When a film is released that has brutal depictions of abuse in a realistic setting, audiences tend to split into three factions: Those who find it to be powerful, those who see it as exploitation and finally, those who see it as so over-the-top that they view it as a comical.
What camp I find myself in depends on the honesty of the depiction. Not just the physical realism of the violence, but the emotional honesty of the abuse with a regard to mental toll it puts on the character. Depictions of violence and abuse that seem over-the-top to some (such as the acts depicted in 1981’s Mommie Dearest) resonated with me due to the emotional honesty and realism behind the acts of abuse. When people tell me they think Mommie Dearest is a funny or outlandish film, I tend to privately assume they are honestly unfamiliar with the type of abuse depicted in it. It likely didn’t occur to viewers that the bombast and erratic nature of Faye Dunaway’s performance could mirror that of real life mothers.
As I watched Mommie Dearest, I felt myself being moved not just by the strength of Dunaway’s brave performance (as Joan Crawford), but also by how realistic I found her abuse tactics to be. I could trace the thread of her emotions escalating from feelings of insecurity and depression that soon ignited into flames of blind rage and entitlement that inevitably burned her daughter.
The film is considered by many to be a failure because of Dunaway, but I disagree. I do, however, think the film has one glaring failure: The film does not give viewers a wide enough emotional window into the effect Crawford’s abuse has on her daughter Christina. Though the book the film is Christina Crawford’s personal account, it is a film that examines the abuser with little emotional regard for the abusee.
Many films fall into the trap of depicting the abuse of children without providing space in their films to explore the lasting emotional effects of the abuse. The films of Larry Clark are notorious for this. His young characters experience a myriad of sexual, physical and psychological abuse before our eyes, captured with all the nuance and care of a zookeeper who just decided to start filming his animals yesterday. The characters’ experiences are harrowing, but the lack of deep emotional exploration within the narrative leaves each film feeling hollow.
Because kids are the most vulnerable among us it’s dangerously easy to exploit depictions of their pain to use as a cheap dramatic device. Many storytellers fall into that trap, even when they have the best intentions. Despite this unfortunate trend, some writers are able to portray young characters with empathy and a deep regard for how the trauma they endure affects them emotionally. Stephen King excelled at this with his novel, .
31 years after the book was published, and 27 years after the hit-or-miss ABC miniseries adaptation, we have arrived at a truly great adaptation of the story: IT (2017)
The children of IT deal with neglect, isolation, sadness and desperation for an escape. The name of their group, The Loser’s Club, perfectly encapsulates how each one feels about themselves. Pennywise is the most terrifying villain for a group of kids this miserable. He influences the adults in Derry to be neglectful, harrasses kids when they’re alone and pushes them to turn on each other when they’re together. Pennywise pushes every child mentally, serving as a constant reminder of their shared and individual traumas, pushing each Loser to their mental limits. He is the architect of their friend group, and yet his influence hardens them.
IT is a surprisingly brutal film. Not since the 80s and 90s has there been a film that was equal parts mentally and physically torturous to children. The Losers Club is constantly bleeding, breaking limbs, and enduring intense physical damage. With a lack of attentive adults, the kids are left to dress their own wounds – and in one tense scene, set a broken arm. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen children in danger like this. IT is a far cry from the gloss and artifice Stranger Things. The film hearkens back to the likes of Pet Semetary, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Children of the Corn. Along with being set in the 80s, IT feels like 80s horror – full of brutality, ugliness, despair and a charismatic villain with no thread of compassion who delights in horror, mayhem and suffering. It’s the kind of film that kids will sneak into and wish they hadn’t.
And… I’m glad it exists. I’ve been wanting a break from the glossy (often wet) horror that arose in the 2000s and oversaturated the market in the 2010s. The rise of cheap, CGI horror gave way for a resurgence of indie horror that combined arthouse sensibilities with classic horror conventions and a dash of mumblecore influence to make modern, almost novelistic horror confections. But, with the evolution of narrative, the raw brutality of horror in the 80s was set aside to go further back to the dawn of horror thrillers in the 50s, 60s, and 70s (before schlock became mainstream).
There are many problems with schlock, mainly the necessity of certain images of exploitation. But there is greatness to be found there as well. Schlock tended to address the anxieties of communities and fears of the time. It was about character over mood, reality over fantasy and immediate emotional struggles. There is a human truth to schlocky, slasher horror that is worth exploring. IT leans into that truth, and in the process became one of the most affecting horror viewing experiences of my life.
I loved IT, but with my love there always includes a few criticisms. As with a lot of schlock, the film has an issue with wasting time on throwaway plot threads. When I think back, one major time-waster comes to mind: The love triangle.
But before I address that, We Need to Talk About Beverly.
Beverly has always been a highly sexualized and frequently abused character. Both the book and the 1990 television miniseries portrayed Beverly as someone constantly at the mercy of an abusive man in her life, whether it be her father or her husband. In both versions, she finds solace in her group of good, kind male friends- The Loser’s Club. Still, her connection to every boy goes beyond friendship, teetering into a maternal-yet-sexual role. Walking into IT, I had nervous apprehension for how Beverly would be portrayed. She’s by far the most problematically written member of the main cast, and with men writing the script and working behind the camera there’s no telling if their read on Beverly would be better or worse than the previous versions.
