Fifteen years after its theatrical release, slasher Hellbent has become one of the quintessential queer horror films.
When two gay men are brutally beheaded in a West Hollywood park, a group of four gay friends decide to celebrate the Halloween Carnival by taking a grisly trip to the scene of the crime. What they don’t realise is that a sickle-wielding killer is still haunting the area, waiting patiently for his next victims to come along.
Bloody Flicks caught up with Director Paul Etheredge to discuss the film’s legacy, a lost sequel and creating a ‘Queer Halloween’.
Can you believe it’s been 15 years since the theatrical release of Hellbent?
The stunning part of that for me is how long it’s taken queer horror to move into the public consciousness. HELLBENT and a few others have been kind of drifting around as oddities waiting for this current explosion of interest in queer horror projects. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled. These early queer horror films are enjoying second lives. But I’m amused by *how* ahead of their time these films were.
What can you recall about writing the film?
I remember tremendous pressure during the writing phase, and not only because of nagging doubts that artists enjoy. I was tackling the first queer slasher, and I needed to “get it right”. A monumental burden, being the first. Not just representing a new sub-genre of horror, but needing to prove the viability of such queer films. No room for fuckups. (Of course, I fucked up plenty) Additionally – ironically – I really don’t enjoy slashers. They’re super stressful for me to watch. As an 80s kid – and a horror fanatic! – I’d have to leave the room when characters were about to be killed. I’m to empathetic. Even during the HELLBENT premiere, I screamed during one of the scares.
In my process of embracing the slasher film I was writing, I sketched out a few different versions of the story, that varied in their ghoulishness, realism, and approach to the killer. (In one version, the killer was charismatic love interest who secretly kept fermenting heads in Tupperware.) I ejected the story threads I couldn’t stomach and wrote the somewhat dreamlike version of the film I ultimately made.
Side note: during pre-production, I *insisted* we would not be using blood in HELLBENT. All murders would be tastefully implied. But once I was on set, I realized I *loved* blood. Be open to new experiences, people!
One of the defining parts of Hellbent is the relationships between the characters, was this always intentional from yourself?
I felt (and still do) the best tool in crafting a successful horror movie is to create sympathetic characters. If the audience emotionally connects to your characters, the tension and horror are much, much easier to pull off. I set out to create men I’d like to know, who was likably human and so engaged with living, they didn’t recognize Death when he appeared. I wanted the audience to root for the guys to live.
The friendships between the guys organically grew out of this approach.
I’ve heard a story that you originally wanted a Latino actor to portray Eddie, was this the case and if so how hard was the casting process?
Yeah, Eddie was a Latino when I wrote him. In part, because I wanted to shake up the ethnicity of characters in the movie, but also because Eddie has strong family ties – his sister and father both play important roles in his life – and I had an interest in that cultural (perhaps stereotypical) dynamic. Especially when contrasted with Tobey’s combative relationship with his WASPish family. But it was not to be. We cast HELLBENT during a challenging time in queer cinema. Queer audiences were desperate for big-budget studio representation, but most actors still feared being pigeonholed as “gay” if they appeared in low budget queer movies. Actors of colour – and most queer actors – refused to audition. And I get it, it was the reality of the time.
Only twice did I really sweat the casting process. The opening of the movie features two guys making out in a parked car. These roles were tough to find actors for: all that gay stuff but none of the screen time. The night before we had to shoot the sequence, the only actors willing to take the jobs were retired porn stars. I insisted to the producers the characters needed to be very young for the scene to work; the audience wouldn’t care about two forty-somethings getting killed while parking. So the casting director scoured the talent pool, and by morning, we had our two actors.
The second casting dilemma was for the “murder on the dance floor” sequence. Initially, the scene was about Chaz and two minor characters in the club – high on molly – exploring pleasure/pain while rolling on the drug. In this case, the two actors cast for the scene simply didn’t show up, and we had no time to recast. I had to create the sequence that’s in the film on the fly. It’s not radically different from the script (SPOILER: Chaz still dies), but the explanation for his loopy reaction to being stabbed is missing.
Did you struggle with the limited budget of the film?
Of course! We couldn’t afford rehearsals. Locations were secured only hours before we arrived to shoot. The shooting schedule was erratic and dragged on for weeks. The crew changed constantly. But these aren’t new challenges for low budget filmmaking. In my mind, we accomplished much, much more than we had a right to.
Are you proud that Hellbent is considered the first gay slasher film?
Absolutely. I have a complex and evolving relationship with HELLBENT. I call the film my “three-legged dog”. But the film has its undeniable place in queer cinema history. And for that I’m forever grateful.
Is it true all of the cast were heterosexual men?
I know a number of the HELLBENT supporting cast were from the LGBT community; I can’t speak for the principal cast.
Was it always the plan to set the film around Halloween?
Yeah, the producers’ idea for the film was always “slasher at the Halloween parade”, even before my involvement. The head exec-producer, Joe Wolf, had been involved with the original HALLOWEEN (and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). I think he was looking to continue capitalizing on the holiday.
How much did your script change during shooting, if at all?
I don’t recall making major story adjustments. To be honest, I haven’t read the script since 2002.
Did you ever consider doing a Hellbent 2?
I think we all secretly wanted to shoot a sequel, and I had a plan for HELLBENT 2 that picked up right after the conclusion of the first film. Very much in the vein of HALLOWEEN II. But HELLBENT wasn’t a massive success at its release and that kind of killed the momentum. I get *tons* of fan interest in a sequel, though. But if HELLBENT ever got a reboot, it would demand new queer voices to guide it.
When was the last time you saw the film, and how do you think it has aged?
HELLBENT is a rough film. It’s a low budget. Some sequences look tawdry. The image looks “Vaselined” (it predates most digital camera technology – we shot on mini-cassettes, not on cards). And for years since its release, this is what I thought HELLBENT to be. But recently, I screened HELLBENT in a theatre with an audience. A transformative experience for me, not going to lie. After fifteen years, I’d forgotten how to watch the movie, but that audience taught me again. Many in the screening were new to the film – and used to current technical standards. But they engaged and screamed and laughed all the way through. Rowdy applause at the end.
So I’ve revised my response to the movie: technically, it’s a dinosaur, but the important parts still shimmer.
Do you feel there is still not enough horror films being made for LGBT audiences?
Unquestionably, LQBT people need more *real* representation in horror movies. And we need more horror films that speak to our experiences. Studios are taking note of audience demand for fresh perspectives, and these films – and television shows – are coming.
Where did the design for the killer come from?
I wanted the killer to wear a mask that was recognizably “evil” but also played into the traditional sexiness of queer Halloween. The Devil seemed the right choice – he was both alluring and menacing when he needed to be. I lucked out and landed two designers at the top of their field to handle the mask: creature designer, AARON SIMS (STRANGER THINGS), and fabricator, JUSTIN RALEIGH (AQUAMAN).
What films did you use as inspiration for the story and characters in Hellbent?
I watched Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN literally every day for two months. The original INVADERS FROM MARS. Super-8 queer films from Kenneth Anger and James Bidgood. Lots of 70s & 80s slashers (yikes!). The characters are all amalgamations of people from my life.
What is your favourite sequence in the film?
Ha. Imagine a box of puppies. Which is your favorite? The one currently licking your face.
Join Paul Etheredge on Friday 26th June at the Sohome Horror Film Festival: Pride Edition for a commentary of Hellbent with the Strong Language & Violent Scenes Podcast.