HELLBENT (2004) opens with your traditional lovers lane murder, well shot with colorful tinting that seems to come from a light shining through a bouquet of helium balloons they have in the car. The two lovers are beheaded by a dude (Nick Name, who also provides some of the soundtrack with his band Nick Name and the Normals) with a scythe and devil mask/helmet thing. We’ve seen a million scenes like this, but there are two things unusual about this version:
1. the lovers are both men
2. the killer is shirtless
Well, mostly #1. The 2014 remaquel of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN had a male-male couple killed in a lovers lane, but this one takes place entirely in the gay community in West Hollywood, so it’s fair to call it a gay slasher movie. The hero – Final Boy? – is Eddie (Dylan Fergus), who works a desk job at the police station. He’s not an officer – an injury prevented him from finishing the training. He gets recruited to pass out flyers warning people in West Hollywood that there’s a murderer loose, and uses Halloween as an excuse to wear his dad’s old uniform when he does it. (Strangely he won’t get into any kind of impersonating-an-officer trouble while wearing it. But I guess it reminds him of the shoes he’s trying to fill.)
At night he goes to a Halloween carnival with some friends, where you have your typical slasher movie debauchery (except gay) while the devil mask guy follows them around looking for a window to behead them.
The horror aspects aren’t original at all, but that’s okay. They’re well done, and benefit from a good cast. Eddie seems really nice and his more obnoxious friends do it in a charming way. I’ve seen reviews that call him bland, and I think I get it, but to me he has sort of a Clark Kent boy scout type of charm. A friendly, smiling, self-effacing guy who also happens to have muscles and be heroic. Of course there is more to him, he has some sexual repression going on, but I don’t think he’s a dark character at all, and that’s kinda rare in horror movies.
The production value of the locations is impressive. The majority of the movie takes place at this carnival with numerous extras. The streets are full. They must’ve done some of it guerrilla style during the actual West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval [sic].
The friends get separated and the amount of people around actually helps the killer to blend in. He sneaks up on them in bathrooms, alleys, even a dance floor. There’s some crazy shit going on at this party. A performance with fake chainsawing of heads and limbs makes it so people don’t take it seriously when somebody is beheaded for real in the crowd, under the strobe light. We never actually see the part where they realize it was real and freak out.
There’s a part that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it doesn’t matter because it’s cool, and somebody clearly realized it was cool because they used the image on the poster: Eddie gets hit right in the eye with the tip of the scythe, but it turns out he has a glass eye, so it just scrapes it.
As long as I mentioned that I also want to praise something it sets up, but I’ll mark this one a SPOILER. In a later confrontation the devilman leans in and licks his glass eye. That was a hell of a thing to do. Kinda mysterious, very intimidating.
It would be cool if there were other unusual things like that, but the novelty of being the gay slasher movie is enough to make it feel fresh. Usually in a horror movie when people are killed while making out in a car it comes across as a repressed psycho judging his victims for having premarital sex (even if we don’t make the same assumptions about the Zodiac). In this case of course you have to wonder if the killer is a bigot, or a closet case in denial, or what. Why is he specifically after gay men? Is he set off by seeing the men in the car at the beginning, and by our protagonists mooning him?
SPOILER. We don’t find out the answer. He’s a mystery, like the killer in SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE. He never says a word (I read that he did have some lines, but Etheredge decided to cut them so that even his voice would remain mysterious) and the movie doesn’t stick around long enough to figure who he is or why he did it. I kind of like that. Gay movies shouldn’t always have to be about homophobia just like black movies shouldn’t always have to be about racism.
(In an interview with CampBlood, writer/director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts specified that the killer is not supposed to be a homophobe: “One of the producers was concerned that the audience would assume the killer is a gay basher. I’m sure someone, somewhere, will accuse us of gay bashing, but I make it very clear in the film that the murders aren’t hate crimes. Not to mention, the movie’s hero is gay.”)
In most ways the fact that the characters are gay doesn’t make a huge difference as far as I could tell. Possibly the couple at the beginning are more nervous about getting caught in the car because they’re not straight. And when Eddie and Jake (Bryan Kirkwood, “Stalker” in one episode of CSI) go to bed together and Jake keeps pulling away from him and then is rough with him it brings up a fear that wouldn’t be applicable with a heterosexual couple. Otherwise the one gay-specific thing I picked up on is that after Eddie survives an attack from the killer he tells an officer, “Don’t let them turn this into a fag bashing, okay? ‘Cause, uh, it would ruin me around here. You know that.”
There’s one era-specific technology thing: Attacked in his apartment, Eddie has to press the button on the phone base to find his cordless phone, then while he calls for help the killer disconnects the phone base. (I actually do still have a phone like that, but I’m sure most people don’t, and it’s not the only phone in the apartment.)
The cover says “FROM THE CO-CREATOR OF ‘HALLOWEEN’ AND THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF ‘A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET,’” I guess because producer Joseph Wolfe has his name on HALLOWEEN II and III and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (as well as HELL NIGHT and FADE TO BLACK). Director Etheredge-Ouzts had worked for another one of the producers as an art director, and was trying to get a romantic comedy off the ground, but took a shot at their idea of a gay horror movie with a masked killer at the West Hollywood carnival.
He later did ANGEL OF DEATH, the 2009 web-series-turned-movie starring Zoe Bell.
HELLBENT played mostly gay and lesbian film festivals before a limited release in September of 2005. Box Office Mojo says it was only on 11 screens, Wikipedia says 39. I think something like this could get a little bit wider of a release now, but then again maybe it would be stuck on VOD. Here’s some odd trivia: they struggled to come up with the name, and chose it from submissions to an online contest – but the entrants didn’t know about the devil mask, so it’s kind of a coincidence that it’s the perfect title.
Thanks to Mr. Majestyk for recommending this way back in 2012, and to Murder Slim for reminding me a few times since.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.