"Hellbent" follows the tried-and-true rules of any old body count movie, but is groundbreaking all the same because its slew of heroes and victims are all gay males. It is a novel twist to the formula, to be sure, but the success of the film comes from the newfound layers and thematic undercurrents that resonate from this fact. Coming to terms with one's sexuality, the modern-day threats of HIV/AIDS, the common fear of being "out" in the workplace, the thin line between a harmless sexual encounter and outright deathit is all here, captured boldly by promising first-time filmmaker Paul Etheredge-Ouzts.
A playful tryst between two guys in a parked car leads to murder on the eve of Halloween, both of them gruesomely beheaded. As news of the crime spreads between a group of twenty-something friends, and even after believing they may have come into contact with the killera shirtless, musclebound phantom in a devil costumethey press on to the West Hollywood Halloween carnival. It is there, as the techno music swells, go-go boys dance around them, and the four of them flirt with crushes and possible hookups, that the killer lurks in the shadows, preparing for his next victims.
Written and directed by Paul Etheredge-Ouzts, "Hellbent" is a competently made, atmospherically potent slasher flick that makes up for much of its lack of originality (outside of the gay angle, that is) with a style and know-how of generating good jump scares and a solid amount of tension. Although the very low budget is usually apparent, Etheredge-Ouzts works hard to give the project high production values, especially in having most of the action take place during West Hollywood's real-life annual Halloween carnival. This added authenticity, mixed with above-average performances from all the leads, lends the film an amount of foreboding and dread that it otherwise wouldn't have had.
When the central killings begin around the thirty-minute mark, the surprise comes not in the deaths themselves, but in the sadness that permeates from the loss of the characters, who are developed just enough to mean more to the viewer than most slasher movie victims. Joey (Hank Harris), for example, a comparative newbie to the gay scene who is kept a watchful eye on by his buddies, has a hopeful moment of connection with a nice, handsome guy at the party, his joy in getting his number silenced moments after by the devil's scythe. Another scene, in which cross-dressing Tobey (Matt Phillips) unfortunately decides to bare his soul to the killer (he doesn't know his identity at the time), is haunting precisely because Tobey's goodhearted intentions lead him to his awful fate.
As for lead Eddie (Dylan Fergus), whose hopes of a career in law enforcement ended when he lost one of his eyes in an accident, his burgeoning romance with a dark, brooding motorcyclist, Jake (Bryan Kirkwood), is treated seriously and with a sort of sweetness. That these two have just so happened to find their way into the middle of a violent and bloody horror picture is a case of bad luck. One of the most unsettling images director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts concocts is when the blade of the killer's weapon just barely scrapes against Eddie's glass eyeit's wickedly clever, perverse, and more disturbing than the bevy of decapitations on view.
As a novice indie effort, "Hellbent" tends to be a little rough around the edgesthe pacing, while fast enough, flows unevenly from scene to scene, and the climax disappointingly lurches toward predictability and a last-second setup for a sequelbut remains an earnest, well-crafted throwback to the days of the '80s slasher craze. The moody camerawork especially deserves notice, undoubtedly influenced by 1978's "Halloween
" in the way lighting, shot compositions, and subtle background details keep the viewer off-balance and always with more to take in than originally meets the eye. Meanwhile, the villain's identity is wisely never revealed, leaving him an enigma all the more frightening because of the mystery surrounding him. "Hellbent" doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel with its narrative, but for horror fans (and that includes the heterosexual populace), it is smarter than the norm and delivers a crafty little twist to the conventions of the genre.