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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Hellbent Paul Etheredge-Ouzts 2004

Scream, Queens

Let me get one thing out of the way: girls, you really need to get out of the house more often. At the Newfest screening of Paul Etheredge-Ouzts’ homo horror opus Hellbent, the place was packed with queens who have apparently never seen anything more frightening than a fallen soufflé or a coffee stain on a Gucci tie. Case in point: the opening shot of the film is a static shot of the moon in the night sky. Atmospheric? Yes. Scary? No. And yet the full-grown adult male in front of me leapt out of his seat as if his 2xist boxer-briefs were on fire. Move over, squealing 12-year-old girls: the Screaming Queens are here.

A truly unique genre-bender, Hellbent is either a gay movie with bloody killings or a slasher with a staggeringly yummy lineup of victims – it’s pretty impossible to decide which, and this is one of the reasons that the film works. Rather than dressing up your standard cheeky homo romantic comedy (yawn…) with some costumes and fake blood – or, on the other hand, plugging himbos into the slots vacated by your Slut, Bitch, Goody-Goody, and Jock stock horror characters, Hellbent takes a refreshing new tack in telling its simple slasher story: give us a group of guys who we would actually hang around with, have them display signs of real friendship and concern for one another, and then see what happens when they’re stalked by an oddly hunky mystery-killer. This is as far from the bumbling, hateful idiots of House of Wax as you can get – instead of a band of morons who hang out together despite openly loathing one another, these guys are pleasant company. Not to mention hot… hot, pleasant company.

The events unspool on a sultry night in West Hollywood (is there any other kind?), as four friends/roommates navigate their way through the debaucherous Halloween Carnival festivities. Horny homos? Check. Ridiculous costumes? Check. Booze, pills, and carbs? Check. There’s also a loony with a sickle on the loose collecting the heads of the cutest boys he can find: a party-pooper, yes – but a party-pooper with a great set of pecs. This twisted sister gets his sights on our four heroes and – well, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here…

The night before the Carnival, two fellas are parked at lover’s lane doing what it is that boys do best: bitch at each other while making out. The car is full of balloons (one of the boys is bringing them home for his mama -- precious!), so one guy pops halfway out of the window and takes in some of that fresh Los Angeles country air while the other gets down to business with his lower half. Before you can say “is that you, Brawny Man?”, we’ve got our first two beheadings (of many – yay!) and the flick is off to a rollicking start. Cue the flashy credits and punk-fag soundtrack, and settle in for a fun, juicy ride.

After the cops discover the body, we meet our hero Eddie (the nearly-too-pretty Dylan Fergus), who works in the police department and whose poor romantic luck has reduced him to printing out mugshots of cute felons for enjoyment. It seems Eddie wanted to become a cop himself at one point but has settled for fixing printers in the offices – when the chief gives him the chance to do some actual police work by putting up warnings about the murderous loony in West Hollywood, he jumps at the chance to get out from behind his desk and try on his dad’s police uniform (which looks quite dashing, btw). While he’s out canvassing the ‘hood, he catches a glimpse of gruff, edgy Jake (humpy Bryan Kirkwood, whom you may remember from the Real World: The Lost Season movie) and his googly-eyed twelve-year-old-girl tendencies kick into gear, leaving him to make zero impression on the fella. Eddie meets up with his pals for the big night out, and already it seems the air is ripe with potential conflict. Chaz (the super-yummy Andrew Levitas, best known for his shirtless wrestling in Psycho Beach Party) is a libidinous and gender-indiscriminate good-time guy who seems to have a crush on Eddie and is out to party. Tobey (Matt Phillips) is an underwear model who has made the daring – and somewhat ill-advised – choice to dress in drag for the event, essentially robbing him of his most precious assets: his looks. And sweet, meek Joey (Hank Harris, aka OMGit’sEmoryDickfromPopular!) is looking to seal the deal on an unrequited crush by dressing against type as a leather boy (and we all know how that usually turns out).

So the Gay Goonies set out for the Carnival, but first they dare one another to walk through the park where the randy fellas were slashed the night before. As they make their way through the woods, they catch a glimpse of a hunky fella in the shadows, and tease him a little – that is, until they see that he’s carrying a giant knife, at which point they haul their candy-asses to safety. But as they bob and weave through the crowd of insane revelers, are they catching glimpses of the man from the park, or are their eyes just playing tricks on them? They guys make their way to a leather bar with a live gay metal-rapper (?) and Joey gets pulled into a live gore spectacle a la Phantom of the Paradise and winds up covered in fake blood. The show gives him the ego boost he needs to speak to the object of his affection – and things go just as we’d expect. Naturally, he goes to the bathroom to vomit.

