Okay, all right, I give in. You wanted Hellbent, and you’re going to get it!
Every year I get started writing our annual Horror Pride Month articles and every year half a dozen folks show up in my DMs asking when I’m going to talk about Hellbent followed by more in the comments. The truth is, I just wasn’t sure there was anything more to say about the film that hadn’t already been said, but anyone who knows me knows I always have an opinion.
So, here we go…
Writing and Casting Hellbent
Hellbent is ostensibly recognized as the first out gay slasher with its own killer and its own sexy victim pool. It was written and directed by first timer Paul Etheredge-Ouzts and produced by Michael Roth (Circuit), Joseph Wolf (Halloween II), and Karen Lee Wolf (Children of the Living Dead). The three producers had hit on the idea of a gay slasher in around 2000. They wanted a Halloween story with a masked killer set in West Hollywood, and that’s exactly what Ehteredge-Ouzts gave them.
The film opens on Halloween Eve as two guys jump in the back seat of their car for a good time in a secluded park. It’s flirty, fun, and more than a little sexy as they maneuver and try to find a comfortable position in the confines of the car. When one hits on the idea of opening the window and leaning out halfway, they’ve struck gold. Unfortunately about 30 seconds later, a mysterious, shirtless man in a devil mask appears and decapitates the men with a sickle.
The following day, Eddie (Dylan Fergus), a police technician who was unable to join the force as an actual policeman due to an injured eye–that’s important, hold onto that information–joins his buddies Joey (Hank Harris), Tobey (Matt Phillips), and Chaz (Andrew Levitas) as they set out to celebrate their favorite holiday at the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval.
Unfortunately for them, they caught the attention of the masked killer and he begins stalking them from club to club collecting their heads one by one.
By his own admission in an interview Etheredge-Ouzts had never written a full feature script before and he had certainly never directed one. He was working in the office shared by Roth and the Wolfs and they had read a few pages of an unfinished rom-com script he’d written and asked him to take on the task.
He locked himself away and watched every 80s slasher film he could get his hands on and emerged with a direction to the take the film. He pulled together some of his favorite trope characters, i.e. “The Final Girl,” “The Slut,” “The Ingenue,” and “The Tough Guy” then put his own gay slant on each of them.
It’s important to note that at this point, the film did not yet have a title, and the PR team behind the project held a “name the film” competition wherein they received such gems as Queer Eye for the Dead Guy and Boy Meets Knife before settling, finally on Hellbent. Now, they just had to cast it.
Anyone who has seen this film will note that is a very, very white cast. The director said they had a really hard time getting non-white actors to audition for the roles despite the fact that none of them had been written with a specific ethnicity in mind.
He noted in the previously mentioned interview that they even had an entire casting day set aside specifically for non-white actors with over 30 performers meant to audition and not a single actor showed up.
This is one of those take it with a grain of salt kind of anecdotes, for me. It’s entirely possible that it’s true, but how much did they really try?
As Etheredge-Ouzts and music supervisor John Norris began working on a soundscape for the film, the director became interested in the queercore punk scene in Hollywood.
For those unfamiliar with the term, queercore basically what it sounds like. An offshoot of the anarchist punk movement, queercore bands focused on sexual and gender identity.
While reading an article on the subject, he came across a band called Nick Name and the Normals and reached out to them to see if they’d be interested in working on the film’s score with him. The band agreed and before long, front man Nick Name, himself–a former Abercrombie & Fitch model whose real name was Kent Bradley James–was asked to play the killer, and he certainly had the right look for it.
They had a script, they had a killer soundtrack, and they had a villain. Now all they needed was to make a movie.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Hellbent
Despite its rather strange shooting schedule which left the film rife with continuity issues, there are some good things to be found in Hellbent.
For one thing, there are two scenes in particular involving a glass eye–remember when I mentioned eye trauma above–that will stick with you long after you’ve seen this film. Both are disturbing, and do more to rattle the nerves and unsettle the stomach than your typical gorefest without a single drop of blood. It is moments like these that show just how innovative and fun Hellbent really could have been.
As for the cast, they did a remarkably good job with a noticeably rough script. Dylan Fergus and Bryan Kirkwood who plays his love interest play off of each other especially well and bring some humanity to their roles throughout.
Furthermore you’ll never hear me say this isn’t a fun movie to watch. I really kind of love it. I usually break out my old DVD copy at least a couple of times a year, pop some popcorn, and settle in for an hour and a half of thrills, chills, and shirtless dudes (yes, this film has eye-candy galore) grinding on the dance floor before running from a crazed man with an unusual weapon of choice.
All this said, I think Etheredge-Ouzts made a few missteps along the way. I understand pulling the tropey archetypes from straight horror films and giving them a little gay twist, but he had the opportunity here to create a film that instead pulled from our own community for its characters. That could have been a truly original, interesting, and wildly satisfying film.
Instead we’re left with characters that feel like they’re wearing costumes, and not the Halloween kind. To clarify, you have an entirely straight cast of actors who are somehow expected to not only embody gay roles but also force those gay roles back into somewhat straight tropes.
A little confusing, no?
All I’m saying is that no amount of straightness was going to make this film palatable to a wider straight audience of Bubbas, so why not throw caution to the wind and just go for it living your best, gay, out and proud horror life?
One moment that really hits hard, however, comes from Phillips as Tobey. He is the muscle-boy with a great body and a great big package that’s been posted all over town in a series of underwear ads. In an attempt to be appreciated for something other than his physical appearance for a change, Tobey goes out in drag for Halloween.
For the first time in his probably very privileged life Tobey begins to feel the pain of rejection from his own community, so much so that he ends up causing his own death. He squares off with the killer–not knowing the man has murdered his friends of course–and begins to entreat him to pay attention to him.
He pulls off his wig and slips his dress down to show of his chiseled torso, demanding attention from the shadowy man, and it is not until that moment that the killer actually moves in for a kill.
Now, anyone who has spent anytime on gay dating apps knows that masculinity is often fetishized and placed at a premium, and yes, I know this movie came out long before those apps, but I cannot help but think this line was directly pointed at that part of our community.
Ah well, let’s face it, we don’t really watch slasher films for the plot. We watch them for the kills, and Hellbent does them creatively with flying heads and shadows, giving you just enough to keep you entertained.
A Bloody Legacy
The truth is, despite its foibles, Hellbent deserves a place not only in queer horror, but horror history in general. They dropped the subtext and went for it. They created a gay slasher film that gained notoriety even if it was only in certain circles.
In 2020, we still have very few of those that feature us, much less that are centered on us and our community.
That’s why when a film like Midnight Kiss debuts on Hulu and Blumhouse’s Into the Dark series, we rush to watch it. That’s why, when many of us first saw that they were queering a character in It: Chapter Two we were excited even though the job was completely botched, in my opinion.
As for the oft-rumored sequel? In an interview with San Diego LGBT News in 2017, Dylan Fergus had this to say:
“Every once in a while, every couple of years, I’ll connect with one of the producers or another member of the cast or Paul. And every once in a while they’re like, ‘oh I just had a conversation with someone about Hellbent 2; I’m like hey, as long as I get a cameo I’d be happy.”
Bloody fingers crossed, we’ll see more soon.