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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Hank Harris, Dylan Fergus, Bryan Kirkwood, Andrew Levitas
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Paul Etheredge-Ouszts
MPAA RATING
Rated R
RUNNING TIME
85 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
Regent

 "Hellbent" Review 
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When the night belongs to the devil, the party goes to Hell.
 
Eddie: Two guys got murdered in their car last night.
Chaz: Were they boning each other?
Eddie: Yes, Chaz, they were boning each other.
Chaz: Ha ha! At least they died doing it, right?

"HellBent," from writer/director Paul Etheredge-Ouszts, is currently playing the indie circuit billed as the "First Gay Slasher Movie." While this is certainly a marketable "calling card" destined to attract audiences to yet another low-budget horror film, "HellBent" is, rather surprisingly, a horrifying (if fairly predictable and stereotypical) thriller with quite a few moments of social relevance and insight interspersed.

"HellBent" allowed me to continue my 18-year holiday tradition of seeing a horror film on Christmas Day. It's a quirky tradition grounded upon my own life tragedies, and yet even as I have healed my own loss and grief issues I find myself clinging proudly to this favorite holiday activity.

While I am not gay, in fact, I could see myself spending Christmas with the men featured in this film and, through strong performances and character development (again, fairly predictable development) I found myself caring about the men in question yet able to predict consistently who would be the next to die.

I have several gay friends, and I saw most of them in the lives of these men. The film centers on Eddie, played by Dylan Fergus, a young man who works at a local Hollywood precinct whose dreams of following in his father's footsteps as a policeman were shattered by an accident that hurts his vision. On Halloween night in Santa Monica (essentially a time of gay celebration), he gets the chance to do a touch of real police work by being an official presence at the festivities along with his buddies. Eddie is a responsible, hunky young man joined by his butch, bisexual roommate Chaz, played by Andrew Levitas along with Toby, a more masculine narcissistic hottie who ends up dressed in drag played by Matt Phillips, and, finally, the insecure yet incredibly likable Joey (Hank Harris), who is desperate to get a hunk's attention by wearing a sex slave outfit to the festivities.

If you recognize the last name on this list, then you've pretty much figured out my initial attraction to the film. We've previously seen Hank Harris in one of my most beloved films, "Pumpkin," in which he played a disabled young man who ends up involved with a sorority girl played by Christina Ricci. That film's dark humor balanced with social insights almost, at times, seems transferred to the horror setting of this film and, again, Harris offers an even more surprisingly, well-balanced performance.

While on their way to the festivities, the boys unknowingly run into a buff, "Devil" that appears headed to the festivities. What they don't realize, until later, is that this man had the night before brutally murdered the couple in question in the opening quote for this review. Thus, their few sarcastic, biting comments as they pass by the "Devil" would seal their fate for the rest of the night.

Writer/Director, in partnership with Joseph Wolf (co-creator of "Halloween" and Executive Producer of "Nightmare on Elm Street), has created a film with the perfect blend of dark, almost black humor, creating involving characters, and placing them in downright horrifying situations. While a few mild liberties are taken with the Santa Monica setting (EXAMPLE: including woods that don't exist), Ouszts utilizes the city perfectly and includes scenery from 2001 Halloween night festivities.

The resolution of the film is fairly predictable, yet in many ways itself a powerful social statement on the fate of these young men. The reality is that "HellBent" could ultimately work without the "gay" twist or marketing angle. It's a genuinely involving, horrifying film that is set in the gay community and, yet, the writer/director is smart enough to capitalize on that setting with authenticity and clarity. Are these characters stereotypical? Yes, they are...but, generally, these stereotypes are right on the money and can be easily found during any Friday night visit to your local gay bar.

What makes "HellBent" work so masterfully is the clarity of vision of Ouszts, the involvement of Wolf, strong production values (for a low-budget), and the performances of the cast, who exhibit a camaraderie that makes it impossible to not watch the screen as they are imperiled and, ultimately, meeting their fates.

The killer in question is horrifying and frightening, yet oddly sexy, when seen and could hold his own with any of our famously horrific killers. Likewise, the violence is done with great suspense and the film includes some of the strongest decapitation scenes witnessed in years.

One can't help think about the phrase "scream queen" when viewing "HellBent," but even the campiness of that thought is what elevates this film. The best horror films do one of two things...they either ground themselves in frightening, stark reality OR they suspend themselves just beyond the point of believability so that the audience can suspend judgment and simply enjoy the festivities. Somehow, 'HellBent" manages to do both. "HellBent" presents characters that are richly (if stereotypically) human, inviting men (with a few stray "straights" thrown in) and places them in both realistic and slightly unbelievable situations in resolving their fates. The balance is perfect and the blend is horrifying and involving.

It's been eighteen years of a holiday tradition that has brought me some of the worst horror films created and dumped on the Christmas holiday. However, this Christmas was special and I'll be "HellBent" to improve upon it in future years!
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
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