Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for Hellbent follow.***
Synopsis for Hellbent: Four friends, comprised of Final Boy Eddie (Dylan Fergus), promiscuous Chaz (Andrew Levitas), innocent and wholesome Joey (Hank Harris) and tough guy Tobey (Matt Phillips), roam the streets of West Hollywood on Halloween night only to be stalked by a serial killer dressed as Satan.
Queer Aspect: Literally everything.
Thank you for making me watch Hellbent again Joe. I first saw it back in 2006 (I snuck it in my family’s Netflix queue without them knowing) and had such high hopes for it, but I was massively disappointed both by the cheapness of its production and the overall lack of polish in the performances. Watching it 12 years later, I now see that that is part of its charm. Hellbent is a slasher film that definitely looks and feels like it was made on a shoestring budget, but I was not able to appreciate that all those years ago. Looking at it now, it’s actually kind of admirable that writer/director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts was able to pull this off.
What is so great about Hellbent is how it turns all of the standard heterosexual horror tropes into gay ones. The stock character tropes are listed above, and each of the four protagonists (five if you count Bryan Kirkwood’s Jake, the object of Eddie’s affection) perfectly embodies one of them. It could be argued that that strict adherence to the slasher formula prevents Hellbent from rising above the very genre it is paying homage to, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
Eddie is the mirror image of every Final Girl we’ve seen before: he may not be a virgin, but he has the virginal qualities seen in a Final Girl, especially in his pursuit of Jake and his disinterest in the immature acts his friends take part in (i.e., mooning the killer in the woods). He even breaks the most important horror rule by leaving the killer’s weapon on the floor next to the body! It is a true Laurie Strode moment.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is Etheredge-Ouzts’ choice not to reveal the identity of the killer or his motive. Scream’s Billy Loomis said it best when he said it’s scarier when the killer has no motive and though I wouldn’t exactly call Hellbent scary, that choice does at least make the villain more menacing. The viewer must decide for themselves why the killer is killing these queer men. Is it because he views it as a sin? Or is he just being funny? I’m sure most viewers will believe it to be the former but it all depends on the person watching.
Before I pass it back over to you Joe, I wanted to touch on the discrimination and use of slurs among the gay community in the film. I’ve been watching Ryan Murphy’s Pose on FX (FYI, it’s amazing) and there is an entire subplot in episode 2 devoted to a gay bar refusing service to one of the transgender characters simply because she is trans. I was shocked to find out this was a common occurrence in the 1980s, which is when the show takes place. Imagine my shock when one of our protagonists utters the word “tranny” when referring to potential clubs to go to. My jaw actually dropped! It’s astounding to me that members of the queer community would use such a slur against a member of their own community, but I think it all boils down to education. We’ve come a long way in the 14 years since Hellbent was released, but who knows? There was also a casual put-down of the South as well. As a Texan, comments like that sting, but I just imagine that’s how people from LA view the South. We get a bad rap but we’re not all bad!
What are your thoughts on Hellbent Joe? Do you think it does the horror genre proud? What about its portrayal of its queer characters? I didn’t even get to mention the kills either, which are all pretty great!
Well, this is going to get interesting now because I had the completely opposite reaction from you and I feel like I dislike Hellbent a great deal more now than I did when I first watched it. I remember being mildly disappointed by the cheap-looking production values, but I was so entranced by the idea of a queer slasher that I was willing to overlook virtually all of the film’s flaws.
On the rewatch, however, I find myself really disappointed in the film’s failings. Yes, it is quietly revolutionary to swap in an all-gay cast (sidenote: gay in the film since all of the actors are hetero), but in 2018 the overwhelmingly white, masculine, relatively straight-acting characters feels exceedingly safe. Now before everyone gets uppity and calls me a SJW snowflake (a title I will proudly wear BTW), I recognize that 2004 was a different time and that Etheredge-Ouzts likely hoped to make a film that would appeal to queer audiences that simultaneously had the potential to break into the mainstream. However, the near total erasure of people of colour, of different body types and ages and even sexual interests (no bears or otters?) reads like a very limited, narrow perspective of the queer experience, especially considering the film is set in Lost Angeles, which is overwhelmingly diverse.
In preparation for this piece, I happened upon an academic article by Clair Sisco King called “Un-Queering Horror: Hellbent and the Policing of the ‘Gay Slasher’.” I don’t agree with every point she raises, but I was struck by her analysis of comments made by Etheredge-Ouzts in DVD extras and on websites like AfterElton (RIP) in which he talks about deliberately distancing the film from camp, in addition to resisting attempts to categorize the film as queer (presumably in an effort to appeal to a wider audience). He even instructed his actors “to be a human, not a gay” (256) which legitimately makes me bristle.
