel.

Like the Stephen King novel on which it’s based, It Chapter Two opens with a hate crime. Adrian Mellon (here played terribly by former director of note Xavier Dolan) kisses his boyfriend at a Derry carnival, and the two are followed out of it by a gang of homophobic hoodlums. The two are viciously beaten, and a barely-conscious Adrian is thrown over the side of a bridge into a rushing river. He’s pulled out and eaten by Pennywise. The crime alerts Mike Hanlon to It’s resurgence, spurring him to reunite his friends to battle it again.

So, there’s gay stuff in It Chapter Two. Queer shit. There is Homosexual Content TM. If you read Stephen King’s novel, you knew it was coming. If you’re like me, you were dreading the film’s handling of the Adrian Mellon scene. We were right to do so. The scene is exceedingly brutal, seeming to relish the seeping blood covering Adrian’s now unrecognizable face the same way the film delights in the outlandish gore inflicted by Pennywise. In King’s book, homophobia in Derry is implicitly tied to the presence of It, both evils feeding off of and into one another. In the film, homophobic violence is no different than Pennywise’s fantastical “kills.” We’re meant to be horrified by both, but with the whispered suggestion that it’s still fun to watch.

This is where the queerness ends in the book. Not so in the film. Seemingly by way of apology for the Adrian Mellon scene, the filmmakers have added just a dash of gay to their main cast. Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard as a child and Bill Hader as an adult) is heavily implied to be gay. I say “heavily implied” because it’s never outright stated. There’s no coming-out moment. Still, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.

The film’s lengthy middle portion is taken up by new flashbacks which take place during an unseen part of the first film, when the friends briefly split up after wounding and escaping from It. Each character has a new jump-scare setpiece encounter with It during this time. Richie’s begins at an arcade, where he’s playing Street Fighter with another unnamed boy. The game ends, and the boy slaps Richie’s hand, lingering just a half-second longer on the gesture than expected. The camera notes the physical contact. Richie responds by asking, a bit too desperately, for the boy to play another round with him. At this point, the bully Henry Bowers and his gang appear. The boy is Henry’s little cousin, and he instantly turns on Richie. The bullies call Richie a faggot and a fairy and chase him out of the arcade.

A frustrated Richie wanders to a nearby park, at the center of which is a massive statue of Paul Bunyon. Naturally, the statue comes alive, but its taunt of Richie is of particular interest. “Wanna kiss, Richie?” it asks him, before transforming into a garish CGI monster and chasing him across the park. The illusion vanishes and Richie is spared, and the film cuts to adult Richie in the same park, staring at the same statue. Then Pennywise appears to him and starts to tease him about his “dirty little secret.”

So at this point it should be obvious what the film is getting at. Richie is gay, he’s closeted, and this is the deep-seated fear that Pennywise is picking on. The problem is that there’s a clear divide in the film between the treatment of this idea in the child segments and in the adult segments. When Richie is a child, the depiction of his burgeoning sexuality is depicted with shocking subtlety and tenderness. As an adult, it’s nonsensical and heavy-handed.

The centerpiece of Richie’s sexuality is his relationship with fellow Loser Eddie Kaspbrak. The new flashbacks to the Losers as children have a new focus on the playful antagonism between the two. They tease each other and bicker in the way only close friends can. It’s never the primary focus, but it’s conspicuously present.

At one point, the two argue in the background of a scene over whose turn it is to lie in the clubhouse hammock. Eventually Eddie just gets in with Richie and they lie there together. Eddie gently kicks Richie’s face with his foot, knocking his glasses off. There’s something sweetly familiar to this detail, that moment of physical contact that meant nothing to Eddie but something more to Richie, a gesture with significance Richie couldn’t decode at the time. It’s, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, actually recognizable to my own experience of being a young queer person who had no idea who she was. You carry these little totems with you, tiny pinpricks in your heart. The details may drift away, but the way the moments made you feel never will. Is it great queer cinema? Not hardly. But it’s far better than anyone should have expected from a film like this.

That’s the kid scenes, though. The adult scenes are much, much different, presenting some pressing questions of coherency. Chief among them: Why is Richie still closeted in 2016? He lives in New York City, he’s a successful stand-up comedian, he has no family ties to speak of. Why can’t he just be out? Had the film’s timeline adhered to the novel’s, with the adult half playing out in the 1980s, this may have made more sense. It certainly does for the child Richie. I thought of the scene in the first film where Eddie, ever the hypochondriac, rants about the terrifying possibility of AIDS infection. What must young Richie have thought of that?

