Each month in Horror Queers, queer writers Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ elements, a high camp quotient or both. As a genre, horror has historically been an outlet in which to hide and/or explore subversive narratives. For lifelong queer horror fans like Joe and Trace, there’s a delight in deciphering the lingering glances, identifying with out-and-proud and secretly closeted characters alike and reading between the lines. Join us for a monthly dissection of the ups and downs of queer horror, but know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for The Covenant and The Brotherhood to follow.***
Synopsis for The Covenant: Four young men who belong to a New England supernatural legacy – Caleb (Steven Strait), Pogue (Taylor Kitsch), Tyler (Chace Crawford) and Reid (Toby Hemingway) – are forced to battle a fifth power, Chase Collins (Sebastian Stan), long thought to have died out. Meanwhile, jealousy and suspicion threaten to tear them apart.
Synopsis for The Brotherhood: The fraternity “Doma (House of) Tau Omega” has found a key to eternal youth without having to become blood-drinking vampires. Will they be able to recruit Chris (Sam Page), an innocent and perfect newcomer?
Queer Aspect: Both films feature homoeroticism for days.
I feel like I’ve been apologizing to you for this filmic combination for the better part of a month, but the time has finally come to discuss The Covenant and The Brotherhood and I will apologize no further!
Oh my gosh, these films are…not good. And yet, what struck me was the reaction on social media each time we mentioned them: suddenly our feeds would be flooded with people mentioning “the swim meet” or “the locker room scene” or the coveted output of prolific auteur David DeCoteau (“Leeches!”) While there is a strange collective consensus that these films are hot garbage, they were synonymous with homoerotic horror. That’s when I knew we were on to something.
One of the reasons that I selected this pair of films is because of the memories that I have from my first viewing experience. Growing up with horror from my early teens, I never struggled to read between the lines to see the subliminal text within the genre. Like science-fiction, horror films can get away with a lot more because they are fantastic, so political, social, cultural considerations are codified and hidden away in ghosts, demons, killers and Final Girls. Our first two entries in this series have both explored themes of power, sexual identity and abuse (one more successfully than another).
The Covenant and The Brotherhood are both far, far more slight films, but their power lies in subverting the traditional male gaze associated with horror films and, as a result, objectifying the male bodies for the audience’s viewing pleasure. In this way, both films are quietly revolutionary; they open up a dialogue with the audience not only about the conventions (read: expectations) of the genre and who the “intended” audience is, but also what bodies are and are not “appropriate” for consumption.
Lest anyone accuse me of reading too deeply into this, I began with an acknowledgement that neither film is quote/unquote “good.” I’m not fooling myself into thinking that these films are successful horror films; they are either too dumb (The Covenant) or campy (The Brotherhood) to be scary, the plots are derivative and the acting is sometimes astonishingly bad. But, with all of those negatives, there is something endearing about these messy, ill-conceived films that sparks something in the imagination. And that response on social media from queer audiences suggests that an alternative gay reading has become the dominant historical discourse around each film. Both films have been appropriated by queer audiences as eye candy trifles to be savoured and gently mocked.
What’s interesting is how a homosexual reading is entirely dependant on the audience member. There are no gay characters in either film so there’s no deliberate cue that these are “gay” films. So tell me Trace, what tipped you off that there was something a little bit fey about The Covenant and The Brotherhood?
Oof. These movies. I hadn’t seen either of these films before so I was watching them with a fresh pair of eyes and let me tell you: watching them back to back was rough. I can’t really fathom anyone at the distributor (Screen Gems) watching The Covenant and thinking it was good, but this is the sort of dreck they were churning out on what seemed like a weekly basis at the time (When a Stranger Calls, The Cave, Ultraviolet, etc.) so I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s not even a fun kind of bad though! It’s painfully boring, and one 30-second shower scene with lots of hot male booty can’t make up for it. I can’t believe Renny Harlin directed it! He’s usually pretty reliable when it comes to mindless fun.
The Brotherhood, on the other hand, was pure bliss. Don’t get me wrong: it’s terrible. But it absolutely falls into the “so bad it’s good” category. I can’t figure out if it was intentionally bad or if DeCoteau thinks he is making high art à la Tommy Wiseau (this was my introduction to DeCoteau….I know absolutely nothing about him or his filmography). Had The Covenant taken itself a little less seriously, I might be more inclined to recommend it like I am The Brotherhood, because I am absolutely recommending The Brotherhood for its sheer ridiculousness.
