A truly unique genre-bender, HellBent is either a gay movie with bloody killings or a slasher with an all-male cast – it’s pretty impossible to decide which, and this is one of the reasons that the film works. Rather than dressing up a gay flick with some costumes and fake blood – or, on the other hand, plugging himbos into the slots vacated by your Bitch, Goody-Goody, Jock, and Final Girl stock horror characters, HellBent takes a refreshing tack in telling its simple slasher story: give us a group of characters we would actually hang around with, have them display signs of real friendship and concern for one another, and then see what happens when they’re stalked by a mystery killer with a thing for collecting heads. This is as far from the bumbling, hateful idiots of “House of Wax” as you can get – instead of a band of morons who hang out together despite openly loathing one another, these guys are pleasant company. Not to mention gay… gay pleasant company.
The night before the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival, two fellas are parked at lover’s lane doing what all couples at lover’s lane do: argue. In a clever twist on the standard horny-kid-in-peril setup (when’s the last time the necking teens were in a car filled with balloons?), HellBent lets us know that it’s got two things up its sleeve: gory beheadings and a wicked sense of humor. Cue the flashy credits and punk soundtrack, and settle in for a fun, bloody ride.
After the cops discover the body, we meet our hero Eddie (Dylan Fergus), who works in the police department and whose poor romantic luck has reduced him to printing out mugshots of cute felons for enjoyment. It seems Eddie wanted to become a cop himself at one point but has settled for fixing printers in the offices – when the chief gives him the chance to do some actual police work by putting up warnings about the murderous loony in West Hollywood, he jumps at the chance to get out from behind his desk and try on his dad’s police uniform. While he’s out canvassing the ‘hood, he catches a glimpse of gruff, edgy Jake (Bryan Kirkwood) and his googly-eyed twelve-year-old-girl tendencies kick into gear, leaving him to make zero impression on the guy. Eddie meets up with his pals for the big night out, and already it seems the air is ripe with potential conflict. Chaz (Andrew Levitas) is a libidinous and gender-indiscriminate good-time guy who seems to have a crush on Eddie and is out to party. Tobey (Matt Phillips) is an underwear model who has made the daring – and somewhat ill-advised – choice to dress in drag for the event, essentially robbing him of his most precious assets: his looks. And meek Joey (Hank Harris, best known as the lead in “Pumpkin”) is looking to seal the deal on an unrequited crush by dressing against type as a leather boy.
So let’s stop for a second here. Already something seems odd. Is it the fact that the cast is entirely male? Actually, no — that’s really not that big a deal (particularly these days, when none of the girls in slashers take their shirts off anyway). What’s really interesting here is that the characters are all single and looking for love — something that’s extremely rare in horror films, where the characters are generally paired up already, or just out for a quick fix (even Chaz, who will pork anything that moves, is obviously pining for his friend). Borrowing the structure of a romantic teen comedy like “Sixteen Candles” or “Can’t Hardly Wait” will serve the story well — it explains why people go missing, act irrationally, and don’t react properly when their friends disappear.
As the guys get lost within the labyrinth of the Carnivale, things move steadily toward their inevitable conclusion – which ends up being anything but inevitable. Jake shows his true colors in the final scene, Eddie proves just why he wouldn’t have made a good cop anyway, bad eye or no (he’s a klutz and doesn’t exactly have the best instincts in a crisis situation – which is actually pretty funny), and the finale boasts one of the most audacious body horrors I’ve ever seen (the poster might give you a hint). With the 3 hilarious final shots, the doors may be closed on this particular chapter of the story, but things are by no means put to rest – especially for Eddie, who is going to be keeping one eye out for danger from now on. Some people may have issues with the fact that the ending doesn’t resolve much about our killer, but the movie is so clearly not about him that it didn’t bother me in the least – the emphasis remains squarely on the protagonists, where it belongs.
So the real question on everyone’s mind is, of course, is it “too gay”? Well, if the question is whether or not it’s brutal, it certainly is — there’s lots of blood and violence to go around. And the characters themselves aren’t presented as stereotypes — sure, each has his own interests and personality, but they’re not one-dimensional cutouts stumbling around waiting to get hacked up. The punk soundtrack and seedy, underground setting also make clear that this isn’t “Will and Grace” here — it’s definitely a horror movie to take seriously. Some might argue that the guys are identified by their over-active libidos, a common gay stereotype. Well, this is a slasher movie – destructive sexuality is part and parcel; name one slasher set during a big party where everyone isn’t trying to get laid. And most of the guys don’t even make it that far – is the killer punishing them for trying? Or for their sexuality? Or for their tacky outfits? The question is never answered, but the characters take a shot at it, blaming everyone from a repressed homosexual to someone with ‘mother issues’. I certainly prefer this honest (though certainly un-PC) discussion of repressed sexual rage over the clunky, one-dimensional killer homos of the past (or even the present – check out a certain foreign flick with a cheap final twist for an example of just how little some people’s thinking has advanced since the days of Cruising and Looking for Mr. Goodbar). The breezy, casual depiction of gays as regular people defined by things other than their sexuality is what really makes HellBent a breakthrough for the genre.
But aside from being an academic novelty, it’s also a flat-out fun movie. A heady mix of laughs, scares, heart, smarts, and gore, HellBent sidesteps pigeonholing while paying due respect to the classics, and manages to be both intelligent and breezy at the same time. And while I love “hardcore horror” as much as the next guy, there’s something to be said for a good, fun horror flick that is also a great date movie. And given HellBent’s excellent characters, good scares, and irresistible energy, it’s bound to entertain whether the date in question is of the same sex or otherwise.