Frameline 32: The Horror, the horror

Blood on the screen at this year's fest, with Cthulhu, Socket, and even more gore
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Will queers ever get the horror movie they deserve? Granted, with the recent coast-to-coast ratifications of same-sex marriage, LGBT folk have more pressing issues than debates over genre cinema on their mind. Besides, that intransitive verb — deserve — provides an extra soupçon of tastelessness to an already loaded question: wasn't the golden age of the celluloid closet defined by giving onscreen queers "what they deserved," doling out silent suicides and grisly homicides as the price of representation? And aren't we faced with enough real-life horrors? Homophobia and AIDS are still killers on the loose. So why appeal for terror?

To put it simply, there is pleasure in being scared. And to put it more complicatedly, there can be empowerment in that pleasure. Two of New Queer Cinema's most lauded films — Todd Haynes' Poison (1991), and its "Horror" section in particular, and Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992) — critically queered horror's generic conventions and Hollywood's coded positioning of gay men as monstrous. A few years later, queer critic Paul Burston and feminist critic Amy Taubin separately penned defenses of Cruising (1980) — arguably the first gay slasher film — and Basic Instinct (1992), based on then-contrarian grounds of personal enjoyment.

Since then we have entered a post-Scream world where everyone knows horror's hanky codes. Rewiring them for LGBT audiences doesn't always yield a film the caliber of Poison, just as enjoying "bad" images of gays and lesbians doesn't necessitate a printed confession. While casual homophobia is still permitted in mainstream releases such as Hostel, the price of representation, at least for most of the handful of horror films that tour the LGBT festival circuit, seems to be mediocrity. I know I wasn't the only one woefully disappointed with the West Hollywood bloodbath HellBent (2004). And let's not even get into Scab (2005).

Luckily for all the rainbow-colored Fangoria fans still bloodthirsty after catching local director Flynn Witmeyer's Imp of Satan earlier this year at Another Hole in the Head, late June is bearing an unexpected slasher crop of queer horror films. It includes Dead Channels' one-off presentation of Sean Abley's Socket (2007) and some scary fare at Frameline's SF International LGBT Film Festival. (Full disclosure: I was on the staff of last year's festival.)

A sexy sci-fi tinged thriller whose ideas are sometimes brighter than its execution, Socket puts a queer twist on Cronenberg-ian body horror. After surviving a freak electrocution, Dr. Bill Matthews (butch thing Derek Long) strikes up a relationship with his hunky caretaker, hospital intern Craig Murphy (Matthew Montgomery), and sparks literally begin to fly. Craig reveals that he is a fellow survivor and introduces Bill to a covert group of energy junkies who juice up together via a portable generator. Talk about a circuit party! Now insatiable, Bill surgically enhances his and Craig's socket fetish — and adds an extra jolt to their sex life — but his increasingly manic behavior leads to the kind of shock he never could have anticipated.

It is perhaps too easy to read Bill's degenerative energy dependency as an allegory for meth addiction, and the film certainly invites such comparisons. More interesting is Socket's rewiring of gay sex, with Bill and Craig's retractable, fang-like wrist plugs and dorsal wrist sockets multiplying the permutations of top and bottom as orienting poles of identity and desire. It's something I wish the film spent more time on.

Abley also produced and has a supporting role in Jaymes Thompson's The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror, one of three horror features screening at this year's Frameline fest.

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