Hellbent (2004)


So in 2004, Sneak Preview Entertainment, a company that would later create (500) Days of Summer got together and make a little film called Hellbent. It gained a little (and I cannot stress the emphasis on little) publicity for being the first “gay-slasher” film. So it’s taking two genres which in my experience are inundated with vapid, trite movies that are poorly made and combining them…into something that’s actually pretty decent.

This is not a good film per se, but it’s nowhere near as terrible as anyone whose sat through as many bad queer movies or horror movies as I have might automatically expect it to be. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure it’s intentional on the movie’s part…

Plot

It’s a slasher film, so anyone whose seen a horror film before will know what to expect. In terms of plot, we don’t get much that’s innovative or new, except that where it would normally be a boy and a girl off in the woods, now it’s a boy and another boy. So the film opens with two boys in the woods, who have decided to make out in the back of a car, which is filled with helium balloons (a reason for this is never given. We see one of the men carry them in, but why they’re there is never explained.)

Yeah, we definitely need these – helium is so erotic!

They get about their business with the necking, and out of the window, we see a glimpse of our killer. Now first off, I’d like to point out that the killer is The Devil. Or at the least a guy dressed as The Devil. This would be creepy, except that our first glimpse of him looks like a stagehand accidentally walked on set while the camera was rolling. I half expect to hear Christian Bale’s rant. But anyway, the filmmakers decide now’s as good a time as any to get some killing done.

The balloons prove to be taking up too much space, so one of the guys rolls down his window and hangs himself out of it – rather than the balloons. So the other guy (who looks a lot like Penn Badgley from Easy A and not a certain TV show about a girl who might be prone to gossip)  goes about crotch-related activities unto the first guy (by which I mean “blowjob”). The killer comes along and slices off the first guy’s head, and as a bodily reaction, he kicks and shatters the window. Not-Penn-Badgley mistakes this for being ticklish, but when he sticks his head out to see if the first guy likes it, realises that he is now sans head, and panics ever so slightly. By which I mean a hilarious utterance of “what the fuck!?”, given the context. But yeah, Not-Penn-Badgley gets his head cut off as well, and we get our opening credits, sung to some mediocre metal song.

This is why you shouldn’t inhale helium…

Then we meet our list of victims cast of characters, who turn out to be, basically, stereotypes of young gay men. You’ve definitely seen these stereotypes supporting the female lead of a shitty romantic comedy. But the film manages to also combine them with every stereotypical horror film character too.

Eddie, who looks like the love child of Tom Welling and Twin Peaks-era Billy Zane, is our main character, and has something of a fetish for bad boys. We see this in the form of Jake – and we know that Jake is a bad boy because he smokes cigarettes, has a tattoo and is riding a motorcycle! But really he looks like Jensen Ackles’ pretty-boy brother. Admittedly, he is one of the few actors who hasn’t been pulled off a catwalk, so he’s relatively decent. Eddie first sees Jake getting a tattoo in a parlour, and has this weird erotic moment of watching a drop of blood roll down Jake’s back, into his jeans. We get this idea that Eddie likes a bit of violence, or at the very least eroticises it.

Eddie has an awkward chat with Jake, wherein it comes across that Jake is a cool cat and Eddie is a nice-but-awkward guy. Jake rides off into the distance, leaving Eddie to wonder how much screentime will pass before the inevitably hook up. The movie could just have captions underneath them saying as much, it’s that obviously written. Then Eddie goes along and sees a van a-rocking, but decides to go a-knocking. It’s his roommate Chaz, who is having sex with a girl in his van. AND A GUY! Chaz is the “wild” one, and the film’s decided that because he’s bisexual, that means it’s even more so. You’ve seen this character a thousand times before, and you know he’s gonna die, cos he dares to have fun.

And the cowboy hat means you KNOW he’s  wild one…

Then there’s Toby, who is the world’s most unconvincing drag queen (but more on that later) and lastly Joey, who is the seemingly-younger, really awkward one. If this were a slasher film of the mid 90s, Joey is the black guy that dies first. So they’re all going to this Halloween carnival, which is the movie’s answer to Mardi Gras, and they’re all going together. Oh, and they happen to be roommates, but that’s nothing consequential. They drive down in Chaz’s car and park in the woods, on the same spot that the two guys got killed the night before. The night before!

Note the heavy police presence at the not-yet-one-full-day-old crimescene…

They have a bit of a chat about who they think the killer is – “probably some 40 year old guy who just came out” ponders the bitchy drag queen. They walk to the carnival from within the woods and stop to take a collective leak. Eddie gets all worried about seeing someone rustling around in the bushes, and gets the other guys to come back. One might point out that the film already established this as a place where guys cruise, but what the hell, it’s a horror movie and you have to have the main character feel tense to increase audience tension. So this guy emerges from the bushes and it’s the killer, only they don’t know it yet. Despite being a bit creeped out at first, they decide that the best idea is to moon him. Because when you see a brick-shithouse who looks like the devil holding a knife in the woods, the first thing you want to do is offer him a delicate orifice.