In very basic ways, the filmmakers did a good job casting and writing Beverly. She’s funny, smart, sweet and an engaging presence on-screen. But once again, we see what men think an improvement on a “bad female character” looks like: Everyone thinks she’s a slut, but Beverly is actually not sexually active at all. She kissed one guy a long time ago (it’s implied to be the school bully), but that’s it. However, the film still gets a lot of mileage from sexualizing her. The Loser’s Club ogles her often, and so does the camera. The adults in the town seem to treat her as a sexual being as well. One particularly egregious incident happens in the pharmacy. We see the local pharmacist (and father of the female bully that torments Beverly) openly flirt with her. Beverly accepts the advances so the boys can steal supplies to dress Ben’s wound. The second time a random adult sexualizes Beverly, it’s Eddie’s mom looking evilly at Beverly and calling her a “dirty girl”.
Saving the worst for last… Beverly’s dad. In this version of the story, he is a rapist and pedophile who is obsessed with the sexual ownership of his daughter. He doesn’t want her to be around the boys because that would mean that they would get to “have” her and she wouldn’t be “his” anymore. Needless to say, it’s cathartic when he gets his comeuppance later in the film.
Now, to return to my earlier grievance: I could have done without the love triangle.
Beverly has enough going on, and being the corner of a love triangle just further complicates her life for no real purpose. Her flirtation with Ben is sweet enough to stand on its own. There is no reason for her to be attracted to Bill. She has no emotional connection to him and no interests in common. When they’re alone, they barely say anything to each other. They just stare at each other, as if they’re mutually admiring each other’s skinniness and conventionally attractive features. Spoiler: Ben’s kiss that saves Beverly’s life. There’s no two ways about their mutual admiration for each other. So, why the love triangle? What’s the point?
I can’t help but assume it’s because Bill is the protagonist. Are we really still at a place in cinema where we believe the protagonist MUST have a love interest? Bill has a very singular goal throughout the film: Find his brother. That is his motivation, that is his pathos. Every move he makes is based on reaching that goal. He does not make any moves for Beverly. He doesn’t act like he wants Beverly. And he doesn’t need to want Beverly. His journey in the film is finding answers about his brother and allowing himself to let go and forgive himself so that he can continue living his life. That’s enough on it’s own. Beverly is simply tacked onto his emotions.
But the worst thing about the love triangle isn’t that it doesn’t make any sense. No, the worst thing about it is that it wastes time. Valuable time we could have spent getting to know Stan, Richie and (especially) Mike is wasted on a love triangle that doesn’t make any narrative sense. The film keeps the focus on Bill, Ben, Beverly and Eddie while largely leaving out the other three kids in the group. Out of all the characters, we spend the least time with Mike. We get to see glimpses of his home life (which is more than we can say for Richie and Stan), but Mike gets the least screen-time out of every character. This isolation is explained away by saying that he’s home-schooled, but that’s no excuse for the filmmakers to shortchange us time with the film’s only black main character.
Mike gets special treatment in the sense that he is the only character who has a concrete fear set up at the outset that he needs to overcome- shooting the sheep. We see Mike hesitate, and we watch his uncle do the killing for him, complete with a lecture. As much as I like the establishment of this character arc, when he finally does to shoot a sheep it doesn’t feel very satisfying. Set-up and payoff are great, but they only really work when we’ve spent time with the character and have seen his growth onscreen. We don’t really get to see Mike “grow”. His growth is connected to The Losers Club, and it’s tangental at best. I have one guess as to why: The film was afraid to honestly tackle racism.
The narrative of The Black Spot and Mike’s parents being burned alive needed more space in the film. IT acknowledges that racism was at play during the fire and that racism is also at play with Mike’s homeschooling and ostracization from the rest of the community. But the film never calls a spade a spade. In an especially climactic conflict with Mike and the town bully, a prime opportunity to be upfront about racism is lost. In all aspects of the narrative, the filmmakers really go for it. We see blatant child abuse, anvils of incest, and relentlessly brutal bullying. But this kid with a mullet who carved a letter into Ben’s stomach with a knife earlier in the film can’t say the n-word once? Come on. If you commit to going for it, really go for it guys. How is a father sexually harassing his daughter easier to portray than honest small-town racism?
Maybe that’s a question worth pondering. I don’t think Mike’s plot needed to be all about racism, but the filmmakers could have at least done a better job at letting us get to know him. Seeing the way he deals with prejudice would be the most economic way to accomplish that in a film like this. I left the theater wondering: What does Mike like? Does he even like The Losers Club? Or is he just grateful to them for saving him? Is The Losers Club sensitive to the way Mike has been isolated from everyone in the town?
Maybe Part 2 will address some of these question.
Despite its flaws, I can’t help but love this film. IT is a story about enduring abuse and how difficult it is to live with trauma. It’s a horror tale that respects its audience by considering the psychological ramifications of its scares. The main characters feel human, we can relate to their struggles, and in the end we want them to succeed. IT managed to do something truly great that not many horror films these days can pull-off: give us compelling characters worth rooting for.