For Halloween: ‘Hellbent’ director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts talks about the movie
Gay slasher flick now playing on here! and available on DVD
by Brian Juergens
Eddie (Dylan Fergus) fights for his life in this scene from ‘Hellbent.’
For all the hemming and hawing that producers (and publicists) do about having the next new thing in horror, actual innovations in the genre are pretty few and far between. So it was a particular pleasure to chat with writer/director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts, whose film “Hellbent” is billed as the “first gay slasher movie.”
A real fan of the slasher genre, Paul had a lot to say about what makes a good horror film, what makes a movie “gay” or “straight” and how filming during the biggest one-night outdoor party in the world can be true horror for a low-budget production.
Q. Okay, so let’s get the easy one out of the way: why make a gay horror movie?
PE. The producers aren’t blind to the movie’s novel hook. The queer twist helps make our slasher movie distinctive in the marketplace. That said, the gay angle isn’t merely a marketing ploy. I wanted to retell the familiar 1970s slasher movie, but peopled with kids who are confident, likable and happened to be queer. These are characters and perspectives we don’t often get to see in movies of any genre.
‘Hellbent’ director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts
Q. Do you think that there’s a place in the genre for gay horror flicks?
PE. I’m not certain that all-gay character horror will survive as a distinct sub-genre. My reasoning I’ll explain later. That said, I do know that there’s a place for more gay characters in horror films. We’ll see the inclusion of more gay/lesbian/bi/trans/whatever characters in future horror films. There’s a wide variety of people in the world and not a wide variety of horror. Future filmmakers will have to look beyond the conventional just to keep their material fresh.
Q. What differences do you see between gay horror and “straight horror?” Or are the themes basically the same?
PE. That question is the first I had to tackle when writing the script for “Hellbent.” And I quickly realized that I don’t think there is a “gay horror.” There are gay characters and gay subtext and gay situations, but I can’t pinpoint any specifically gay themes. The elements of a traditional horror films — being chased, recognizing that you’re about to die, being unable to save a loved one, fear of the dark — are universally potent, regardless of religion, language, culture, race, sex or sexuality. You wouldn’t expect a slasher movie with an all black cast to be fundamentally different from other films in the genre. And the same with gay horror, I think. “Hellbent” is “gay” simply because of its characters, not its horror. I’m sure someone will make the argument —“What about AIDS? What about persecution and intolerance?” Sure, gay people are affected by these horrors, but so are the majority of other people on the planet. There’s nothing in my mind specifically “gay” about them. And this is why I doubt “all-gay horror” will thrive as its own sub-genre. It just isn’t distinctive enough from mainstream horror – not if it’s honest. But I’m happy to be proved wrong!
Q. Were you nervous about making a film with a cast that’s almost completely male for an audience that’s generally held to be young guys?
PE. No. My mind was filled with more pressing concerns: “How do I shoot a five-page action scene in four hours?!” “Everything’s out of focus!” “My actor’s getting fat!” Also, I like to think horror fans are accepting of the non-conventional. We’re all a little freakish — that’s why we find comfort in horror. Besides, there are plenty of gays in the horror movie fanbase. Just go to Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors and take a good, long look at the crowd.
One of the things I like most about “Hellbent” is that the characters are actually likeable and seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company, unlike a lot of slashers where it’s impossible to imagine that the group of dimwits would ever hang out together.
The face of evil in ‘Hellbent’ — muscle man with a devil mask.
Q. How did you approach writing the various characters?
PE. I reviewed the celebrated (and less celebrated) films of the slasher genre in preparation for writing the script: “Psycho,” “Suspiria,” “Sleepaway Camp,” “Scream,” “Halloween”. Not surprisingly, I found the most successful slashers featured the better-developed characters.
Q. Did any of the straight actors have trepidations about playing gay?
PE. One of my actors dreaded wearing heels for the entire shoot — and he did take some nasty spills. But other than that, the cast was game.
Q. The film takes place pretty much in one day — during West Hollywood’s Halloween festivities. Did you really shoot during the party? Did anything crazy happen?
PE. The West Hollywood Halloween Carnival claims to be the largest one-night street festival in the world, with attendance in excess of 450,000 people. (Our version of West Hollywood and the party is partly fictional — as people familiar with the area will tell you.)