Here’s one of the first points where the quiet cleverness of the script shows: these guys don’t really think that they’re in danger, so their need to “stay together” is motivated more by their concern for each other doing something romantically self-destructive than anything else. And naturally, once booze and pills (Chaz like his dolls) are introduced into the mix, this concern gets clouded. Once the guys start to split up, they’ve got no real need to worry about one another, so when they start getting picked off, no one is the wiser. Eddie is the mother hen of the bunch, but once he runs into Jake again, he’s beyond preoccupied with making a good impression on a guy who initially couldn’t seem to give two shits about him.

As the guys get lost within the labyrinth of the Carnivale, things move steadily toward their inevitable conclusion – which ends up being anything but inevitable. Jake shows his true colors in the final scene, Eddie proves just why he wouldn’t have made a good cop anyway – bad eye or no (he’s a klutz and doesn’t exactly have the best instincts in a crisis situation – which is actually quite funny), and the finale boasts one of the most audacious body horrors I’ve ever seen – gay or otherwise. With the 3 brilliant final shots, the doors may be closed on this particular chapter of the story, but things are by no means put to rest – especially for Eddie, who is going to be keeping one eye out for danger from now on. Some people may have issues with the fact that the ending doesn’t resolve much about our killer, but the movie is so clearly not about him that it didn’t bother me in the least – the emphasis remains squarely on the protagonists, where it belongs.

Before I get into the fact that there are some fun scares, touching moments, and lots of nipples, let me take a moment here to get – believe it or not – “real”. Now, this may come as a shock to some of you kids, but our twisted and beguiling little corner of the prison yard is not all Cosmos and Whitney Houston (God bless her crack-addled little heart); nor is it all leather and poppers; nor is it strictly Marc Jacobs, Electroclash and ironic t-shirts. Despite what most gay programming tends to preach, we are quite a diverse and spotty bunch of freaks – and anyone who thinks that all homos are the same hasn’t taken a good look around the organic co-op, dog run, nude beach, porn shop, or Mozart in the Park to notice otherwise. And as a fussy and decidedly selfish sissy, one thing that really gets on my nerves is when I turn on the television and see one-dimensional representations of gay people who don’t resemble me in the least. It’s like how Bobby Darin might have felt if he had lived to see Kevin Spacey play him in Beyond the Sea. In Hellbent, I could identify with everyone (some for the better, some for the worse), and none of the characters seemed a caricature offered up to make the straight folk laugh and feel less threatened by us (and no one has to fix anyone’s hair or redo anyone’s apartment, either). I walked out of the theatre not feeling insulted or that I needed to apologize for what I had seen, which is a rarity for gay films.

Some might argue, “oh, the guys are totally defined by their libidos – typical sex-crazed homos”. Well, this is a slasher movie – destructive sexuality is part and parcel; name one slasher set during a big party where everyone isn’t trying to get laid. And most of the guys don’t even make it that far – is the killer punishing them for trying? Or for their sexuality? Or for their tacky outfits? The question is never answered, but the characters take a shot at it, blaming everyone from a repressed queer to someone with “mother issues”. I certainly prefer this honest (though certainly un-PC) discussion of repressed sexual rage over the clunky, one-dimensional killer homos of the past (or even the present – check out a certain foreign flick with a cheap final twist for an example of just how little some people’s thinking has advanced since the days of Cruising and Looking for Mr. Goodbar). The breezy, casual depiction of gays as regular people defined by things other than their sexuality is what really makes Hellbent a breakthrough for the genre.

But enough of that – there’s blood, scares, and buns, buns, buns! Well, actually, not as many buns as that – although there is a 4-man mooning that is quite refreshing. The skin is appropriate (it is Halloween) and thrilling, the sexy bits don’t teeter into Greenwood-Cooper territory, and it’s always character-driven. But if you just want to gawk, there are boys galore, of all shapes and sizes – and some of them end up covered in red stuff. The soundtrack is refreshingly dirty and rock-n-roll (we all love Priscilla, I know, but there is life beyond Abba), and the setting is a nasty, dizzying maze of dark hallways, carnival arcades, and empty streets. I also like that the killer is, for once, legitimately hot: given the aggressive push-and-pull of gay sexual relationships, it's interesting to see the guys attracted and frightened of their potential executioner And hey -- who says that only ugly people go off the deep end and start dicing up people with the kitchen cutlery? I always thought Ted Bundy was kinda cute... The performances are uniformly good, but Harris's Joey really stole my heart - sure, he's used to playing outcasts (he was full-on retarded in the overlooked comedy Pumpkin), but here his frustration is tempered with a quiet dignity that will win anyone over (in the scene where he takes his chances with the object of his affection - in the face of a couple of bitchy fags - his crumbling resolve is heartbreaking).

In short, I think our first honest-to-god homo horror movie has arrived. A heady mix of fun, scares, heart, smarts, and gore, Hellbent sidesteps pigeonholing while paying due respect to the classics, and manages to be both intelligent and breezy at the same time. For you horror hounds out there waiting for the perfect scary movie to take your wussy Beaches-loving boyfriend to, this is it: you’ll both walk out satisfied.

Rating (out of 5):