When HellBent’s hero, Eddie (Dylan Fergus), a pretty boy with a 1985 hairdo who works a desk job at a West Hollywood police department, is nearly killed by the story’s iron-muscled killer, he asks his friend at the station, “Don’t let them turn this into a fag bashing.” This appeal is loaded, because it not only points to Eddie’s fears and insecurities as a gay man but also serves as a calling card for the film, which insists on being treated just like every slasher film before it. But against all odds, or, rather, against all expectations, HellBent is better than most films of its ilk. Though the characters do everything wrong and die in the order you might expect them to, it’s not without reason, and the film is distinguished by its set pieces, which aren’t just some run-of-the-mill tableaux morts (some of the juiciest and most convincing decapitation sequences since Argento’s Trauma), but frank expressions of frustrated gay identity.
On their way to a Halloween party in West Hollywood, Eddie and his friends are followed by a Tom of Finland type responsible for the deaths of two gay boys the night before. One by one, this silent killer picks off Eddie’s friends, who share a reasonably complicated camaraderie with one another and whose deaths are not only underscored by a crushing sadness but also evoke a diversity of problems that effect the gay community. The homely Joey (Hank Harris) dies after finally experiencing an inkling of romantic bliss, Chaz (Andrew Levitas) while strung out on Ecstasy and unable to tell if the stab marks on his torso are real or flights of his drug-addled imagination, and Tobey (Matt Phillips) after showing the killer that beneath his drag couture he’s all man. Even if Tobey’s predicament doesn’t inspire sympathy (it’s obvious he wouldn’t have a problem getting laid if he had gone out dressed as, say, a fireman), his death still reflects the residual damage the idolatry of masculinity has on the perceived lower ranks of gay culture.
The boys in the film are beautiful, but the film’s target audience may be disappointed by just how little skin director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts allows them to show. Which is not to say HellBent starves for eroticism. When the smiley Eddie first lays eyes on the badass Jake (Bryan Kirdwood) inside a tattoo shop, he’s seduced by a trail of blood sliding down the biker boy’s back. When the tattoo artist stops the blood from making it past the small of Jake’s back, Etheredge-Ouzts has fun making Jake and his audience complicit in the film’s conflated violent and erotic streaks. The moment is a classic dick-teaser, a term that could apply to the protracted sense of dread that anticipates the film’s murders.
Etheredge-Ouzts has a keen visual sense, and not just for attractive men. When Eddie takes the too-cool-for-school Jake back to his apartment and they indulge in some erotic shotgun toking, he frames them elegantly between a poster of Cuba. Though this doesn’t say anything particularly profound about Chaz’s cultural heritage, it does call attention to the tweaker’s absence from the apartment. It’s interesting that while Eddie admonishes Chaz earlier for leaving Joey alone in the bathroom at MeatLocker, Eddie does the same to his friends as the story progresses. Etheredge-Ouzts implicates his lead character, if not as a conspirator in the deaths of his friends, then as a hypocrite for abandoning them as soon as scoring with Jake became a certainty. HellBent is a gay slasher film with gorgeous bodies on display, but it lets us know that it has a brain as well. Could Eddie’s self-obsession, then, be read as a comment on how the gay community is failing itself?
Argento’s films are obsessed with motifs of sight and sightlessness, with blind men figuring prominently in The Cat O’Nine Tails and Suspiria. Perhaps taking a cue from the great giallo director, Etheredge-Ouzts has Eddie struggle with a bad eye, using the character’s inability to see the world properly as a recurring motif; it’s not only a measure of his sexual insecurities and self-obsession but something of a fetish object for the film’s killer, who becomes increasingly beside the point as the focus of the story moves toward the difficulty Eddie and Jake have catching each other’s wavelengths. As a character, Eddie isn’t particularly complex, but his damage is, and the extent of his condition, both physically and emotionally, and what it means to the aloof Jake, interestingly unspools as the film moves along. So, even as the ending reveals itself as a flurry of hoary backstory and subtext moving to the fore (thank God for that shoebox in the closet and for Jake taking Eddie to target practice!), HellBent is distinguished by it’s uniquely perverse obsession with disability. One could say that the film, like Eddie and Jake’s night, proves to be a real emotional eye-opener.