Taking a step back from how this reads politically, I’m willing to bet that these were financially-driven decisions; economically-speaking, being pigeon-holed and limited to playing gay film festivals will hurt a film’s grossing potential. But labeling your film as “the first gay slasher” while simultaneously stripping the film of challenging or confrontational depictions of gay life feels like Etheredge-Ouzts wants to have his cake and eat it, too, which ironically didn’t work since the film only ever played at gay festivals. I understand why things played as they did, but it’s a decision that doesn’t ultimately pay off.
I don’t mean to sound like I don’t enjoy Hellbent. I think it’s a perfectly serviceable slasher film with some generically attractive guys and I applaud the tentative baby steps into queering up horror, which back in 2006 was still unconventional. Looking back with 2018 eyes, it just feels like Hellbent had the potential to be so much more interesting; ultimately the film feels neutered by its fear of being too queer in order to appeal to a mass audience. Maybe it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect a single film to take that responsibility on (see: every female-directed or fronted film, particularly superhero and franchise-entries), but I wish that Hellbent had tried. The reason to watch this film is because it features an all-queer cast, but what it does with that cast is ultimately underwhelming to me.
But I’ve gone on long enough without even addressing most of your questions. I kick it back to you, Trace, but I want your political take. Do you think I’m off the mark for wanting more from the film? Considering the kills and Devil Daddy’s open-to-interpretation motivation, is Hellbent engaging in a dialogue about homophobia? I’m particularly interested in your take on Tobey (Matt Philipps) and whether you think he would survived had he remained in drag.
It’s funny that Etheredge-Ouzts wanted to distance the film from camp because the whole film is rather campy. It’s never particularly scary and there is a decent amount of humor peppered throughout (my favorite being the gag involving Joey’s decapitated corpse in the bathroom stall). Unfortunately, the comments he made don’t really reflect well on the film when looking through a 2018 lens.
That being said, I do understand his reasoning behind it (though I certainly don’t think you’re off the mark from wanting more from it). It couldn’t have been easy to sell the concept of a “gay slasher film” to any studio, and by the looks of the film he didn’t get that much money anyway. Who is to say he would have gotten any money if he added diversity into the mix. Lest you think I am saying that I’m okay with this whole concept, let me assure you that I’m not, but I do understand the reasoning to an extent. I would hope that had it been made today, certain changes would have been made to the concept.
The film does play it safe in the same way that this year’s Love, Simon played it safe. That safeness didn’t prevent me from enjoying that movie, but it was disconcerting how it downplayed a lot of the struggles one must endure when deciding to come out. I cut Love, Simon some slack because it is the first film released by a major studio to center around a gay teen love story. Also, it’s a super cute movie. Baby steps, Joe!
I truly believe the intentions of Hellbent were pure, but it might have been a necessary evil in order to get funding. We haven’t exactly had any major queer slasher films since Hellbent was released in 2004, so the effort may have been for naught. Does the lack of diversity and queer representation suck? Yes. Am I still grateful that Hellbent exists? Absolutely.
The lack of challenging or confrontational aspects of gay life, as you put it, could be Etheredge-Ouzts’ way of showing an ideal world. I’m probably reaching a bit too far with that one though. Still, the only character that faces any real issue of discrimination is Tobey. Tobey’s issues for being dressed up as a woman were actually peculiar to me. It’s a known fact that transgender citizens and drag queens face a great deal more discrimination in the queer community, but this film takes place on Halloween. Tobey is clearly an attractive man. Would he really face that much discrimination for cross-dressing on Halloween? Admittedly, I’ve never been to the West Hollywood Carnival, and maybe I’m giving my fellow queers a bit too much credit, but it just seemed odd.
As to whether or not he would have been killed had he stayed in drag: absolutely not. It really calls the killer’s motive into question though, doesn’t it? King says in her essay that the Devil Daddy is “punishing performances of homosexuality that are visible and public” (258), but I offer this counter-argument: the killer is not offended by Tobey’s drag; he’s offended by his masculinity. Maybe the Devil Daddy isn’t punishing the groups for being gay (or bisexual in Chaz’s case). Maybe he is punishing them for not being effeminate enough.
Again, this is probably me reaching too far, but I wonder if our villain is a gay man who was rejected by another man for being too effeminate. The anti-femme mindset is prevalent in the queer community and none of the protagonists are overly effeminate. They aren’t super masculine, but they aren’t your standard gay stereotypes. The Devil Daddy shows absolutely no interest in killing Tobey until he removes his wig and shows off his masculinity. If my theory is correct, then I wish the film would have explored that more (or at all).
