Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hellbent (2004): Flipping the Script...kind of

Hellbent (2004)
dir: Paul Etheredge

In 1997, Harry M Benshoff wrote what is now a rather definitive look at horror movies and the homosexual identity, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. In it, Benshoff outlines the history of the horror movie villain, and how the homosexual, who had been outcasts in society, were used as villains, could also be identified as villains, and could identify with the villains.  In essence, Monsters in the Closet is a horror movie supplement to the essential The Celluloid Closet, the exhaustive look at the treatment of gays in film, and in the Hollywood in general.  Monsters in the Closet is far more academic, and looks at movies from all the way back to the Universal monsters through the then-modern day.

By 2004, however, gays had started to feel less outsider and more in the mainstream.  Gays had been making our own movies for the better part of two decades and created our own culture. It started making sense that the gays would also use the horror movie tropes to mainstream ourselves.  While we had been comfortable identifying with the villains in the horror movies, we wanted to be the victims of society.  We really can be drama queens, we might as well externalize that.

And so, Hellbent was released with the posters touting The First Gay Slasher Movie. More accurately, it should have been The First Out Gay Slasher Movie, with the gays as the victims finally.  But, prior to Hellbent, there was at least one slasher movie about a gay victim: Nightmare on Elm Street 2.  When Hellbent was released, it had went through the LGBT circuits, and then did a rather minor theatrical arthouse release.

Hellbent didn't set the world on fire, and it didn't seem to want to.  Hellbent is a micro-budget film with trashily grand ambitions.  It surfs through the world of West Hollywood (gay LA) using the stereotypes gays have of each other while also creating humanistic and sympathetic characters out of the caricatures.  The slasher of Hellbent is a tall built shirtless dude in a devil's mask is going around killing gay people with a sickle. He focuses on a group of four friends, who are going around a WeHo Halloween street festival/party trying to hook up with guys.

There is little plot to Hellbent, but then there is little plot to many of these slasher films.  There seems to be less plot to Hellbent as it doesn't provide, or attempt to provide, any sort of back story to the character of The Devil. This leads the audience to read The Devil as a metaphor for something.  Is it a metaphor for society condemning gays?  Is it a symbol for the gay community itself killing people for acting like catty bitches?  Is it a symbol for Christian retribution where actual Satan is going around killing gays?  None of these really seem to fit.  Maybe it is just an empty slasher going after gay men, and we haven't really flipped the script for fear of demonizing the straight community.

On the other hand, one can easily hang the symbolism of HIV on the Devil, as he does start by killing two gays having sex in a car in the back woods.  And, he does latch on to the four friends while they are traipsing around the woods.  He kills one friend in the bathroom after that friend gives his phone number to another guy.  He kills another friend who is throwing himself on the devil for sex.  The climax happens in the bedroom during a random hookup.

There is one death scene that makes this reading problematic: that of friend #2.  He gets beheaded on the dance floor in a leather bar.  One could easily read this as HIV by drugs, though that is a lesser concern in gay culture.  Maybe we're reading too much into what is a generic empty serial killer, but the lack of back story is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, the plague metaphor that just seemed to occur.

The movie itself is acceptably good in terms of gay cinema.  It is also OK in terms of micro-budget horror movies.  It really banks on some willful camp, and much of underground gay theater's DIY by-any-means-necessary aesthetic.  Sets looks somewhat cheap, but they are completely serviceable.  The gore and violence is sufficient, though it's not nearly as graphic as the straight counterparts (say Friday the 13th).  And, if you like to look at shirtless men, it's good for that (as opposed to bikini'd girls in a straight horror movie).

Obviously, though, the micro-budget does come through in many of the choices, and through the lower quality of DV recording at the time.  It adds a weird visual grain/smoothness with a strange contrast ratio that, rather than disturbing the viewer, adds to the self-aware realization that you're watching a movie.  The acting is somewhat in cliches and shortcuts. But, these are just minor flaws in a larger halfway decent slasher film that could be an allegory for the disease that is still rampaging through the gay community (even if drugs have made the disease more managable).

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