You need to watch this unapologetically queer slasher.
If you know where to look, there are tons of queer horror movies out there, not to mention the horror movies with queer subtext. In 2004, Paul Etheredge’s film Hellbent started popping up at LGBTQ+ film festivals across the U.S. Centering around a group of young gay and bisexual men, this film takes place in a world where being LGBTQ+ is the norm and not the exception. This not only makes Hellbent stand out from other slashers, but it also makes it more fun to watch; the queer viewer can seamlessly enter their characters’ world because it is their own.
Hellbent is one of the only scary movies (really, one of the very few movies in general) that takes place in a world that is predominantly queer. This isn’t a film featuring a handful of gay characters operating in a majority straight world. Etheredge (who wrote and directed the film) drops viewers into the characters’ world right away. Gary Floyd, the openly gay lead singer of punk band Dicks, screams the group’s song “Lifetime Problems” over the opening credits.
Hey baby, don’t take my life.
Hey baby, don’t be my wife.
Hey baby, don’t fuck with me.
The lyrics call out both the violence and homophobia queer people face, and it also declares itself in opposition to the heteronormative lifestyle embraced by so many. (Hey baby, don’t be my wife.) The dark lyrics are also a nod to the plot of Hellbent — the guys don’t know it yet, but soon, they’ll be fighting for their lives.
As the film begins, the young twentysomethings tease each other, flirt and excitedly discuss their outfits for the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval. Eddie, the cute, shy protagonist, is dressed in his dad’s old police uniform; Chaz, his flirty, sexy best friend, is in a leather cowboy getup; Joey, the awkward younger guy, goes out of his comfort zone in a strange jeans-and-S&M outfit; and Tobey, the handsome model, decides to attend the parade in drag as an escape from his everyday life as a sex symbol. Every character is immediately likable and every character represents someone to queer viewers.
Eddie is easily relatable to anyone in their early adulthood trying to figure out their identity. He longs to be a cop, but an eye injury (more on that later) derails his career. He longs for a boyfriend. But he’s stuck with his “good boy” reputation and wants to break out of that box. He works a desk job at the local police station. Dressed in his dad’s old police uniform for Halloween, he uses his powers for good and stops traffic for a group of drag queens to safely cross the street.
Viewers meet Chaz as he’s climbing out of his car after a dalliance with a straight couple, who look dazed and delighted after their time with him. Despite the clown car look of the scene, it’s refreshing to see a bisexual character treated so naturally. There are no snide remarks about taking a side or any internalized biphobia. He’s happy-go-lucky and comfortable with himself, whether he’s hooking up with someone, protecting his friends from creepy guys, or giving the guys pep talks.
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Joey, the little brother of the group, isn’t as settled into himself as his friends. But instead of giving him a hard time, his friends support him. Eddie babysits the naïve Joey during the carnival, and Chaz stays behind at a club to support Joey while he finally makes a move on the jock he’s been in love with from afar. It is clear from the other guys’ protectiveness of Joey that this is their chosen family.
Tobey appears almost exclusively in full drag throughout Hellbent. He tells his friends that he wants to get his picture taken in front of the billboard where his near-naked form is draped across West Hollywood, then send it to his mom for Christmas. Tobey represents the need to break free from familial and societal expectations. Not only is he a lusted-after male model, he’s also confident enough to go out dressed to the nines in drag. (Of course, once he sees the picture of himself in front of the billboard, he despondently realizes, “I look just like my mom.”)
While hanging up posters warning revelers of a killer on the loose, Eddie ends up in a tattoo and piercing shop Devil Doll Studios (a real shop in Los Angeles that has since shuttered). He sees the smolderingly sexy Jake getting a tattoo, with a single line of blood running down his back. Eddie is immediately drawn to Jake, and even tries to impress him by (illegally) sharing insider info about the open murder case.
