By Stephanie Zacharek
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It seems just about any movie featuring a positively gay character scares the bejeezus out of religious film critics like Michael Medved and Ted Baehr. So it was merely a matter of time before someone embraced that notion and made an all-out (pun intended) gay film that's deliberately scary. That's what first-time writer-director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts has tried to do with HellBent, a slasher flick set during the annual West Hollywood Halloween Parade, an event that allows the Los Angeles gay community to get as flamboyantly theatrical as possible. Unfortunately, "tried" is the operative word here. HellBent is definitely a gay movie, but aside from misplaced Southern Baptists, it probably won't scare many in the audience.
Etheredge-Ouzts, a former prop master and set dresser, has claimed in interviews that he wanted to focus on making well-developed characters, but the first step toward that would have been to obtain well-developed actors, which he has not done. The best point of reference would be the 1997 gay indie movie Latin Boys Go to Hell, which opens as a drama and then turns into a lame slasher, but managed to do decent business in the gay community nonetheless due to the fact that a naked guy with ripped abs was on the poster. There are abs and asses aplenty in HellBent, but no thrills and very little in the way of acting.
Our hero is Eddie (Dylan Fergus), who works in the West Hollywood Police Department, but not as an active officer, because his vision is impaired and he can't shoot straight (no pun intended this time). Together with his friends -- scrawny bondage-boy Joey (Pumpkin's Hank Harris), bisexual cowboy Chaz (Andrew Levitas), and drag-queen-for-a-night Tobey (Matt Phillips) -- he sets out to have some fun, hopefully with biker Jake (Bryan Kirkwood). But a madman is on the loose, cutting off homosexual heads with a sickle, and he just so happens to be dressed as a sexy Satan.
That's the entirety of the plot. Etheredge-Ouzts spends a lot of time setting up the characters, then has most of them get offed rather quickly, in unimaginative ways, which is not a good thing for a slasher. And we never learn anything about the muscular maniac in the devil mask; surely some fun could have been had here. Make him a retarded preacher's son, or a closeted Republican candidate for mayor -- something. Perhaps he's intended to be the real devil, making gay people pay for defying the literal words of the Bible, but it might help to give us more than just a costume to go on. If he's not supernatural, why does he do what he does? Even the most straight-to-video of offerings in this genre know that a scary origin story is vital to creating an iconic, franchisable killer.
In a majority of "straight" slasher movies, the killer often represents fear of adulthood and the potential negative consequences of sex and drugs. Here, one might argue that he represents fear of casual sex, but really, none of the characters seem afraid of that in the slightest, nor do they act like it's anything new to them. The best slashers involve irresponsible teens; these are (mostly) responsible adult males, who make a point of using condoms. Making a connection to homophobia would be the best shot at connecting to real fears, but the opportunity is missed.
Etheredge-Ouzts would probably insist that his film isn't intended to be a social statement, but the best scary movies do have their basis in real fears. One might forgive the director his lack of substance if he could work up some good scares, or even camp humor, but alas, there's no fear here, nor even decent gore, and the best line comes from Tobey, who, after puking in a trash can, ad-libs, "I'm okay; I don't need the calories anyway." Not bad, but is that the best you could do?
Mostly, HellBent resembles the plethora of low-budget gay movies that seem to get made purely because the lead actors have good physiques. In that sense, it's more gay than horror. It's not the worst movie set during the West Hollywood Halloween Parade -- that would be Wasabi Tuna -- but one has to wonder if a decent film can be made using that setting. You'd think so, but nothing as yet.
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