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Thursday, June 25, 2020

[Horror Queers] ‘Pitchfork’ Uses Queerness as a Bait-and-Switch, and That’s Not Okay

Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.

Be sure to check out and subscribe to the Horror Queers podcast! We’re still writing one article a month, but we release one podcast episode each week and discuss one film per episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn, or RSS.

***SPOILERS for Pitchfork follow.***

Synopsis: After sharing a secret about himself, Hunter (Brian Raetz) brings a group of friends from NYC back to his family farm for a weekend break. They quickly learn that secrets can be deadly as they are stalked by a twisted and disturbed beast, Pitchfork (Daniel Wilkinson).

Release Date: January 6, 2017.

Queer Aspect: The “secret” is that Hunter is gay.

Where to Stream: Pitchfork is streaming for free on Amazon Prime or you can rent it on iTunes for $2.99.


Trace

Where do I even begin with Pitchfork, Joe? It’s certainly a movie that someone made, isn’t it? I’m not going to say it’s the perfect film to cover for Pride Month (we’ve got the podcast for that), but at least it’s got some explicit queer content (for the first 15 minutes, anyway). 

Movies like Pitchfork are the reason I don’t give out 1-star ratings willy-nilly. When I see someone name a film like The Bye Bye Man or Wish Upon or The Mummy the worst horror film of the year (all of which came up on several “Worst of” lists in 2017), I have to laugh because there are always films like Pitchfork being released that deserve the title. Oh, don’t get me wrong, none of the films I listed are particularly good, but I “awarded” The Bye Bye Man a 1.5/5 rating because, as bad as that movie is (and it is very bad), it’s at least a slightly watchable disaster. Yet even then, I was accused of being “too kind” to the film. That isn’t the case with Pitchfork, a film I wouldn’t recommend to anyone if we weren’t writing an article on it. 

Of course, you have to take into account production values here. All of the films I listed above were produced by major production companies and received wide theatrical releases, so expectations are higher for them. Pitchfork was independently produced before going on the festival circuit in 2016. The film’s director, Glenn Douglas Packard, even won “Best First Time Horror Filmmaker” at the Hot Springs Horror film Festival that September. Ultimately, the film was acquired by Uncork’d Entertainment, a distributor known for releasing, uh, films of a certain quality. 

Pitchfork actually gets off to a decent start with an overhead shot of cornfields as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” plays over the opening credits. Immediately, I was flashing back to my youthful days in Vacation Bible School, singing this song with my fellow classmates as if we were in some sort of cult. It immediately sets the stage for the type of film that I think Pitchfork wants to be, but as I mentioned above, it quickly abandons that subplot in favor of a more traditional slasher film. You can see the blueprint of an ‘80s slasher here, right down to your stock character archetypes (upgraded for a “woke” 21st century audience, of course).

The problem is that almost every character is unlikable, and this is exacerbated by the fact that none of them seem to like each other very much. For example, why is Hunter, our gay protagonist, friends with Matt (Ryan Moore)? He’s a douchebag jock who quips “just don’t be gay” when Hunter expresses concern about seeing his homophobic father. At first, I thought this line was a friendly joke, but as the film progressed it became clear that Matt is indeed a homophobic (and cheating) asshole. Matt isn’t liked by Gordon (Vibhu Raghave), the video game nerd who has a crush on Matt’s girlfriend Clare (Lindsey Nicole). Clare doesn’t like Lenox (Celina Beach), a Jersey girl who inexplicably speaks in a British accent, because she’s secretly fucking Matt. It’s a whole hodgepodge of drama that ultimately comes to nothing because there’s killin’ to be done. 

Joe, I could go on and on about the problems I had with Pitchfork, so I’ll turn it over to you. Were you able to adjust your expectations once you knew the type of film it was? Why do you think the coming out subplot is abandoned so quickly? What do you make of Hunter’s reconnection with his father Wayne (Derek Reynolds) while the latter is straight-up dying on a table (spoiler alert: I don’t think it’s earned at all)? I haven’t commented on the film’s titular killer either. Do you think he’s a new slasher icon for this generation’s horror fans? Oh, and what about that choreographed barn dance(!) that closes the first act of the film?


Joe

Oof this movie. When we set out to select a film for our Pride editorial, we anticipated that Pitchfork would give us some material worth discussing and…it kinda sorta does? The reality is that this is a film that uses its queer protagonist as a bait-and-switch: it seems as though Hunter, his challenging coming-out storyline and his relationship with his homophobic father, understanding mother Ruth (Carol Ludwick) and perky “animal whisperer” sister Jenny (Addisyn Wallace) will take center stage. 

Then suddenly the line dancing kicks in, Hunter’s parents are slaughtered and the drama between all of these dumb straight asshats takes over. It’s highly unexpected, but not in an exciting “subverting expectations” kind of way. More like a “…but why?” creative decision kind of way. Yes, Douglas Packard has a background as a choreographer, and sure it’s cool that he uses music video-style lighting through this scene and many of the initial horror set-pieces, and while it does help to distinguish the film from other horror films of its kind, it simply doesn’t make sense!

Killing the father is an early warning that this plot hasn’t been entirely thought through. There’s a whole opening scene in which Hunter pulls the loud and proud NY city van they’ve driven in off to the side of the road so that he can dump a bunch of exposition about his relationship with his dad. Yes, we get an idea of who these characters are based on their reactions (Matt, as you said, is immediately coded as a prick and so we put him at the top of the leaderboard to be murdered). More importantly, though, Hunter’s speech sets up this idea that the film will focus on Hunter and his father coming to some kind of reconciliation in the midst of a violent killing spree by the titular character.