This isn’t to say, of course, that homophobia doesn’t exist in 2016. The film makes a point of this with the Adrian Mellon scene. Still, the film can conceive of no reason why Richie should have remained in the closet all these years beyond a general sense of shame and internalized homophobia, neither of which is ever actually depicted. We have no idea how Richie feels about being gay. There’s no sense of his life or personality as they relate to his queerness. Him being gay is just another Dark Secret for Pennywise to pick on. It’s Ben’s shame over being formerly obese, it’s Beverly’s fear of her abusive father, it’s Bill’s guilt over his brother’s death. It’s just another hanging thread to be tugged on, a board hung around the neck headlined “This Is My Trauma.” It’s cheap, it’s ugly, it’s borderline offensive.

And yet….there’s an “and yet.”

At some point in the film, we see a flashback to young Richie carving “R +” into a wooden fence. The camera obscures the final initial. The last we see of adult Richie is him returning to that fence, where we see that he carved “R + E,” and he gets to work digging out those same old lines, making the mark new again. Eddie didn’t survive the final battle with It, and Richie was more affected by this than his friends. As I watched him re-carve those letters, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny spark of warmth, remembering the look on young Richie’s face as young Eddie lightly kicked it. Hader and Wolfhard turn a deeply lame character rewrite into something gentle and tender. They find a queerness that feels familiar in a script to which queerness is alien. It Chapter Two is not queer cinema. Its depiction of gay characters is largely trashy and pointless and incoherent. But in these performances, there’s something more. There’s real queer life. If only the movie was good. If only, if only, if only.

Patron Request: ‘The Descent’

Having found most of his TV work rather uninspiring, I was surprised by how impressed I was with Neil Marshall’s The Descent. While I don’t think it’s a great film, there’s more of interest here than in his episodes of Game of Thrones or even the more directly comparable Hannibal.

The setup is familiar: A grieving young woman recovering from a tragic accident goes out on a trip with her friends and encounters a violent horror. Like most horror films with such a premise, The Descent uses its labyrinthine caves and vicious monsters as metaphors for overcoming trauma. I wrote about this trope recently, specifically about how horror films present a pessimistic vision of the healing process by virtue of the realities of studio filmmaking. The Descent has its cake and eats it too in this regard. It was released with two endings, the original one for the U.K. and an edited version for the U.S. In the latter, main character Sarah escapes the caves, but is haunted by a vision of the friend she left behind to save herself. In the former, the scene goes on to reveal that her escape was itself a hallucination, and she’s still trapped in the caves as the credits roll. The original ending was deemed too dark for American audiences (post-9/11 Hollywood was wild) but I actually prefer the edited version. It suggests something more profound about the immortality of trauma — you may feel like you’ve escaped, but the past never really leaves you.

While the first 15 minutes or so are clumsily edited, this awkwardness becomes a strength once the film enters the caves. The choppiness of the cuts turns dark shots of small flashlight beams into abstract light shows, where the lack of coherent composition is itself the image. The idea of “oh the editing is so rapid, it’s meant to be disorienting just like the characters are disoriented” is a little banal but it’s applicable here. It’s as hard to find your way visually through The Descent as it is for the characters to find their way through the caves.

This is accompanied by some arresting use of lighting. Besides the flashlights, which tend to be pointed towards the camera and thus rarely illuminate the surroundings, red flares give striking shape to the craggy caverns and green light tubes create a more unsettling and alien glow. These single-color scenes help make the caves feel less like a real place on Earth and more like a supernatural space-between. This really enhances the film’s attempts at horror, and it can use all the help it can get in that department.

If there’s a main problem with The Descent, it’s that it isn’t scary. It starts out well enough, seeding tiny hints at its monsters throughout unrelated tense setpieces. An early glimpse of one engulfed in blackness before it skitters away is properly frightening. It falls apart in the film’s second half, though. After a certain point, The Descent stops withholding its creatures and starts shoving them in your face. I’m normally skeptical of the old bromide that a film monster is scarier the less you see of it, but it’s true here. The pale-skinned creatures are less scary the more you see of them, and Marshall shows us every inch. He makes no effort to conceal them with his camera or in editing. And the more you see them, the more their humanity becomes apparent, the less they represent the terror of the unknown lurking in the dark. They don’t lurk enough.

The Descent really is a tale of two halves. All the cave scenes before the first creature attack are phenomenally creepy. Very little of what follows is worthwhile. I wish the film had stuck to its guns and kept the creatures at a distance, kept them in the shadows, kept them away from the camera (if at least not the characters). If I was let down by The Descent, it’s only because it seemed so promising at the outset.

