| April 10, 2005

To properly cover Hellbent, I really have to write two reviews. Being a sub-genre of a sub-genre movie to start out with, I have to ask myself, “Did the filmmakers succeed at what they were trying to do?” But, as just a movie, I also have to ask, “Was it enjoyable as a film?”
Hellbent is pretty much your straight-forward “crazed maniac with sharp object knocks off a group of friends one by one, usually when they’re fooling around” flick. We begin with the couple making out in the car in the woods scene, a cliche of the genre, and if you don’t know what happens next, you don’t know your “crazed maniac,” etc. films. But Hellbent comes with a twist. Both halves of the couple slain before the credits are men, our hero and all his friends are gay, and the main action takes place on Hallowe’en night in West Hollywood–the gay equivalent of Easter in the Vatican.
So, the first question is, did the filmmakers succeed at making a gay version of a Friday the 13th-type film? Simply, yes. While maintaining all the conventions of the genre, writer-director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts has effortlessly translated events into an almost entirely gay world. (Hey, have to have a few token straights in there.) The film also follows pretty much all of the stereotypes and conventions of the slasher flick–ergo, the characters seem to be constantly and gleefully unaware that there’s a mad killer on the loose, even though they’re told about it up front and actually see him early on. He has the usual serial killer magical weapon that can one-stroke ginsu a head clean off in one moment, then merely inflect a non-life-threatening flesh wound when it’s dramatically necessary. There are fake-outs and false scares, the obligatory returns from the dead at just the right moment, and on and on. However… I have to say that Etheredge-Ouzts covers his tracks perfectly. While copping to every stale slasher cliche in the book, he takes pains to make it clear why his characters might not notice things that are obvious to us. Our hero’s friends don’t quite take his warning seriously in the beginning, and the villain does play divide and conquer in the busy streets and clubs of WeHoWeen. Etheredge-Ouzts also does something else that I don’t think any other slasher flick has managed to do for me–he makes me care about every character, so that I really did feel something as they met their ends. The deaths here aren’t just gore-porn for the gay set. There’s a certain poignancy and identification, even with the anonymous couple killed in the opening. There’s also the perhaps uninvited but inevitable subtext running through any story of a serial killer brought into a gay context–the gay community has been facing its own serial killer for over twenty years now, one that doesn’t discriminate in whom it strikes down; the one called AIDS.
Unlike most low-budget films, the performances here are universally excellent. As Eddie, Dylan Fergus (All My Children) is appealingly all-American, and he really has chemistry with his onscreen love-interest Jake (Bryan Kirkwood, The Forsaken). Outstanding, though, are Hank Harris (Breaking Dawn) as Joey and Matt Phillips (Champion) as Tobey. Joey is an eager twink who seems to be on his first Hallowe’en out, an instantly likeable kid because he’s so nervous about his pursuit of Mr. Football Jock. Phillips, though, steals the show as the butch billboard model who does drag for the first time in his life and has the best entrance of the film. Expect to see a lot more of these two actors.
One word of warning, though–if you’re familiar with West Hollywood, you will have to hold back the laughs over the impossible geography. In some ways, it’s a movie-must, depending on availability of locations, shooting schedule, etc., etc. It doesn’t bother me, really, that the clubs we go into are nowhere near WeHo. However, Etheredge-Ouzts could have put a little more thought into his location for the first murders. While I assume it’s a small park tucked in a slope between Sunset and Santa Monica, the way he shoots it makes it look like Griffith Park (LA’s Central Park, only bigger), and the geography of an up through the trees and down to the streets shot is totally impossible by any stretch of the imagination. Still, minor details. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so troublesome if the location had been left as generic Boys’ Town instead of specific West Hollywood.
So… if you’re gay and like slasher movies but have had to settle for the usual Tits ‘n Frats versions, this is a film for you. It’s suspenseful, scary and sexy. If you’re not gay but like slasher movies, this will give you a different universe in which to enjoy them.
As for my take on it as a movie, it doesn’t work quite as well, precisely because it follows the conventions of the slasher movie, a genre of which I’m not a huge fan–although I will admit to the guilty pleasure of enjoying slasher flicks that also lean toward the heavy “sex before death” angle. Hellbent is actually very tame on the sex. Unlike its straight counterparts, which seem to be overflowing with female breasts, there was nary a male butt to be seen here, and in this regard, I can see where Hellbent will be a big disappointment to its target audience. There are also those aforementioned gaping plot problems, as in smart characters who are too slow to pick up on the warnings of danger when the plot demands it, and the killer’s weapon of choice is entirely too arbitrary in its effectiveness. Finally, our hero is a bit of a cipher and not active enough. He winds up prevailing in the end more out of dumb luck than actively trying to solve the case. And I had a big problem that we never found out at the end who the killer was or why he did it. We did get a cheesy “there could be a sequel moment,” but I would have preferred to be blown away by an unexpected but perfectly logical revelation and explanation for the villain–who would be quite dead by then.
Still, where Paul Etheredge-Ouzts does excel is in atmosphere and mood, and he manages to do quite a lot with what was probably a small budget. While there’s some gore, it’s never explicitly graphic, and some of the more shocking moments actually happen just off-screen. Finally, as mentioned above, Etheredge-Ouzts introduces us to a handful of victims and then makes us root for them to live, which goes a long way in making what would otherwise be a shallow popcorn movie stick with us. Too many horror flicks are about how cool the $5,000 exploding latex head looks, and not about empathy. Etheredge-Ouzts makes us care and, in a horror flick, that’s more important than all the scares and screams.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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