HellBent / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
Me and my big mouth. Recently, I had the nerve to write — in two separate reviews, yet — about the demise of the slasher movie, and suddenly it seems we’re being inundated by new entries in the genre. The past few months have seen the release of High Tension, a Gallic bloodbath with respectable production values but an insipid plot; Cry_Wolf, a cheesily ingratiating prep-school fake-out; Venom, a film about a killer on the rampage in the Louisiana bayou, released, regrettably, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and now HellBent, billed, in an exuberant surfeit of capitalization and punctuation, as “The first ever GAY Slasher film!!!”
Written and directed by first-timer Paul Etheredge-Ouzts and produced by horror veteran Joseph Wolf (Blood Beach, Hell Night, Halloween II and III, A Nightmare On Elm Street), HellBent is the rare movie whose virtue, arguably, is that it is in no way original. HellBent is indistinguishable from virtually every other slasher movie ever made except that its randy young characters are in pursuit of ass in a sense more literal than usual. Whether this is good news — The mere issue of queerness is no longer the only subject queer films can explore; we’ve progressed to the point that queerness can be just a fact about the characters and any kind of story can be told or genre explored — or bad news — Queerness has now been assimilated and commodified to the point that queer cinema is as bland, commercial, and formulaic as straight cinema — is open for discussion. To me, it’s basically no news: HellBent is neither any better nor any worse than the typical slasher movie and, like the rest, makes a pretty thin subject for cultural debate.
Readers who remember the slasher movie’s early ’80s heyday and, possibly, lament the loss of the regional distribution systems and drive-in and grindhouse circuits that made it possible, may feel a tinge of nostalgia watching HellBent. In many respects, it is a perfect recapitulation of all those low-budget splatterfests about sexed-up kids looking to get high, drunk, or laid but instead winding up with a pitchfork through the neck. In avoiding one of the most prominent genre conventions — the isolated setting — it especially recalls movies like Prom Night and New Year’s Evil, both of which feature killings taking place amidst large parties in locations that offer ample opportunities to slip away from the crowd to get high, drunk, or laid but instead wind up with a pitchfork through the neck. The difference, though, between those movies and HellBent is that in the earlier films there was some effort to create a backstory and a motivation for the killer; HellBent is more like those Grade-Z cheapos that dispensed with such niceties and got straight to the eviscerations, movies that often were circulated by short-lived, fly-by-night distributors; starred nonprofessionals who usually appeared in no more than one or two films; and were directed by guys who soon were forced to abandon their dreams of cinematic glory and return to their true calling: selling household appliances at Sears.
The horny kids in HellBent are four roommates in their early 20s: Eddie (Dylan Fergus), the sweet one with the ingenuous, toothy smile; Chaz (Andrew Levitas), the insatiably bisexual Latino; Tobey (Matt Phillips), the gym-bunny underwear model; and Joey (Hank Harris), the younger, dorkier sidekick who longs to simply get a sexy jock’s phone number. The setting is the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval, an annual mile-long bacchanal based around Santa Monica Boulevard, where the four go to celebrate what Chaz calls “the one night of the year … when you get to indulge your most perverse and twisted fantasies and nobody gives a damn,” despite the fact that we’ve already seen Chaz enjoying a threesome with a straight couple in a parked car, suggesting that community opprobrium is hardly a major concern.
Since Eddie works at the WeHo police department, they’re well aware that a gay couple was killed along a local lover’s lane just the previous night, but they laugh it off, treating an 18-hour-old murder like just another spooky urban legend. Chaz insists on parking his Jeep at the very spot where the killing took place and hiking from there through the dark, dense woods to the carnaval. HellBent is a throwback to the pre-Scream era, when the characters’ total obliviousness to danger and to the genre’s conventions was a given. Even when the boys encounter a hulking, silent muscle queen in a devil mask in those woods, they think he’s just cruising them, so they flirt and tease. When he menacingly wields a sickle, they think he’s just kinky. Yes, like the classic soon-to-be-victims of slasher movies past, they’re simply too dumb to live.
It’s immediately clear to the audience that they’ve pissed off devil-mask guy and jumped to the top of his to-kill list, but they never catch on, and soon he’s taking them out one-by-one with impunity. The classic genre trope — that the bad kids all get killed while in pursuit of getting high, drunk, or laid — is more or less observed (two are killed while trying to hook up with someone, another is killed during an Ecstasy-fueled dance frenzy), but when dealing with four reasonably attractive gay men in WeHo, there aren’t too many virgins around to be the last to live, so even the lone survivor must interrupt an evening of light bondage in order to confront the killer.
HellBent is as competently acted and directed as it needs to be, but no more than that. The cast, though mostly unknown, is all professional, and each actor has a decent number of credits under his belt. The only real standout is Bryan Kirkwood, who plays Jake, a sexy biker that Eddie pursues. (Like any suave Casanova, Eddie has a novel pick-up line: “Two guys got murdered last night. … The killer cut off their heads … he cut off their heads and he took them.” Smooth.) Kirkwood is certainly handsome enough to merit Eddie’s infatuation but, more importantly, he has a real screen presence and an interesting voice — with a hint of Bill Murray-style snideness — that made me want to see him playing a role with more than one off-the-rack character trait.
It’s easy to guess why the slasher movie is almost impossible to extinguish. The simple set of genre conventions makes assembling a script a few days’ work, little talent is required of the “talent,” all the director has to worry about is catching the money shot (the decapitations, eviscerations, impalements, etc.), and, most importantly, they’re cheap as hell to make and are likely to turn up a sizable audience of splatter geeks and horny teenagers. So, in a way, a niche-marketed slasher movie like HellBent was inevitable; what’s surprising is that we’ve yet to see the all-black, all-Latino, or all-Mormon version. My Big Fat Greek Slasher Movie, anyone?
Is HellBent really of any historical interest, an event that the gay community should herald as the dawning of a new day? No, not in the least, but at least it’s not another lugubrious, by-the-numbers story about a middle-class white boy coming out.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.