‘Us’ Review

Us is Jordan Peele’s second feature film as a director, but you don’t need me to tell you that. You just need to watch it. It bears all the hallmarks of Sophomore Entry-itis. This is a film from a man who so desperately wants to do something different from his breakout debut that he ends up not quite sure what he wants to do at all. What struck me as interesting about Us, though, is that it doesn’t lose itself in the shuffle of a million disparate ideas as so many second features do. If anything, you could call it under-ambitious. Peele follows the layered social metaphors of Get Out with a thriller that doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind.

That’s not to say that Us has nothing to say, of course. Its most intriguing notion is that of the collective American unconscious, the dark truths about our violent past that we so easily bury and selectively forget. In the first scene, a young Adelaide (played as an adult by Lupita Nyong’o) has a terrifying encounter in a boardwalk attraction called “Shaman’s Vision Quest,” complete with the head of a stereotypical Native American looming above the door. When she revisits the boardwalk with her family as an adult, the attraction has been revised to “Merlin’s Vision Quest,” and the Native American head is now an inoffensive wizard. The imagery that recalled violence and genocide is gone, but the structure remains. The film opens with text describing the miles upon miles of abandoned tunnels crisscrossing underneath the country. We don’t learn the plot significance of them for a while, but that text haunts the film’s first two acts, never letting us forget that something horrific may be just underneath our feet, and that we may have put it there.

I was disappointed by how it fails to tie this into its characters’ personal dramas, though. A far cry from recent horror breakouts like The Babadook and Hereditary (neither of which I like more than Us, to be clear) which were entirely focused on the inner lives of their characters, Us is much more concerned with its grand narrative design. Us has a world. It has lore. Lore to spare. By the film’s final act, we’re getting more exposition than storytelling, and absolutely nothing about its characters. For a film about people encountering twisted reflections of themselves, Us has little to nothing to say about who they are. It has the most to offer about Adelaide, but that comes in a silly final twist that muddles its themes considerably. Who are Gabe, Zora, Jason? Who are Kitty and Josh? What are their insecurities? What are their strengths? What do they love, what do they fear? They have personality in spades, but we’re starved for personage. How does a film with this premise drop the ball so hard on characterization?

The performances, at least, are outstanding all around. All the principal actors have to play their doubles as well, and they all do marvelous work finding both the familiar and the uncanny in their second performances. Nyong’o is the obvious MVP, as Adelaide and doppelganger Red. Adelaide is all nerves, righteous fury, and eventually pity for the twins she and her family are pitted against. Red is the real standout work, though. Her voice is chillingly strained, struggling to get each syllable out, as though she’s a creature not meant to speak at all. Her physicality is just as strange and scary and wrong, twitchy yet deliberate, like she’s never seen another human being before.

Intriguingly, Peele chose not to have the actors share traits across the doppelganger performances. None of the clones we see seem to have anything in common with their originals. They’re less fractured reflections of the main characters than distinct individuals forced to share someone else’s appearance. They don’t have many commonalities with each other, either. Aside from the strained shouting they communicate with and their identical outfits, the clones’ movements and behaviors are entirely different from one to the next. Even their names are all unique, bearing no relation to the names of the people they resemble. It’s an intriguing direction in which to take this premise.

And that’s about as playful as the film gets. It’s a pretty straightforward slasher for most of its runtime. That’s not a bad thing, though, when the setpieces are this well-executed. The film’s second act is a thrilling ride from face-off to face-off, each one distinct to its particular pair. Young Jason and his doppelganger Pluto have a silent, tense staring match in a closet. Gabe and his double Abraham take swings at each other in a small boat on a dark lake. Zora is chased through the streets by the relentless Umbrae. Things culminate bloodily at Josh and Kitty’s house, and while I won’t spoil what goes down, it’s a gleefully violent spectacle.

There’s a lot to like about Us. It acquits itself handsomely for a while as a straight-up one-night-in-hell home invasion terror. Peele has great talent for spatial dynamics, and the flair for comic/horror timing that served him so well in Get Out is on full display here. But in other areas, Us is oddly shoddy and disappointingly shaggy. Although it’s well-paced, the editing never quite finds the right rhythm, especially whenever the family splits up. Peele has a handful of strong, evocative images in his head, but only a handful. It’s an okay movie, but never quite a genuinely good one. It’s too compromised in too many places. Just when you think it’s about to cohere, it flits off in a new direction. Always searching, never finding. Us is a Second Feature through and through. The most disappointing thing about it is how predictable its failures are.