Anyway, that’s my hot take on these to awful films. Regarding the queerness though, I’m actually a little surprised that The Covenant has been viewed as so homoerotic. Call me dense, but other than the aforementioned shower scene I really didn’t pick up on a lot of it, and trust me I was trying to find something (anything!) to hold my attention. The cast is filled with a plethora of attractive soon-to-be TV stars (a pre-Friday Night Lights Taylor Kitsch, and a pre-Gossip Girl Chace Crawford & Sebastian Stan) so the fact that it plays like an extended episode of a 2006 CW episode makes sense (I specify the year because the quality of CW shows has vastly improved over the last 12 years and I defy anyone to challenge me). It’s all about the eye candy, but Harlin doesn’t seem to understand how to film them to make it even somewhat erotic. This movie is not sexy in any way, shape or form. I realize I’m probably in the minority with that opinion but I just didn’t get it. That being said, I do applaud the fact that the only nudity in a mainstream horror film was a male buttocks. No female breasts whatsoever! Both female leads (Laura Ramsey and Jessica Lucas) remain fully clothed in all of their scenes. That’s progress. What isn’t progress is the use of the word “fag.” I know it’s a bully saying it in the film but I just cringe every time I hear it. But I guess it was 2006, right?
I may not have thought The Covenant was very homoerotic, but The Brotherhood, however, is gaaaaaaaaay. Every scene felt like the pre-coital first act of a porno and I was living for it. There are so many moments in the film that could easily be misconstrued for softcore gay porn. The camp factor is high in this one and the homoeroticism is all over the place. I mean that “sex” scene! It went on and on….and on. I put “sex” in quotes of course because it’s just two guys sucking on a woman’s wrist for what feels like three hours, but still! Devon and Chris can’t take their eyes off of each other the whole time. What I love about The Brotherhood is that the homoeroticism is so in your face for the entirety of the film. That isn’t something you see very often in mainstream films at the time. Of course, The Brotherhood isn’t a mainstream film and it’s easy to see why. Even if there was a better script, better budget, better actors and a better director, I can’t see any studio putting out something like it, not even today.
Joe, what was it about these films that you thought merited an analysis? Mind you, I’m not asking that because I don’t think they deserve it. I’m just curious. Did you find either of these films to be particularly sexy? And why do you think we don’t see more intentional homoeroticism in horror films nowadays?
Those are excellent questions and ones that, in truth, require me to get a little confessional. My ex and I went through a period where we tracked down and devoured every gay horror film we could. In hindsight, I think part of his rationale was that he didn’t like horror, but he wanted to make an effort for me and the bodies on display in these films offered him a distraction.
To me, they also hint at the subversive power of horror: there’s an undeniable connection between sex and death, but it still feels taboo to see men as “objects” in the way these films portray them. More often than not, in horror we see male bodies cut up and churned through the bloodshed factory so that women – scream queens, final girls, beauty queens and the like – become the protagonists, be it victims who run and die or heroes who rise to the occasion, solve the mystery, banish the ghost and defeat the villain. In both The Covenant and The Brotherhood, women are repeatedly sidelined in favour of young, nubile men with chiseled bodies who are made to embody traditional “female horror” roles. It’s like a doubling down on horror’s ability to champion unexpected protagonists and storylines.
When I rewatched The Covenant, it was far, far worse than I remembered. You’re absolutely right that it’s boring and Renny Harlin phoned it in, but I’ll admit that I chuckled at the beyond obvious sidelining of Sarah and Kate in a “who gives a f*ck” Nancy Drew mystery than no one (not even the film, seemingly) cares about. A quick search online, however, reveals that this film always appears on posts (I/II) cataloguing the most homoerotic horror films; blame the swim team square cut speedos, the locker room scene, the sweaty shirtless late night phone calls and the final “blobs of white liquid” catfight between Caleb and Chase.
Do you have to squint to make the homoerotic reading work? Sure. But the film doesn’t do itself any favours with “so 2006” lines of dialogue like the bartender at Nicky’s yelling “take it outside, ladies.” The focus on hiding their Ipwich powers, the ascendancy of their powers when they become adults and resisting taboo temptations encouraged by other boys is all super gay under the surface. In short, we’re a hop, skip and a jump away from an appropriation strategy that turned the likes of Showgirls into an iconic queer film. A quick bit of research also revealed that this film still has a very healthy female-written slash M/M community, crossing over – unsurprisingly – with older WB/CW teen series and, ironically, Marvel films like The Avengers (Blame Sebastian Stan’s recent rise in fame as Bucky, sidekick and homoerotic love interest of Captain America).
The vibrancy of female horror fans is 100% part of the story of David DeCoteau’s oeuvre. The writer/director has had a fascinating career trajectory: he got his start working under Roger Corman, created an iconic gay text with 1997’s Leather Jacket Love Story, then began churning out these low budget soft-core horror porns under his Rapid Heart production banner throughout the late nineties through mid-aughts. Recently he’s gone “legitimate,” transitioning into a director for the lucrative made-for-TV holiday film market.
When my ex and I were doing our gay horror deep dive, we stumbled upon The Brotherhood series at Blockbuster (RIP) because of its Scream-like box art featuring generic pretty boys and quickly fell in love with its sheer ridiculousness. We start hosting The Room-like screening parties with our roommates and friends, gently ribbing the films and DeCoteau’s self-declared interest in making “horror movies for girls.” If I’ve ever heard a code for “girls and gays,” this was it.
