Everyone knows that there’s no shortage of horror movies, and more specifically Halloween horror flicks, to screen on All Hallows Eve. If, however, you’re looking for an unconventional choice, look no further than Paul Etheredge’s Hellbent, the self-proclaimed “first gay slasher film”. Shot on location over two consecutive years during West Hollywood’s infamous Halloween parade, writer/director Etheredge’s low budget queer slasher film Hellbent wound up with its unique moniker when it was released in 2004.
Set over a single tumultuous Halloween night in West Hollywood, the film follows a group of five men who dress up in quintessential gay costumes (cop, cowboy, leather, drag) and set out for a night of drinking and partying, only to find themselves stalked and murdered by a masked killer. The fact that the entire core cast is comprised of queer characters (4 gay men, 1 bisexual man) helps to make Hellbent distinct. Even its killer is (arguably) queer.
The protagonist is Eddie (Dylan Fergus), a reserved, verging-on-virginal young man who dreamed about being a police officer like his father until he failed the physical due to a childhood eye injury (naturally the impairment winds up playing an instrumental role in the film’s plot).
Eddie is joined by sexually frustrated twink Joey (Hank Harris), beefy model Tobey (Matt Philipps) and Chaz (Andrew Levitas), the group’s most sexually active member and its resident bisexual. Chaz’s clown car-like introduction, wherein both a man and a woman climb out of his backseat, reinforces Hellbent’s sexually progressive stance, as well as its cheeky sense of humour.
Early in the film Eddie spots the object of his affection, Jake (Bryan Kirkwood) who is we immediately identify as a “bad boy” courtesy of visual signifiers such as his motorcycle and tattoos. The meet/cute between the men verges on romantic-comedy territory, and refreshingly serves as Hellbent’s emotional foundation. Where other slashers (and several of Eddie’s companion) focus on sexual conquests, there’s something undeniably charming about Eddie and Jake’s flirtatious “will they/won’t they” courtship.
In true slasher form, Etheredge opens the film with an urban legend-inspired death set piece in which a pair of lovers lose their heads during a hot and heavy car make-out in the woods. The buff masked killer (Luke Weaver), who is never named and does not speak, is referred to as the Devil Daddy because he is older and for his trademark red Halloween face mask and scythe. Not unlike another famous silent Shape, Hellbent encourages multiple readings for the Devil Daddy’s killer motivation. Some have speculated that he is a homophobic villain out to kill queer men; others read him as a repressed gay man who lashes out at sexually active members of the community that he is unable to join.
Whatever the reason, Devil Daddy fixates on our quartet after they capture his attention with an ill-advised prank in the woods en route to the parade. From that moment on, he stalks and murders them in gruesome fashion, including an infamous bathroom attack, a strobe-lit slash fest on the dance floor, and an alleyway plea deal.
The sexually-charged, queer-designated murder locations and the integration of gay elements into slasher tropes make for a fascinating critical reading (which Trace Thurman and I tackled during our Horror Queers discussion back in June). And while Hellbent isn’t without its flaws (its visual aesthetic is a little cheap and the film’s narrow depiction of queer lifestyles is exclusively focused on young, white, buff men), but its importance in queer horror cinema history remains undeniable. The film may have earned its “first gay slasher” label in part to help sales on the LGBTQ film festival circuit, but to this day, Hellbent remains unparalleled in its inclusivity. No other slasher film is so unabashedly gay.
Regardless of its politics and its place in history, the film is easily enjoyed as a “straight” forward slasher thanks to its close adherence to familiar character types and the conventions of the subgenre. As a counterpoint to traditional seasonal horror picks, Hellbent is a Halloween slasher film that’s fit to slay.