The Analog Terror of ‘The Ring’

I’ve tried several ways of saying it and they all sounded mealy-mouthed, so I’ll just be blunt: Horror movies almost never scare me. Time and again I’m been promised something truly terrifying, from Hereditary to The Witch to The Babadook, and time and again I walk away feeling distinctly unmoved. Even if I like the movie, horror rarely manages to, y’know, horrify me. I want a movie to stick in the back of my brain and keep me up at night, to make me jump at shadows in my room, to (borrowing a line from one of the few films to have this effect on me) make me too scared to close my eyes and too scared to open them.

Gore Verbinski’s The Ring does this to me. Even on my most recent rewatch, it kept me up late at night, its images looping around and around in my brain. I want to break down why this film scares me so much, in a way few other films can come close to achieving.

The first button of mine that The Ring pushes is the strangely unnerving qualities of TV static. When I was a kid, that visual snow freaked me out, and as an adult I think I know why. Blaring and bright, yet shifty and formless; it’s unavoidable and abstract. It demands your attention and offers nothing in return. It is the absence of meaning, imagery void of psychology or intent. It’s hypnotic in its abstract banality. Every frame suggests a hidden depth, a signal in the noise, a truth you’ll never find. Imagine being screamed at by a creature whose language and tone bears no resemblance to anything you recognize as communication, and it doesn’t even seem to be alive. It’s a bottomless pit, waiting to swallow you up. In the visual language of The Ring, it’s a deep dark well.

So to me, TV static is a great component of a horror setpiece. Stick it in a dark room on a rainy night, as the film does in its opening scene, and I’ll be clutching the arms of my chair. Verbinski elaborates on this with a static-y visual motif. The constant Seattle rain floods the image with a similar visual noise, and the way Verbinski shoots the city’s buildings also suggest a busy and meaningless pattern. It’s like the whole film is watched through bad reception, a dark transmission from Somewhere Else.

The Ring takes this idea even further, and it’s able to do so because it understands fundamentally why the static is so unsettling. It’s something about the inability to find significance in those images, the lack of any connection to comprehensible emotion or thought. We see this as well in the content of the tape, which is for my money the scariest thing ever put to film.

Some of these images have obvious narrative significance. In fact, much of the film’s plot is given over to deciphering what they mean. Some of them have direct answers, and the main characters even see where they took place with their own eyes. Some of them, however, do not. What is so scary about the tape, I think, is how even the more literal images erupt fully formed from some ghostly unconscious. They are not filmed as much as they are vaguely remembered, the stitched-together mental compositions of an abused child trying to make sense of her circumstances. We feel the camera’s absence in these shots even before we know about the tape’s supernatural origins. These images were not created intentionally, they simply began to exist out of non-existence.

Samara’s inevitable murder of the viewer feels less to me like a deliberate action and more like an obligation. We hear her talk about wanting to hurt people and not knowing why. She is subject to the whims of some grand unknowable force, except such a thing can’t even be said to have identifiable whims. It just is, and Samara just is, and the tape just is. This is why I find the tape so haunting, why its imagery hounds me as I try to go to sleep. It is plainly horrific but terrifyingly meaningless. Even the shots which have literal origins don’t seem to be included with the intent of sending a message. It’s all just noise. It’s all just static.

The film’s most iconic scare is, of course, Samara crawling out of the TV at the end. I think even this is related to what we’ve been talking about. The scare is so compelling because the TV in question is an analog one. Modern technology has become so microscopic that we are completely alienated from the actual physical inner workings of it. Not so with a tube TV, or disposable cameras, or VHS tapes. Their inner workings are big enough to see with the human eye, to hear with our human ears. They click and whir and buzz without our direct input, and you can’t help but feel there’s something strangely alive about them.

Samara crawling out of the TV is so scary because something about it rings true. Doesn’t it feel like something is alive in there already? Something manifested in static, incomprehensible, something that can stop your heart just to perceive it, but you need to see, you need to look. This is a film about that self-destructive urge to bear witness to something you’re not supposed to see, about staring down into a fathomless well and waiting for it to reach out and pull you under. It doesn’t end with the finality of a fade to black, but with a cut to static. It leaves you on a screen of impenetrable terror. It’s the scariest film I have ever seen.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Possession’

I didn’t expect to come out of Possession, an infamously divisive cult classic, with such a middling feeling. Credit where it’s due, the film does its damnedest to make you feel some type of way about it. It seems designed for you to find it either grating or enthralling, and just as happy to engender the former as the latter. In that way, it’s a film made for everyone and no one, a work absent an intended recipient, a pure auteurist vision.

