The marriage of gay and horror genres made in hell turns out heavenly
Horror and queer cinema may at first glance appear to have nothing in common, but there is actually much that tie them together. Both tend to explore taboos in our society and the consequences of breaking them, and both often include sexuality as a means of dealing with pressure.
However, the greatest convergence between these two genres is their common use of “camp.” In both John Waters’ comedies and Troma bloodbaths, the element of camp are found; it is exploited to unnerve the audience to the point of amusement or terror. Horror movies and queer films are both designed to make the person watching them feel uncomfortable for a little while and then question the really scary thing beyond the movie—society itself. Thus Paul Etheredge-Ouzts’ new gay slasher film “Hellbent” can be seen not so much an anomaly as a logical, if perhaps unconventional marriage of two genres with important similarities.
The movie follows a young gay wannabe cop, Jake (Bryan Kirkwood), who wants so badly to patrol the streets of West Hollywood like his father, but is unable to for reasons that quickly—and predictably—become apparent. Jake is not allowed to dwell on his failure to live up to dad because, hey, it’s Halloween in West Hollywood, and that means it’s time to party. Before Jake and his three roommates, who appear to be the newest incarnation of the Village People, can get to the party, they decide to walk where a killer who cuts off the heads the gay men likes to prowl. It’s easy to see why Jake didn’t cut it on the force.
What ensues is really a rather direct pull from the horror genre, with such distinguishing flourishes as a hunky love interest for Jake, and a plot twist that revolves around a false appendage. A horror film, or a film of any genre, is always about setting up the rules and then busting them down like so many overused bowling pins. Etheredge-Ouzts chooses to do this by giving a gritty and surprisingly authentic feeling experience of the West Hollywood Halloween Parade and tangential goings on. There are witches, skeletons, transvestites, transsexuals, and more shockingly perhaps, lust and attraction among them all. Indeed, one of the film’s great braveries is that it is decidedly unafraid to cast gay relationships, which have often been either sanitized or stereotyped in film, and make them look well, decidedly like straight relationships. The young men in “Hellbent” are just as nervous, horny, and wild as the young heterosexual teens in “Scream” or any Wes Craven film. The fact that the victims are getting their heads cut off is almost secondary to the realization that they’re able, oddly enough, to self-realize emotionally as gay men.
While “Hellbent” is by no stretch of the imagination a masterpiece, unlike most independent films it doesn’t claim to be. The dialogue is refreshingly terrible, but knowingly so—“I got a scratch-and-sniff manhole!” “Why do you want a flaming penis when you’ve got three right here?” Etheredge-Ouzts and the actors are obviously having such fun with the film that a viewer might be inclined to block out of any number of strange, indefinable responses.
In the end, even though many of the characters meet unfortunate ends, there is no sense of remorse or sadness about their deaths, no emotional complexity really. Even the very last moment of the film is a wink to the fact that everything is ancillary in the service of the director and the audience’s amusement. While this would normally lessen or discredit a film, the director and the actors play with implausibility and the idea that just because they are participating in a gay slasher movie, doesn’t mean they have to be shining examples. For even though Etheredge-Ouzts is trailblazing, he’s only going down a path that everyone from Hitchcock to Rob Zombie has gone down before. He’s just strolling a bit more fabulously.