Joe, you’ve talked a lot about what you didn’t like about Hellbent, so what did you like (if anything)? Taking politics out of the equation and looking at it simply as a run-of-the-mill slasher film, what are some positive aspects that stand out to you? And what do you think of my theory? I’m very proud of it.
I feel that I should reiterate that I do actually like Hellbent! Sorry if I came off as a downer in my first response; when I was doing my rewatch, I just couldn’t help but focus on the film’s untapped potential.
With that said, it’s definitely a solid little slasher that tries its darndest to create a quartet of likeable characters. In fact, I actually really like three of the four main characters. I’ve always identified with Joey because having a crush that’s out of your league is imminently relatable and his earnestness verges on painful. Hank Harris (whom I’ve loved since Ryan Murphy’s Popular) does a great job as the geeky, less hot companion to the stereotypical beefcakes and that perfect moment when his crush meets him in the bathroom makes his eventual death all the more painful.
I definitely don’t connect with Chaz as strongly; his bisexuality feels like both an underwhelming character trait and its introduction is played for (weak) shock value (a guy and a girl get out of his Jeep! So taboo!). Dylan Fergus’ Eddie can be a bit bland, but the character is livened up by his interactions with Jake, who is such a hilariously textbook “bad boy” (tattoo, smoking, motorcycle) that it’s almost admirable. I like to think that Etheredge-Ouzts is well aware of how stereotypical Hellbent is; how else can we explain the appearance of so many quintessentially gay signifiers such as Chaz’s and Eddie’s costumes, Joey’s tentative dip into leather culture, and even Tobey’s decision to do drag on Halloween?
Tobey is probably my favourite because I find his arc the most interesting. None of these men are particularly deep and Tobey’s struggle to connect with potential lovers who are only interested in his looks is a fairly shallow conflict, but for gay men it’s also something of a reality (I imagine it’s only worse in Hollywood). The film makes a smart decision by withholding Tobey’s male physique until late in the film: it forces us to take Tobey’s claim that he is only liked for his looks at face value because we are unable to determine its validity for ourselves.
It is pretty obvious that Phillips is an attractive man, but how good looking he is is masked by the make-up, the dress and the wig. As a result, the moment when he requests a picture under his own billboard works because the first time we see Tobey as both a man and a woman. The fact that the picture taker doesn’t make the connection is a little unbelievable, but it strengthens Tobey’s argument that he is invisible without his conventionally attractive modelesque looks and. This desperation to be seen and loved for who he is on the inside helps to convincingly sell his plea to Devil Daddy, which ultimately seals his fate.
I also love that Devil Daddy’s motivation for killing five men remains unknown. It’s delightfully in the spirit of many slashers of the 80s, up to and including the hilarious (or groan-worthy depending on your propensity for camp) sight gag of Eddie’s glass eye in Devil Daddy’s open mouth. I’m unsure about your effeminate theory, however, because there simply isn’t enough information to go on; without any dialogue or an identity, the Devil Daddy is little more than a punishing boogey-man set loose on the streets of LA to strike terror into the gay community. Depending on how much we want to read into it, there’s probably an AIDS metaphor in there (sadly there’s nearly always a linkage to AIDS in queer horror).
I’m honestly uninterested in Devil Daddy’s motivations if only because I think settling on one for “the first gay slasher” would have proven disastrous. If you make the killer gay, it turns the queer community on itself (at a time when gays were still frequently pigeon-holed as crazy killers). In contrast, if you make the killer straight or questioning, it’s homophobia. Cue the AvP tagline: whoever wins, we (the queer community) all lose. Better to keep it ambivalent and let audiences make up their own minds.
One final aspect worth applauding? The deaths. Sure, Hellbent is working with a miniscule budget, but all of these deaths involve practical effects, which is always a win in my book. There’s even some variation in the murders, which is cool considering the impracticality of attacking victims with a scythe and collecting heads along the way. I’m with you that Joey’s headless corpse giving a little twitch is probably the best of the bunch, though I’m partial to the entire climax involving the aborted sexual encounter, the handcuffs, the fire escape and Eddie’s shitty vision. It’s not particularly original, but it feels like a proud gay man’s well-executed homage to the slasher films of his youth. For that, I can only say “brava.” So while I may have some issues with the missed opportunities of Hellbent, I’m still able to appreciate it for what it is: a silly, fun little slasher film.
Next on Horror Queers: Our off-cycle articles continue with a look at the delightfully bitchy 2009 slasher Sorority Row!
Hellbent is available to rent on Amazon Instant for $2.99.