Though it's far from the "first gay slasher film," as it has been momentously touted (hello? "A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge" anyone?), Paul Etheridge-Ouzts's "HellBent" might be the first horror movie that's quite so unapologetically gay-friendly. Serial killer films have been chockablock with homosexual psychotics from day one, yet rarely is the gay sensibility refracted back throughout the texture of the film itself—both the worst offending tripe ("Cruising," "Hard," "Haute tension") and the eminently defensible yet unquestionably questionable masterpieces ("Silence of the Lambs," "Psycho," "Dressed to Kill") place blame squarely on sexual identity frustration. While hardly a cutting curative to such phobic Freudian foolery, "HellBent" nevertheless delivers a quick and pleasurable mélange of sex and death aimed squarely at the middlebrow gay indie niche—what it lacks in nuance it more than makes up for in unabashed glee and a parade of horror stimuli that seems alien only in terms of orientation.
How does one truly deal with a film such as "HellBent," which is more efficient than innovative, which has an odd whiff of staleness yet manages to get you all caught up in its surface delights? Appreciate it on its own terms (as a demographically sound little horror escapade) or chastise it for not breaking any true new ground? I argue that "HellBent" proves itself worthy by avoiding most of the pitfalls of the two moribund genres from which it hails: B horror and gay indie, both more often inundated with schlock than practically any other category. That "HellBent" manages to elide camp is something of a miracle and may come as a nice surprise to some viewers; yet Etheridge-Ouzts also provides enough gruesome jolts and bad double entendres to please the most die-hard fans of either genre.
Less a balls-out fuck and gore-fest than a relatively chaste queer corollary to something like "I Know What You Did Last Summer," "HellBent" can barely conceal that at its bleeding, beating heart it's somewhat of a softie—its close encounters are more of the WB kind. Instead of Sarah Michelle and Jennifer Love, here Etheridge-Ouzts serves up tasty dishes like goofy-grinned Dylan Fergus (from NBC's "Passions"!) as wonky-eyed, gold-hearted protagonist Eddie and Bryan Kirkwood (omg! Melissa Joan Hart's real-life bf!!) as his rough-trade, tattooed crush, Jake. Joining our token nice guy Eddie and bad boy Jake as they peruse the streets of West Hollywood during the annual Halloween parade while being stalked by a buff madman with psychotically erect nipples, we get the Jock (misguidedly donning drag and being ignored at every turn), the bragging Sexaholic (who turns out to be a pretty damn nice guy), and the Virgin (whose sweet moment of teenage catharsis is brutally cut short). Hot and likable all, the cast is often given to the head-nodding "Party of Five" performance style before being dispatched one by one with a swift swing of the scythe.
The central killer's lack of motivation or identity becomes the film's strength as well as its nagging question mark; bare-chested and "horned" (literally and figuratively) he simply lords over the L.A. queer community like an earthbound Chernobog, mercilessly massacring this group of friends with a rather rude insistence. While one could read any number of offensive ideologies into this single-minded gay-killing machine, the film revels in playing both stalker and victim with a refreshing joie de vivre. Just as Fergus (and the camera) ogles Kirkwood's arched, bare back as a single trickle of blood makes its way down into the waistband of his jeans, the audience is made complicit in that most reliable of eye-candy combos: flawless tanned flesh and violence interruptus. The masked killer, who first spots his chosen quadrangle of victims (from behind, mind you) in a cruisy forest locale, needs not to define himself beyond the genre parameters the film sets up: like his audience, he's come for the guys…and the decapitations.
As with any low-budget formula slasher, "HellBent" plays by the rules, rather clinically marching its way through each killing on its way to the climactic chase and/or shoot-out. Though one could (understandably) wish it wasn't simply content to be a sexual role-reversal horror standby and had pushed harder for a little narrative ingenuity, "HellBent" has a palpable sense of good will that's pretty hard to deny. And first-time director Etheridge-Ouzts certainly has some nifty tricks up his sleeve: there's a bit in a menacing, dulled neon red-drenched nightclub bathroom that's as well-gelled the film's primped boy-toys, and then there's the money shot, in which a lascivious tongue snakes ever closer to our hero's eyeball, until…well, talk about eye candy.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of a Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor to Film Comment.]
by Brad Westcott
Civil unions. Hospital visitation rights. a "Halloween" of one's own. The self-touted "first all-gay slasher film," "HellBent" seeks to rectify a heretofore alarming absence in the annals of cinematic history. Should this reviewer's tone sound needlessly glib or insensitive, chalk it up to the bottomless depths of enmity engendered by 85 minutes he would desperately like back. Swap out the movie's foursome of predominantly hunky twentysomethings—in search of good times at a West Hollywood Halloween party—with the usual gaggle of straight horny teens, and you'd have a movie so derivative, predictable, and well, just bad, that one doubts it could have found an outlet on the straight-to-video market.
But then it is impossible to separate this movie from its homosexual address. Although director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts claims he "wanted the sexuality of the characters to feel incidental rather than be the defining trait," everything in "HellBent" is defined by just that, from the emphasis on the boys' relative cruising skills, to the specific set of fears exploited by its devil-masked killer. There is certainly nothing wrong with a film addressing itself so narrowly to a specific demographic—especially when one considers the century of hetero-centric cinema with which queer audiences have contended. And admittedly the ideas behind "HellBent" threaten to become interesting and relevant to film scholars concerned with "subject-positioning," genre, and gender politics. Yet the just-plain-awfulness of it prevents one from taking it that seriously. Let's hope better things come of the second gay slasher film.
[Brad Westcott is a frequent contributor to a Reverse Shot.]
by Suzanne Scott
It takes a great deal of effort to make a disappointing slasher flick, and even more to make a cowardly one. "HellBent" is, at first glance, a film full of potential, and many will initially find themselves happily overlooking the muddy DV aesthetic with the pre-title credits tease featuring a scythe-wielding serial killer (apparently an "Eyes Wide Shut" orgy extra who kept his costume) getting medieval on the nubile asses of young men. One might even forgive the fact that the film does little with its cinema-ready setting, the West Hollywood Halloween parade and surrounding S&M clubs, all specializing in that fine line between pain and pleasure, all flirting with the cocktail of excitement and dread that a good slasher film should drown its audience in. But, sadly, for a film that has the gall to verbalize the desire that its killing spree not just be about "fag bashing," "HellBent" is precisely that, a cock-tease of a film that doesn't even allow its characters to get a little action before they are unceremoniously sliced and diced. Poor form, since the slasher rulebook clearly states that chastity is rewarded and promiscuity punished—the only crime here, apparently, is being gay. Compounding this crime is a killer with no motivation whatsoever who is coded as "Dark Other," another disappointment in a film that can't help but be viewed as political as it's openly billing itself as the "first gay slasher film." Though, arguably, one might read the psycho's devil mask and grim-reaper weaponry as a cheeky condemnation of Right-wing prejudice, "HellBent" doesn't put out in any capacity. For a movie that strives to twist convention, it is painfully conventional.
[Suzanne Scott is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]