Uh-Oh...I don't think I'm going to like this movie!
"Using 'queer' is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world." -Queers Read This, a flier distributed by Queer Nation at the 1990 New York Pride Parade
Decades upon decades ago, when we took our first steps in the march towards equality, queers were faced with a decision. Did we simply make do with what we were given while we strove for recognition or did we change the game? Like the best of badasses, we changed the game. Rather than be crushed by what we couldn’t do, we reframed the entire conversation. If queers had no choice but to be on the fringe, then we sure as shit would make it fabulous. When we rewrote the rules, we left no facet of life untouched. From our art to our fashion to our love, we queered everything.
So...what in gay hell does this have to do with horror movies?
While there has always been a strong undercurrent of queerness in the horror genre, outright representation was nearly impossible to find. (I wrote about that once. Maybe check it out?) When we did get even a hint of mainstream queerness, it was usually a horrible cliche or completely bigoted. Stranded without an inkling of gay, we were left to scour for the subtext or create it ourselves. Finally, after more years than it took me to realize what “water sports” meant, we were thrown a bone.
Released in 2004, Paul Etheredge’s Hellbent is a low-budget screamer that claimed to be the first gay slasher. While that could be debated, it was certainly the most high-profile and well publicized gay horror movie made at the time.
The film centers around a group of young gay men, two years too old to get an invite to a Bryan Singer pool party, celebrating Halloween in West Hollywood. These four nubile homos dress up in their best male power fantasies and hit the town searching for a queer bacchanal. Their night is ruined when a homicidal maniac crashes the party with murder on his mind. Sounds delightfully cheesy and deliciously scary right? In some parts it is and in others not so much. It moves at a quick enough pace with some nice grisly murders, some charming performances and some genuine thrills. Emphasis on some. Unfortunately, Hellbent falls into a deep well of uninspired scary tropes and never quite seems to claw itself out. Our first real taste of some homo-horror and it’s tepid as fuck.
Now you may be asking, “But Benji, don’t most slasher films suffer the same fate? Aren’t many of them so cookie-cutter that you can anticipate every thrill a mile away?”
And I would say, “Yes. That is true, but this was our movie. What are we as queers if not a group of people who can do everything straight people do but better?”
Then you would agree with me and we’d go grab a BLT at a local diner and laugh about that thing you did the last time you were drunk. Good times.
Anyway, the most frustrating aspect of Hellbent isn’t that it is a lackluster movie. For all of its flaws, the most disappointing thing about the movie is that even with all of the gayness...it isn’t very queer.
Slight Spoilers Ahead
In a moment of zero-calorie queer, the movie begins with two young lovers getting hot and heavy in a darkened forest with a full moon gaily sparkling above. This is an admittedly sexy scene. While vehicular nookie isn’t anything new to slasher fans, navigating the particulars of gay sex in a cramped car is unexplored territory for a horror movie. As expected their carnal tete-a-tete is interrupted by the appearance of our sexy psychopath.
"Did somebody order a pizza? Oh...not that kind of movie?"
This murderous slab of beef looks like a Tom of Finland drawing brought to life. Standing at 6’Yum”, he’s a muscled, broad shouldered, goateed nightmare all wrapped up in a red devil mask and a tight pair of leather pants. (I’ll be right back...I need a moment.) We watch as the very picture of queerness beheads two lithe young twinks with a razor-sharp curved sickle. Is this commentary on the ongoing cold war of masc vs femme? Is Leather-Devil-Daddy the personification of internalized homophobia or religious oppression in the queer community? As Hellbent never delves further than skin deep on any queerness it’s hard to say. My take: Meh? Kinda? Almost?
"I swear I'm not boring."
At the center of Hellbent is Eddie (Dylan Fergus), a young sketch artist for the West Hollywood police department. He’s handsome, talented, and blandly brunette. In fact, for a movie set in West Hollywood, Hellbent is maddeningly white. Eddie’s dream is to become a police officer just like his dead dad, but a childhood injury keeps him sidelined from serving his city. As news about the deaths of two gay men hit the precinct, Eddie is asked to help alert the community by passing out fliers to local residents. He enthusiastically agrees to help but first heads home to put on his Halloween costume (‘cuz that’s what’s important in the midst of a gay homicide scare). In an extra bit of Freudian ick, Eddie dresses up in his father’s old police uniform, complete with badge.
"Life is like...hard, you know? 'Cuz reasons."