Doesn’t this just say “moon me”?

They go to the carnival, and the eventual bars, and engage in the festivities that the movie only really feels obliged to provide. In this leather bar (which in real life is actually a church! God knows how they got to film in there!) Eddie meets up with Badboy Jake again, and Joey makes a dick of himself in front of a hot Jock he has a thing for. Only, it turns out that the hot Jock does have a thing for Joey, and they make out in the bathroom, shortly before Joey gets his head snicked off by the killer.

The other guys leave the bar, and Toby, the bitchy drag queen, seems really pissed off and in want of a drink. Chaz has taken drugs by this point (he’s the wild one!) and this means he has to die. This, I admit, is a shame, as he’s the best character in the movie, even if he is hewn from a thousand different stereotypes. He’s the only one who seems to have a personality, and is one of precisely two people in the film who don’t take their role too seriously (the other being the guy who plays Jake). They do give him a pretty creative death though. It’s done on the middle of a strobe-lit dancefloor, and given that he’s high, we don’t quite know exactly when the killing happens – its filmed really cleverly, and they get points for killing him while surrounded by people, and making it somewhat believable.

After an awkward bonding moment between Jake and Eddie, it’s time for Toby to go. Toby’s been getting more and more pissed as the film goes on, both in mood and alcohol content. And they work this in well, giving him some depth, which has actually been worked in from the start, but now is where we realise it. There’s a scene where he sees a young guy staring up at an underwear advertisement on a billboard. The slogan reads “get ripped” and indeed, the guy wearing the underwear is ripped. Toby gives his camera to the guy, and asks him to take a picture of Toby in front of the billboard.

It soon becomes apparent that Toby is actually the model, and is usually the jock like the guy who’s taking his picture. He’s just sick of that and wants someone to like him for his mind. But bitchy queens get their retribution in that he doesn’t have anyone pick him up, looking like a melted marionette. He stumbles off alone, throws up in a garbage bin and sees The Devil walking by, carrying a plastic bag which currently holds two heads. Not that Toby realises this of course, he just wants to go home with the guy. But The Devil ain’t interested, and Toby actually follows him, calling him out for being superficial. Needless to say, Toby’s head is soon relieved from Toby’s neck.

It’s pretty hilarious.

Eddie and Jake decide they need to go and check on Toby, and try to get back into the club – only this time it’s been cordoned off by the police cos it’s, y’know, a crime scene now. Jake needs to get the keys to his bike off a bouncer, so he jumps the fence. Eddie, left alone with that magical movie knowledge that all horror film main characters have wherein they know they’re in danger even though there’s no way of knowing that, jumps the fence looking for him. He wanders some alleys, the film tries to be creepy, and then he hears Jake’s motorbike, and goes back to it.

Jake tries to help him over the fence, but they can’t do it, and then The Devil appears next to them. I can’t describe it in words, without ruining it forever, but this jump-scare is actually really well done. Like, really REALLY well done, in that you don’t see it coming, it makes sense, it scares, and it’s just really well done. So The Devil has a bit of a lunge at Eddie with his knife, and Eddie runs, while Jake runs for help. Eddie shuts The Devil out behind a set of bars, but this doesn’t mean that The Devil can’t push his knife through the cage!

So it turns out that Eddie has a glass eye, but to be fair, the film has established this. He works for the police, but not as a cop, cos he was hurt in training. Back at the cop station, his cop sister checks up on him, and rather than being genuinely concerned for the brother that nearly got eye gouged, makes a few “oh he’s hot” motions about Jake, just like any poorly written character would.

Jake and Eddie go back to Eddie’s house, and get about some bedroom type business. Only Jake’s a bad boy, so it’s a bit odd; he won’t let Eddie kiss him, and there’s a vague sense that all this time, perhaps Jake is straight…which would be awkward, to say the least… But it becomes clear that no, he is gay, or at the least very much wanting to have the sex with Eddie, as he handcuffs Eddie to the bed. But could The Devil be in the house?

Of course he is, you know he is. So he stabs Jake, and goes to make some menacing moves on Eddie, when Jake runs in and smashes a pole over The Devils head (before, thankfully, slumping to the ground – it’s nice to know that exerting brute force might take a bit out of the man who just got stabbed through the chest!). Eddie gives Jake a towel to press against his wound and tries to call the cops, but The Devil cuts the phone. Things end up on the fire escape, where The Devil sucks out Eddie’s glass eye! – I honestly think I would have preferred to see a real eye getting gouged! It’s just gross!

