I’ll start by saying there are reams of incisive, insightful critique out on the internet about the films I’m covering here, but watching Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 and Nightmare On Elm Street 2 this week sure was a body and soul descent into why I love horror. Not just because of the Gay Ass Shit, but definitely also because of the Gay Ass Shit.
Look, genre and pulp are always going to be the pulse point of civilization. It’s why you can look at such populist/derided forms of entertainment (wrestling) or previously stomped genres that’re now “elevated” (horror) and take the pitch of where we’re at in terms of equality, taboo and desire in a way that you cannot with what I’ll call daytime culture. Daytime culture sets up the norms, and things like horror raze them to the ground.
At this point, a lot of Gay Ass Shit has been absorbed, commodified and sold back to us by and for daytime culture. We’re starting to see that around the very edges of trans culture as well, but the lens is always white gay male ideation, and trans culture’s perpetually gobbled up and filtered by, well, white gay male ideation. It’s far easier to accept leather daddies and drag queens on a screen when we’re friends with the “nice lesbian architects down the block” who moved to the suburbs with their two adopted children, chicken coop and Subaru. Binary sexual orientations have achieved assimilation. Not into the actual fabric of society, mind, but into dominant culture as a marketing and profit mechanism? 100%
When I say I care more about Sonny Kiss as a marker of progress than gay marriage, some will roll their eyes or cross me off the Acceptably Queer list forever (like I was ever on it to begin with, I mean, c’mon.) But it’s true! Pulp and genre build on what we find thrilling – salacious, desirable, forbidden – and allow us to dive into them and muck about with heady, feverish abandon. I also don’t think you can ever “elevate” pulp, because the act of bringing horror or genre into the mainstream forever banishes anything truly interesting from the attempt. That’s an essay, and it’ll wait until I’ve finally watched a recent film most people froth about but I’m hesitant to experience because of its overt pretension and the lackluster effect of the director’s previous jaunt. Three guesses.
I didn’t grow up watching horror films. I grew up reading Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, and watching the occasional thriller. I devoured the Universal monster movies as a kid. My mom was into that stuff and we skewed intellectual/psychological over gore. It took me years to break into the genre, save one memorable jaunt as a teenager to the theater to take in Jeepers Creepers, which is far better than it has any right to be. I watched The Exorcist and Halloween for the first time in a college film class. The former was an absolute asshole-clenching experience (in an extremely cold science lab, no less.) The latter was less impactful at the time, but I was mesmerized by the POV and the camera work. Carpenter’s work in that film piqued my interest in what horror could possibly be, but my barometer for spookiness was still Sheridan Le Fanu. I maintain that it’s a damn fine barometer, but there’s not much crossover appeal with slasher or body horror – at least not on the surface.
I met my current partner 15+ years ago, and he’s a Gen-X horror buff, to be sure. He’s been working on me ever since. He lured me in with things like The Descent and Evil Dead II, but we’re at Night of the Comet and Phenomena levels now and we’re starting to work on my shocking franchise gap. Aside from cataloguing where each of my favorite industrial tracks’s samples originated as I make my way through Craven, Romero, Hooper and all of their peers, I’m building a pure love of the genre.
Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellrasier 2 are interesting artifacts alone and in dialogue with one another. Barker wrote and directed the first after bemoaning previous adaptations of his work, but only produced the second. Hellraiser‘s gaze is interesting to me because there are aspects that are decidedly male, and yet some dark femme energy flutters about the edges. Julia’s dark empowerment transforms her into a viciously sexy ’80s femme murder queen, but there’s an attempt to decode and show feminine fantasy through her recollections of Frank, too. Kirsty flails around the house as the nymph and object, yes, but she ultimately bats her ridiculously ineffectual boyfriend’s hands away from the Lament Configuration as she saves both their lives.
The image of the Cenobite thrusting his fingers into Kirsty’s mouth is a real risk, even now, but it pays off in its abrupt, well-lit and sensual execution – and it doesn’t diminish her agency. Also, Hellraiser has a finger thing I find fascinating in that not much else at this time had the gumption to even go half as far as this. And still! The moment with Kirsty is a callback to Frank and Julia’s bloody courting in the attic – an interesting moment of mutual titillation and domination. Julia desires it, and it’s porny. For anyone into BDSM these gestures are a kind of shorthand or coding, yeah, but they don’t exclude the curious, or even the horrified. Lots here to unpack, and plenty that’s worthy of a deeper exploration.
There’s also a ton of good unpacking to do in Robinson’s chilling performance and epic ad libs (“Enough of this cat and mouse shit,” “Jesus wept”) and yet Kirsty’s bargaining with the Cenobites takes center stage, and we bookend our hellish experience with an exploited male body. The eroticism of Frank’s pain can be ascribed to whatever you want, really – Barker’s queerness, BDSM tropes, inversion – but it’s not common. Especially in horror that’d come before.
Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 is a fucking trip, man, and there is not much about masculinity that’s celebrated here. Tiffany and Kirsty’s friendship/mutual understanding of each other can be additional coded queerness, sure, but interpreting it as a strong female friendship and bond is just as powerful, and allows for a bit more nuance. Channard’s evil senex vibe and ramrod control of his environments – his “patients,” his home, his demeanor and expression – is set completely on its head by Julia and, later, Leviathan. That daytime scene of the bloody handprint on his wall, with Julia looking at herself in the mirror in all of her wet, skinless glory in the middle of that pristine, buttoned-down living room … so good. It reminds me of how Mann uses affluent, sanitized architecture in Manhunter (another favorite) to dial in the terror of that first scene. Channard is punished because he wishes to see, as he says, but his sight comes at the extreme expense of others.