As he makes his way around the neighborhood, Eddie finds himself enraptured by the appearance of Jake (Bryan Kirkwood), a tattooed, motorcycle-riding bad boy with a brooding smolder and an air of indifference so severe you’d think he was Jordan Catalano's cousin. After an awkward conversation where both of them pretend to be interesting, the two part ways with Eddie hoping he’ll see his rough trade crush again and Jake, I don’t know, learns how to spell his name or something. Will these star-crossed men meet again before the night is over? Honestly, I don’t care. I just don’t care. But yes. Yes they will meet again before the night is over.
Eddie’s final destination is the local diner where he meets up with his friends before heading to the evening’s festivities. Eddie’s friends provide, albeit only slightly, a much needed jolt of personality to the proceedings.
There’s Tobey (Matt Phillips), a smooth and gorgeous underwear model with a chip on his shoulder bigger than Bryan Singer’s ego (Editor’s note: All mentions of Bryan Singer are solely the opinions of the writer and do not reflect the views of GeeksOUT. Seriously Benji, the velvet mafia is real!). Tobey’s exhausted by guys that only talk to him because they’ve seen him on a billboard (Poor Tobey!!!). So, in a moment of equal parts tone-deafness and light misogyny, he decides to don some half-assed drag in an attempt to thwart shallow suitors. How does that...you know what...just go with it.
"Does anyone feel a breeze in here?"
Then there’s Joey (Hank Harris), the token geeky introvert of the group who is the only sympathetic character in the entire film. His Halloween wish is to gain the attention of Jared, a “straight-acting” jock who really floods Joey’s basement. Upon the advice of his friends, Joey decides the best way to achieve his goal is to unleash his inner leather pup. While he starts out incredibly self-conscious in his studs and chains, he learns to truly let go and embrace his inner freak. In another one of the film’s few queer moments, Joey becomes the center of a bloody, punk rock piece of leather performance art. It’s a slight but edgy moment that the movie could have used a lot more of.
"Hi Benji, I'm here to buy you french fries with cheese on them and talk about that TV show you love. Aren't I a good husband?"
Finally, there is Chaz (Andrew Levitas), a pansexual jokester with a heart almost as big as his libido. Chaz is truly a charmer and it is quite fitting that he chooses to dress up as a sexy cowboy for Devil’s night. After all, what person, queer or otherwise doesn’t love a good cowboy? Right? (I am really trying here people!) Chaz has never met a drug he didn’t love or a person he didn’t want to fuck. In a long line of slashers, I find it refreshing that the promiscuous brunette in this film is a true rarity in movies in general: a pansexual male.
The rest of the movies plays out as expected. The beautiful foursome has a brief, non-threatening run in with Devil-Leather-Daddy that sets them on a collision course with the sharp end of his penis...er...sickle. Actually, I wish...I WISH...the movie were that clever. The idea that four blandly heteronormative men are stalked and murdered by actual queerness as some sort of metaphor for living truthfully would have been an exciting and worthy “first gay slasher.” Instead we are forced to watch a cardboard gaggle of masc4masc white men run around and make the same make mistakes that a cardboard gaggle of straight white kids in an 80’s slasher would make. I guess, tenuously at best, that this is equality. But is it progress?
"Hello? Is that you queerness? We're busy please come back later."
In the interest of fairness, I should mention the positives of this movie. If the goal of the evening is to turn off your brain and enjoy the scenery, then Hellbent will more than accomplish the job. There is a gloriously queer punk rock soundtrack, tons of eye candy, and some truly delicious moments of gore. While the performances across the board are uneven, Andrew Levitas (Chaz) and Hank Harris (Joey) display real onscreen charisma and inject their characters with far more pathos than they deserve. I won’t completely ruin the ending, but after several preposterous and laughable moments of action we are left with one of the most truly terrifying and deeply disturbing moments of the film: the possibility of a sequel.
For all of its potential, there isn’t a single subversive element to Hellbent. The film reads as if the people involved were terrified of creating a product that might be viewed as too gay. Its greatest downfall is that it tries too hard to be a traditional slasher. What could have been a gleeful game changer is, instead, a detrimentally self-aware yawn that punishes anything outside the bounds of traditional heteronormativity. While Hellbent centers around a Halloween party there isn’t a drop of celebratory queerness. These men are certainly prideful, but not of their bent. Which is a shame given the title. If only Hellbent had the courage to break the rules a little.
Hellbent is available to view on Amazon Video, HereTV and DVD.
Queerness: 2/6 Kinseys