Eddie shoots the Devil, Jake lives (and finally kisses Eddie) and the police wheel The Devil away on a stretcher. Only, he’s not dead, and he lets Eddie know this by…well…

Guess “I got your nose!” was off the table.

Sequel is set up, credits play.

Review

Is this a good film? Well it’s not great. It’s a very by-the-numbers horror film in most regards – the characters who have lots of sex or take drugs die, the ones who berate the killer die, and the nice guys don’t. The scares aren’t scary (except that one that is) and the acting ranges from terrible to average, but there is something to like about this movie.

As for the gay aspect of it – well it’s not really that big a deal, which is kind of refreshing. It’s not driving it into your mind that THIS. IS. A. GAY. HORROR. FILM! but at the same time it’s creative in that it utilises the characters in what would be other roles, both male and female, in a heteronormative horror film. It doesn’t make a big deal out of the gay aspect of it, and I think this is how it should be – it’s just played as normal as any other horror movie setting.

As for the characters…I think they were written to play around with the stereotypes, but acted by people who didn’t know what they were doing. Every character subverts their stereotype; Good-boy Eddie has this weird fetishising of sex and violence suggested throughout the movie – he’s entranced by the blood trickling down Jake’s back, and just watch how he reacts to Jake roughing him up a bit when they make out – but at the same time he’s played by a man who was put on this earth to be pretty and do…not much else; certainly not act.

An honours student from the “I’m so pretty it hurts” school of acting

Then you’ve got the bitchy drag queen in Toby — and it becomes a moment of  Fridge Brilliance when you realise that he’s the world’s most unconvincing drag queen because he’s just doing it as a one-night thing to hide his model looks. But then he turns out to be as superficial as the men he’s decrying. He’s bitchy to a stereotypical T, but it isn’t played with in the way that makes you think “oh, he’s a hypocrite so he gets killed” – there’s no sense of retribution to it.

And Joey is the horribly awkward guy (and to the film’s credit, he does look fucking ridiculous in his leather get up, like he’s meant to) except that he does score the Jock guy at the carnival – the gay version of the nerd getting the cheerleader. But before the film does anything with this, he’s killed, and we don’t really care because the actor made no impression on us whatsoever.

Chaz is played as the traditional wild-one best friend type, and he would fit in comfortably in any other horror movie. His character is actually pretty bland, and nothing new, but Andrew Levitas is a decent performer and puts in some good work for bad writing, so it is a bit disappointing when he gets killed — but the movie does nothing with his character (except, y’know, behead him).

And Jake, well, he’s the nicest bad boy you’ve ever seen. You just know that he stops that tattoo-carrying motorcycle at intersections to help grandmothers get their groceries across the street. Brian Kirkwood is the other decent actor in the film, but again, he’s a thinly written character. If he’s meant to be such a bad boy, playing into Eddie’s eroticising of sex and violence, then he should come across as a bit more dangerous. Instead, he’s like the cool kid in primary school you want to have lunch with because you’ll become cooler by association — but he ain’t that bad a bad boy.

It’s not to say that the characters are terrible, it’s just that they’re not all that interesting.

One thing that is terrible is the camera. Not the camera work mind you, which ranges from interesting to really creative, but the fact that 90% of this movie isn’t completely in focus! Those aren’t badly-capped screenshots up there – that’s the focus on the film!

But by far the best thing about this film is the killer. Not that he’s The Devil — I don’t actually think he’s meant to be Satan; I’m pretty sure he’s meant to be a guy in a satan costume — but he’s a really impressive force in the film. It helps that whoever played him is made of solid muscle, but he does come across as threatening, as powerful and very much someone you don’t want to run into in the middle of the woods with helium balloons. You also know nothing about him! Why is he killing? Don’t know. What are his motives? Don’t know! Who is he? Don’t know.

I was expecting this to play the old card of “here’s the reveal – the Killer is – his brother!!” but the film avoids this. It’s a shame that the film is happy to rest in mediocrity, because there’s a lot in here that could’ve been really worked up and made into something great. There’s a lot of good work here, it just hides behind a wall of mediocrity.

Horror fans won’t be shocked or amazed by too much here, but it is worth a bit of a look; if only for some really effective moments that when they appear, are done really well. If only they got a fucking focus puller!

This movie is a bit like a little kid with a good point wanting to be taken seriously in a room full of wiser adults; or like someone auditioning for a play when they just don’t seem to realise they’re not very good. You applaud their efforts, and notice some genuinely good bits, but you can’t get past the feeling that you just want to guide them to a better version of their own work.

Copied over from my Facebook on inception of the blog. Originally written 12/10/2010

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