While the horror genre touched on queerness well before Hellbent was ever released, Paul Etheredge-Ouzts’ 2004 film is considered to be the first of its kind: an openly queer slasher. Without question, there is no ambiguity about the characters’ sexualities as they partake in the annual Halloween festivities in West Hollywood. The only real mystery about these men is the masked killer following them, hoping to add their names to his growing list of headless victims.
Art director Etheredge-Ouzts was first approached by producers Michael Roth, Joseph Wolf and Karen Lee Wolf in 2000 about making a gay horror film. By then, the trend of slashers hard on the heels of Scream had already reached its expiration date, but even so, what eventually became Hellbent remains a unique entry in the first major revival of slashers. And what was once coded in both past and contemporary films was now glaring and unapologetic in this one.
Hellbent reverently draws from “slashics” like Halloween and Black Christmas. From coital death to a killing spree set on a holiday, Etheredge-Ouzts’ story plays out like a love letter to his own favorite horrors. Of course, the difference here is the film’s hook — a cast of queer characters. And that fact is clear right from the beginning; two men, as opposed to the standard heterosexual couple in these kinds of films, are caught fooling around in the woods before dying a vicious death. This attention-seizing opener brings morbid meaning to the phrase “giving head.”
Hellbent plays with horror conventions without making them unrecognizable. The killer’s playground is no longer a summer camp but a campy city carnival in WeHo — a setting inspired by the 1959 film Black Orpheus — and the Final Girl is now a Final Boy. The enduring character types of horror remain intact, although they’ve been modified. The jock is decked out in drag, the buffoon is a sex magnet, and the dork wins the hunky man of his dreams. As for the aforesaid Final Boy, he doesn’t stray too far from the habits of his female counterparts; hopelessly romantic Eddie (Dylan Fergus) wants love but also a little danger. Bad boy Jake (Bryan Kirkwood) definitely checks off multiple boxes as a love interest. His increasing fascination with Eddie almost rivals that of the sickle-wielding killer (a.k.a. the Devil Daddy).
The strength of Hellbent is ultimately its characters. Etheredge-Ouzts conceived queer characters whose sexualities aren’t their most defining trait. The cast, with the exception of Tobey (Matt Phillips), is indeed dressed up as hypermasculine stereotypes on Halloween — Eddie as a vintage street cop, Joey (Hank Harris) as a leather daddy, and Chaz (Andrew Levitas) as a sexy cowboy — but their costume choices carry psychological weight and, for some, are a fantastical extension of their usual personalities. Dressed in his father’s ‘70s police uniform, the desk-riding Eddie can step out without getting too wild. Joey is originally the unassertive twink of the group, yet now he finds confidence after strapping himself into leather gear. Chaz, being the token bisexual among his friends, can’t be tamed as the lawless cowboy.
Perhaps the most complicated character of the group is athlete and underwear model Tobey. The decision to go in drag stems from his double-edged feelings about objectification. While he becomes undesirable and invisible (to other queer men) after donning a gown and wig, his plan backfires once he starts craving attention again. This eventually lands him in trouble when he does everything in his power, including handing over his and Eddie’s home address, to engage the killer, who otherwise showed no interest in Tobey. If not for this severe miscalculation on his part, Tobey might have survived his obsession with others’ perception of himself.
It’s uncommon to have a slasher where the antagonist’s identity remains undisclosed, however, Hellbent isn’t necessarily set up to be a whodunit. With the story happening all in one night, it’s impossible for Eddie and the others to fully investigate their attacker. Until their enemy is upon them, they don’t even realize they are in danger to begin with. The absence of the killer’s unmasking is frustrating, but the total anonymity allows for both the characters and the audience to create their own mythology about the Devil Daddy. Are these the hate crimes of a homophobe, or is the assailant out to hurt members of his own community? Not knowing a definitive answer is more effective, not to mention unsettling in this scenario. The director put it best in an interview with Slant: “I chose to keep the killer something of a blank slate, allowing the audience members to interpret the killer for themselves.”
The low-grade presentation of Hellbent isn’t for everyone. The film tends to look too dark, too murky, and too raw, yet the director’s creative flair still manages to come through. As Eddie and his ill-fated pals travel their way to and through the street carnival, the film starts to develop a visual identity to better match its sinister story. Suspiria-esque colors, uncanny lighting, and silhouette play are just a few of the elements that raise the film’s aesthetic value.
Horror fans might be inclined to overlook Hellbent because they think of it as more of a joke — a “gay movie” posing as a slasher — than a genuine horror film. On the contrary, Paul Etheredge-Ouzts’ directorial debut is a sincere stab at the genre. Yes, the film’s appearance can be off-putting, and the cast lacks diversity. The complex characters and smart writing, though, help make up for these shortcomings. Eddie and the others all come across as real friends who are worth caring about. This slasher may be seen as just another shallow offering of beautiful young bodies being slaughtered at Halloween, but neither the story nor those bodies are brainless. Hellbent is a clever slice of queer horror that’s deserving of its hidden gem status.
Hellbent has been remastered and can now be viewed at Here TV.
Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.
The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.