We shot our first footage for “Hellbent” at the Carnival in 2001. At the time, I hadn’t written the script and only had a vague idea of what the film would be about. I sent three camera crews into the crowd with the instructions: “Shoot anything cool.” We ended up with approximately six hours of Second Unit footage, less than two minutes of which appear in the film.
The following year, I had a script and a cast ready for the Carnival. Shooting on Santa Monica Boulevard proved challenging. The producers had the unenviable task of not only shepherding 30 cast and crew members through the party crowds, but also keeping us focused on our work. Mixed success: some of us went home drunk.
We also created Carnival sets to serve the needs of the story. For instance, the MeatLocker — the leather club featured in the film — is actually a local church we dressed for the film. A funny story: shooting went very late one Saturday, and the crew had to scramble to remove all the rubber corpses from the church ceiling before the Sunday service began.
Q. Killers in slashers are usually disfigured or lumbering, but your killer is a musclehead in leather pants. Why the choice to sex it up?
PE. Slasher films typically depict “evil” as repellent and ugly — it’s an obvious choice. But think of real serial killers — often their victims trust them because they’re attractive in some way. Externally, they don’t fit the “model” of evil. I wanted the Devil in “Hellbent” to be the muscled embodiment of someone’s fantasy — disarmingly handsome and sexy. The killer gains access to his victims in part because they don’t recognize him as dangerous. Another fun fact: the actor who portrays the Devil is an Abercrombie & Fitch model.
Q. “Hellbent” is also a throwback to the time when slasher movies also served as date movies — there’s a love story, comedy and thrills. Did the story start out as a horror movie with a romance, or a romance with bloody beheadings?
PE. The first draft of “Hellbent” was a difficult birth, simply because I hadn’t decided on the tone of the film. My first pass was too cerebral. It was literally a struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian perspectives, as personified by the protagonist and the killer. Lots of acid trip sequences. Total film school.
My second take was incredibly violent, disturbing and unsettling. It ended with the hero and the killer eating the love interest together. Ugly, ugly, ugly story. It made my stomach churn.
Ultimately I found the flavor I wanted for the script: A little blood, a little sex, a few laughs. Good times. It’s a breezy popcorn movie with a rockin’ soundtrack. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
Q. How did you come up with the idea of a killer who beheads his victims? What’s he doing with all those heads?
PE. From the beginning, the producers insisted the killer wear a mask. So I started there. I needed the killer to be both physically attractive and menacing. His victims had to find the killer appealing, in that titillating, dangerous way. I decided the image of a devil fit the bill, not to mention the Devil is a loaded symbol: evil incarnate. Creature designer Aaron Sims (“Constantine,, “Terminator 3,” “A.I.”) designed a metallic devil mask for me. It’s streamlined and sexy, but it has a very threatening silhouette. The rest of the Devil’s costume is pretty minimal and we really don’t show it much. For the killer’s weapon, I wanted something kind of twisted — not the typical kitchen knife. I envisioned the Devil character as having an animalistic quality, and the sickle we found was hooked and pitted and rough, like a talon. Some of my early designs had the blade built into the back of the Devil’s costume like a crooked, twisted tail. But I forgot about gravity — when the costume was built, the damn sickle kept pulling the killer’s pants down. When I was deciding the MO for the killer, I knew the murders had to be visual. Simple stabbings were too messy and not particularly interesting. Having the killer collect feet as trophies seemed ludicrous. Head collecting offered a lot of opportunity: Heads bounce. Heads stare back at you.
As for what the Devil’s doing with all those heads, you’ll have to wait for the sequel.
Q. What’s your favorite horror film? Did you take any tips from it in making “Hellbent”? Does “Hellbent” reference or pay tribute to any specific favorites of yours?
PE. My favorite horror film is “Alien.” I saw it during its first release in ’79, and if affected me horribly. As I walked out of the screening into the sunny afternoon, I was so traumatized by the film that I couldn’t remember anything I’d just seen. That evening, the nightmares started. Eventually, my family took me to a counselor, but I continued to have regular nightmares for 14 more years. “Alien” is very different from “Helbent,” so I can’t say I took any tips from it.
My main influences for “Hellbent” come from the golden age of horror — the ’70s. The best of those films have a great balance of raw character, shocking violence and gore and — surprisingly — wit. “Black Christmas” and “Halloween” are among my favorites. And with repeated viewings, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is incredibly funny. There were a few “odd” influences tossed into the mix as well: “Black Orpheus,” “Black Narcissus,” “Invaders From Mars” and the films of Kenneth Anger.