In truth, I wanted to find these films sexy*, but DeCoteau’s fixation on supernatural clans with a propensity for tighty-whities and shirtless initiations is awkwardly situated between horror, camp and porn to really succeed at any of them (the films are not scary, the pacing is too slow, and there’s no actual nudity). The Rapid Heart films do represent the kind of adventurous indie spirit that could never be released by a studio, though; DeCoteau has managed to turn his niche audience into a lucrative career that has spawned 130+ films in 30 years (seriously his IMDb page in the late 90s – present is insane).
*In case you’re wondering, 2003’s Leeches!, starring a pre-fame Josh Henderson, is a personal favourite. It’s about a swim team whose bad doping practices create giant slugs that crawl all over speedo clad boys in hilarious fashion. It’s the low budget sock monster version of Cronenberg’s Shivers or James Gunn’s Slither. It’s an absolute Must Watch.
I realize that I didn’t really answer your question about intentional homoeroticism, so I’ll punt it back to you, Trace. Do you think that male homosexuality, even a whiff of it, is still too taboo for studios? Considering the accessibility of horror in the age of VOD and On Demand, is there a reason more enterprising filmmakers aren’t trying to capitalize on DeCoteau’s vacancy catering to horror movies for girls AKA homos? Or have gay male characters moved out of the realm of subtext and into text proper with legitimate representation?
…Would we call Josh Henderson famous? All kidding aside though, I’ll definitely be checking out Leeches! soon. You’ve sold me on it.
To answer your question: male homosexuality is still too taboo for studios. Look at the upcoming Love, Simon. It’s the first film released by a major studio to center on a teen homosexual romance. Why has it taken this long to do that? At least the YA market is making progress though. Big studio horror still seems to be scared away by queerness. Shortly after our last Horror Queers post, director Eric England (Contracted, Madison County, the upcoming Josie) sent this Tweet to me. It’s studios, financiers and producers. If you want to get a movie made sometimes you have to play it safe and the consensus seems to be that queerness isn’t safe. It is clearly something that is still somewhat taboo and while barriers are being broken down, they’re most definitely still there.
Let’s look at today’s CW. They are pretty great at queer representation in almost all of their shows but in Riverdale, the show in their lineup that is the most horror-y, the sole queer character (Casey Cott’s Kevin) is often relegated to the sidelines and only shows up when exposition needs to be provided. At least a show like Pretty Little Liars (which paid homage to so many horror films over the course of its 7 seasons) tackled Emily’s (Shay Mitchell) lesbianism head-on in its early years. But that lack of representation in studio horror says something about the horror genre. It is all to often geared solely towards men and apparently men don’t want to see “a bunch of queers” in their horror movies. It’s depressing. Even when a horror film is geared somewhat towards gay men, the primary focus is still on the straight man (look at the fabulous bitchery on display in Sorority Row, which I find supremely entertaining but still centers on a bunch of sexy, scantily clad female college students).
How often is it that we get a Final Boy? On the rare occasion when we do, how often are they running around in skimpy outfits? So I definitely see what you mean about the objectification of women as opposed to men. The actors in The Covenant are topless for at least half of their screen time and the only main female character in The Brotherhood (Elizabeth Bruderman’s Megan) is relegated to the role of distracting the protagonist’s roommate (Josh Hammond’s Dan) until it is revealed that she has been working with Devon the whole time. And then she dies almost immediately after her big reveal (I have so much to say about the hilarity of the mass death scene in the climax and how the villains collapse on the floor as if they just finished the Hokey Pokey)! So yes, I can appreciate the effort of both films to subvert horror norms, whether it was intentional or not.
I can’t believe I didn’t read the “hiding of the powers” as an allegory for being closeted! You’re so right. I don’t think it’s intentional at all but it can totally be read that way. Now I feel dumb for not picking up on that. It almost makes me want to re-watch it just to have a bit more fun with it….almost. That’s the problem though, The Covenant is not fun, which is why it will never be in the same league of greatness as Showgirls (an R-rating probably would have helped).
I’m glad you bring up the female horror audience though, as I definitely feel as though they are a demographic that routinely go unnoticed or flat out ignored. All too often people forget that women do like horror. Not being a woman myself, I can’t speak for them, but I have spoken to many of my female friends about how they feel ignored by the horror genre or, as we have discussed, objectified by the camera. That is why I’m glad to see something like “Women in Horror Month” becoming a mainstay in the horror community. So kudos to DeCoteau for making something for the ladies (and gay men, of course). “Needs more (see: ANY) nudity” is absolutely something I was thinking while watching The Brotherhood though.
In the end, I’m glad you chose these two films to cover this month. It’s clearly something you’ve put a lot of thought into over the years and while I don’t feel that I added too much to the conversation, you definitely opened my eyes as to the possible readings of these films. For that I am grateful.