The mattress scene is hard to watch, but the execution is exceptional. It’s a poignant and vicious look at how we treat mental illness, and it’s also an image of a de-powered male body devoured by the dark feminine, while the soon-to-be-devoured falsely empowered man looks on in awful, acute desire. Following the thread of innocence, there’s a golden opportunity to travel the main road with Tiffany, whose pure, white-clad self should be prime rib to the Cenobites – except, not quite. Not her desire, not her will. Pinhead makes the pronouncement, and the Cenobites set their sights on the more corrupted, Kirsty included. It could seem hokey to some, but that’s such an interesting and uncommon choice. Another chance taken is the humanization of the Cenobites, and the revelation that one was once a child. A whole dissertation to be done there, surely.
Overall, Hellraiser 2 isn’t “good,” per se – the last 20 minutes in particular try to wrap up far too many plot threads too neatly to balance out the film’s creative brass balls up to that point – but it sure as hell is memorable, and worth watching. It expands on the promises of the first film, usurps some of its good work and blasts the doors of the Hellraiser universe wide fucking open.
I plan to hold forth on Pinhead in more detail elsewhere, but for now, yes, he’s part of my gender identity. Duh and/or sigh.
He’s Inside Me!
Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was sold to me by my partner as “the gayest film ever made,” so of course we had to watch it. I was skeptical – I have seen, done and am some extremely Gay Ass Shit – and there’s not much that can really shock me in this realm. The closest anything’s come so far is Sleepaway Camp, and not for the much-scrutinized twist, mind. I’ve seen plenty of good scholarship that tackles that. No, what blew my hair back in that film is the exploitative lens on young male bodies. Not the counselor, not the cook, nor anything that was really written in the script – it’s the gaze. Jesus Christ. Similar to a current conversation about content vs. execution and framing of said content, Sleepaway Camp is questionable on a lot of levels. I’m not going to recommend that film, but it’s a fucking experience, to be sure. The most balanced thing I can say about it is that director, intentionally or not, was working out some shit. Did it actually get worked out? I cannot tell you.
Nightmare blew it out of the water. Again, there’s plenty of better scholarship and deeper dives out there, but my experience ran a top-speed gamut from “yeah, that’s a little gay” to “HOLY SHIT, how did they get this made?!” Enter one leather daddy P.E. teacher and an extremely ridiculous bondage shower scene, and my eyebrows shot through the goddamn roof.
Aside from marveling at the extreme homo – well, can we even call it homoeroticism if it’s just there? Anyway, what’s interesting to me about this experience is the inversion of the male lead. This movie ruined Mark Patton’s life, as he tells it, and there’s so much to be said about the toxicity of coding and the “open secret” of queerness in Hollywood and media that I won’t get into here. There are lines that’ll make you scream – “Something is trying to get inside my body!” being the most famous – and Grady is a walking gay wet dream to a purely ridiculous degree. But the lens on Jesse, in all of his sweaty, writhing, open-shirted glory, is decidedly classic horror in that he’s made to be the scream queen of the whole thing. We go here a bit in Hellraiser, but Jesse is 100% the exploited, tortured female lead, and if this script was a little better or more cohesive or something, damn it, this film could’ve been one of the best horror films ever made. Instead, every intriguing scene’s balanced by pool party teen massacre bullshit, or an increasingly fucking annoying Krueger, or the boring ass revelation that being straight Can Save You From The Nightmares.
The tragedy of Nightmare 2 is that in execution it’s a pure novelty film. Something to watch and marvel at. It’s not cohesive, it’s not well-written, it’s not particularly well-shot or paced. It’s riveting because of its anxieties and content, and boy, I could spend some time digging into the dual gay/suburban-panic of it all, but it’s not good because it doesn’t commit to anything. And that’s just a damn shame.
I Think I’m a … Horror Fan?
I took a break from writing this to run downstairs and rant excitedly about writing this to my partner, and in the midst of planning our next viewings and talking about exploitation and friction in horror, he uttered the phrase “Mandy is the best horror film of the ’80s.” This was in response to me tossing out “Mandy is the best horror film ever made,” to which I witnessed his entire body seize in Gen-X frustration and chagrin, but the re-contextualization is more accurate. We talked about The Thing and Alien and how you can’t have the same scale for everything, but Mandy makes good on the promise of the obscene, surreal and riveting legacy of films like Hellraiser, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Night of the Creeps, Re-Animator and Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Each flawed in some significant way, and yet so much more than the sum of its parts. Mandy sticks its landing in a way some of these earlier films can’t (though I’d argue Texas Chainsaw 2 is a near-miss) and I’ll basically never shut up about how fucking good that movie is, so I have to get it in somehow.
I also threw out there that Nightmare 2 is in strange dialogue with Ferris Bueler’s Day Off (I like it, calm down,) and that’s another essay in itself.
What I’ll wrap up with is this: good horror, real horror, plunges deep into our saran-wrapped brains and digs out the transgressive. It can go wrong, but oh, it can go so right, too. Smarter people have written tomes on queer and trans rep and content in horror and pulp, so let me end by saying that yes, the exploration of Gay Ass Shit draws me to this genre, but there’s also so much more here for me. There are risks taken. Sometimes failed, true, and sometimes failed so spectacularly you can’t help but remain glued to the screen. I am finding enjoyment, scholarship, personal exploration and joy in the attempt.
I have opened the box. They have come. I’m so damn excited!
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[…] a damn compelling horror flick. Barker hasn’t let me down so far with eroticism and desire (obviously) but there is so much to unpack in […]