And it’s, you know, it’s okay.

I’ll talk first about what I unambiguously loved about it, and that’s the cinematography. Director Andrzej Żuławski and DP Bruno Nuytten construct the sort of overwhelming, fractured spaces familiar to viewers of John Carpenter or Paul W.S. Anderson. There is no symmetry in Possession, no clean lines or comforting shapes. The corners of rooms jut out towards the camera, as though the space itself is resisting the act of filming it. The actors are assaulted, too, on all sides by a world that seems to want them dead. The camera swings around these rooms and hallways, each frame prompting a new angle of attack.

It gives the impression of a film that doesn’t want to be made. This contributes nicely to the horror of it all in a creepypasta sort of way. It’s the sort of film you expect to find abandoned in some dead person’s attic, or thrown from a car window on the side of the highway. You watch it and get the unsettled feeling that it’s somehow watching you back. You feel as though you shouldn’t be here, that this film shouldn’t exist, and yet you’re compelled to keep watching.

The problem is that it too often tips its hand and goes for more straightforward chills. I have nothing against the sort of bloody violence we see in the film’s latter half, and the creature is really well-done, properly creepy. But I wish it could live more in its ambiguous frights than its big brash shocks.

At the very least, I wish it would choose one or the other and run with it. I was exhausted trying to get a handle on the film’s ambitions. It wasn’t until the end that I realized it never had any. There’s no real perspective to speak of in Possession. You can read it simultaneously as MRA propaganda and an ode to feminist creativity. This isn’t a result of the film trying to have it both ways or find some middle ground, but rather the complete absence of any point of view at all. Its primary aim, if it has any, is to terrify and disturb. Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. It’s just not for me.

The only real problem I had with Possession was its performances. I can see why someone would be bewitched by the work of the three leads. Their physicality is so gonzo, their dialogue so heightened. It’s unlike much else in the realm of acting. I found myself frustrated, personally, by how directed they felt. Obviously every film performance is the sum of collaboration between an actor and their director. In this case, though, I felt the hand of the latter much more than the former. Their bizarre hand movements and flailing limbs felt less motivated and more choreographed. In other words, I never felt they were possessed by anyone but the director. I could be completely off-base here (I wasn’t on set, of course). That’s just what I came away with.

Part of me wishes I either liked or hated this film more. It would certainly make writing about it less of a challenge. The other part of me is comfortable riding the middle, though. I’m happy for the many people I know who are awed or bored by Possession, and I can see why they would be. My feelings on it just aren’t that strong.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Blood for Dracula’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

“I thought ‘worker’ and ‘servant’ were the same.”

“Just don’t make that mistake again.”

Those words, exchanged respectively between the assistant of a wealthy count and a humble mansion handyman in Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula, would in most contexts seem a triumphant Marxist retort. Here, where the bourgeois assistant is guiding his vampiric master towards murder victims and the handyman is a rapist, needless to say the message is muddled a tad.

Blood for Dracula has a vaguely satiric tone, but I was never sure what it was trying to say. The depiction of the upper class as bloodsucking fiends out to drain the life-force of the workers is as old as, well, Dracula. And we need look no further than modern thinkpiece culture to see far-left ideology declaimed as inherently misogynist. What, if anything, is this film’s perspective?

At first blush, it seems a parody of the era’s sex-positive counter-culture. The basic premise is that Count Dracula needs to drink the blood of virgins to survive, but he has trouble finding any in this modern free-love world. It’s more like a one-liner than an idea on which to base a film. Despite Morrissey’s reputation as a minor icon of the new culture (he’s perhaps best known for his work with The Velvet Underground), and despite the film’s copious displays of sexuality and bloody violence, I found Blood for Dracula surprisingly conservative.

This doesn’t have to mean it’s a bad movie, though. I loved Udo Kier’s lead performance. His Dracula is a spoiled child of privilege, a brat who whines that the countryside inn where he stays doesn’t have any of the food he likes. He possesses no menace or even malice. He’s just a rich baby. It’s a clever unraveling of the mystique of Dracula, and an intriguing take on the character’s inherent class commentary. Kier is just a lot of fun in the role, too. He nails that feeble, childlike temper.

To be fully honest, Blood for Dracula may just have caught me in the wrong mood. A film this gleefully sacrilegious should be right up my alley. For some reason, I just wasn’t feeling it. I found its ironic tone grating more than entertaining, and its politics totally inscrutable.