This tension between sex and danger pulses throughout Hellbent. Eddie is attracted to Jake partially because he doesn’t know who or what he is. It’s possible that Jake is the killer, but Eddie either doesn’t care or even finds that more appealing. (A similar trope exists in the 2013 French film Stranger by the Lake.) After Chaz insists on walking through the woods where the murders take place on their way to the Halloween celebration, the group encounters a menacing man wearing devil horns. Instead of avoiding him, they egg him on as he watches them, stroking both his penis and a large knife.
The guys theorize about whether this mystery man is the killer, and if so, what his motivation could be. Is it an older gay man who’s jealous of their youth and the possibilities that lie before them? Or is it a guy who has hangups about his mother? During a 2005 interview with Slant Magazine, Etheredge states,
“I chose to keep the killer something of a blank slate, allowing the audience members to interpret the killer for themselves… I found that each detail I added to the killer robbed him of menace; the best approach was to define him as little as possible.”
Etheredge’s thoughtful decision lets each viewer project their own particular fears onto the killer, thus making him as terrifying as possible to each individual.
After their bizarre encounter in the woods, the group parties at the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval—or at least, until the killer dispatches of Joey, Chaz, and Tobey, one by one. Joey finally gets a date with the object of his desire, but before he can do too much celebrating, the killer swoops in. Chaz takes ecstasy, and in a scene eerily reminiscent of Diane Keaton’s death at the end of the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, he’s murdered while dancing under a strobe, making the scene all the more frightening and disorienting. Both men were basking in the accepting atmosphere of the club where queer people have often sought refuge, thus making their deaths even more chilling. In a place where they could be themselves without fear, they were murdered.
Still in drag, Tobey becomes frustrated when he isn’t getting the attention he’s used to. After being ignored by yet another man, he tears off his wig and earrings, and even reads his personal information (including his address) off his ID to prove he’s a cis man. Unfortunately, the mysterious man he’s trying to woo is the killer, who summarily chops off his head. Ironically, Tobey would’ve most likely survived if he remained in drag. When he reveals himself to be an attractive young gay man, he seals his fate.
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The killer then targets Eddie, but he’s stopped by—of all things—Eddie’s glass eyeball. In a moment of total confusion for both Jake and the audience, the killer tries to stab Eddie. But his knife meets not with a squishy, easily destroyable eyeball, but a solid glass ball. It turns out this is the reason why Eddie doesn’t qualify for the police force.
After Eddie reports the crime to his sister (who is a cop), he tells her, “Don’t let them turn this into a fag-bashing, okay? It would ruin me around here.” This may be the saddest line in the movie. Eddie wants so badly to be a police officer like his dad and his sister. Even if it weren’t for his glass eye, would the other cops accept him? Or would he face homophobia at work, just like many other queer people who are just doing their jobs?
One person who does accept Eddie is Jake, who is undeterred by the glass eyeball situation (not to mention the serial killer stalking them). The two head back to Eddie’s place. However, things don’t go quite as planned. Armed with the guys’ address from Tobey’s ID, the killer sneaks in and attacks them.
During a final confrontation with the killer, Eddie overcomes his lack of depth perception and shoots him, saving himself and Jake. Eddie stops the serial killer and becomes the queer hero of the film. Hellbent closes in about the wildest way a horror movie could: The killer (despite everything, he’s still alive!) pops his eyes open and grins, revealing Eddie’s missing glass eyeball clenched between his teeth.
Right before this shocking reveal, however, something else happens. Jake is lifted into the ambulance, teasing Eddie for looking like a pirate with his eyepatch, and Eddie replies, “I’ll be there when you wake up.” In the end, the boy gets the boy, despite the beheaded friends, serial killers, and glass eyeballs that crossed their paths. An even bigger surprie than the killer holding Eddie’s eyeball in his mouth is that Hellbent is also a queer romance.
To this day, Hellbent is one of the only films where a gay man saves his lover in such a dramatic and action-packed way. And since the film takes place in a queer world, it doesn’t even stand out as something unusual. It’s only when viewers take a step out of the film that they can realize how truly groundbreaking this ending is. Almost two decades later, Hellbent remains one of our most unapologetically queer horror films.