Instead, Wayne is “killed” first, swiftly followed by Ruth and Jenny is abducted without much ceremony. Later, after nearly all of Hunter’s friends have been dispatched, he finds his father strapped to a table, skin partially peeled off and seemingly mortally wounded. This is the reconnection you mention: Wayne tells his big gay son that he’s strong, asks him to be “a man”…and kill him (which Hunter, for the record, does). Ummm…I’m sorry: this is the half-assed way that Hunter *apparently* earns his father’s acceptance and, also, apparently being able to kill someone is what makes you a man?! Oh Trace…WTF.

I’m loathe to be so dismissive of anyone’s labour of love (and to be clear, this is a “friends and family” production from a first time feature filmmaker who is clearly enthusiastic, judging from interviews) but as a queer viewer, this just rang absolutely tone-deaf. This is a film that wants to pretend it is woke and contemporary by including a queer lead and front-loading his coming out journey, but is then unwilling to do the hard work of developing or exploring that story and then puts a cap on it with this “man’s man” BS. 

It sucks and it feels exploitative, honestly.

Then we get to this bonkers Texas Chainsaw Massacre finale, in which our killer Pitchfork is revealed to be not just a traumatized man with physically and sexually abusive parents, BUT ALSO – according to a deleted scene that we learned about from fellow queer horror podcast Boys, Bears & Scares – Pitchfork may be a secret queer that Hunter hooked up with. It’s truly unfathomable why this scene would have cut considering it quite literally completely changes the way audiences interpret Pitchfork’s actions; in fact, it might have even rescued a lot of my aforementioned complaints about how poorly the film’s queer narrative is handled. So, yeah…it’s very confusing why a film so eager to exploit queers would then jettison its one complicated idea involving queerness!

Trace, I’ll kick it back to you to ponder the implications of having Pitchfork be queer and whether that does (or doesn’t) work for you. Speaking of Expanding out, do you find any of the other teens tolerable? (I kinda liked Lenox and Nicole Dambro’s Flo, which made the choice to make Clare the Final Girl just baffling to me) Did you like any of these deaths or set pieces? And, finally, am I alone in thinking that this film gives off a Groupers vibe?


Horror Queers Pitchfork

Trace

You hit the nail on the head with your comparison to Groupers; that’s all I could think about as I watched the potential for a serious inclusion of queerness flushed down the drain in Pitchfork. And dear reader, if you haven’t seen Groupers, A) don’t and B) this is what it’s about. It’s important to note that Pitchfork isn’t offensively bad like Groupers  – it’s merely a rote slasher filled with opportunities that it doesn’t take advantage of. Groupers, on the other hand, is offensive, homophobic trash masquerading as the cinematic version of an ultimate ally. 

As for the murder set pieces, they were alright. Given what I assume must have been a shoestring budget, Packard does a decent job with the gore. As with most slashers, some of the deaths are better than others, and as for the set pieces I did like: the one-two punch of Rocky and Janelle getting killed in the woods is pretty great (as is the moment when Pitchfork just hops in the driver’s seat through the open window to chase after them). Unfortunately, their deaths happen immediately after Janelle tells Rocky that she is pregnant, which seemed unnecessarily cruel. Meanwhile, Flo’s death is a callback to the overhead tracking shot of the cornfield that opened the film, so that was pretty neat. 

But then you have a death like the opening scene. Can you even tell me what happened to that girl? It looked like she just had a bunch of wires sticking through her face! My vote for worst death goes to Gordon’s, though. It’s set up to be a fake-out when Pitchfork throws a pickaxe at Gordon and Matt, only for one of them to get struck by it. Packard shoots the impact in such a way the viewer can’t tell which one of them has been injured. Both characters stand there for a good few seconds before Gordon falls forward to reveal the pickaxe in his back. Joe, can you tell me why Matt would also stand there for a few seconds doing nothing? I’ll tell you why: because the script called for it. It’s a poor attempt at suspense. 

I have to say that while I agree with you that Dambro’s Flo is arguably the most likable female character in the film, I can’t agree with you on Lenox. She was never going to make it out alive. To be honest, I’m surprised she lasted as long as she did considering the film positions her as “the other woman.” Even worse, she endures the most torturous death scene as she is not only crucified(!), but then subjected to some very sexual foreplay with Pitchfork’s….pitchfork (meaning: he makes her fellate one of its tines). It’s a humiliating death that’s far crueler than the fates of any of the other characters, and I can’t help but think it’s simply because she’s A) a woman and B) the other woman. Why didn’t Matt get this death? That would have been more appropriate given his infidelity on top of his overall douchiness. Plus, having Pitchfork make Matt fellate his pitchfork would have made the film a bit more queer.

Speaking of queer, I didn’t even think of Hunter proving his masculinity by killing his father! I did cringe at the line “I’m not strong like you” when Wayne asked Hunter to “take care of it.” I mentioned above that I didn’t find Pitchfork to be offensively bad, but this scene comes pretty damn close. Femme-phobia has always been around, and it pervades the queer community more than your average person would suspect. So it’s just upsetting to me that we’re still living in a world in which an effeminate man is deemed to be less of a man because of it. To equate Hunter’s ability to kill his own father with his masculinity goes beyond tone-deaf for me. It’s borderline irresponsible. After thinking on it for a bit, I’m more bothered by the implication of this dialogue exchange (femme-phobia) than I am about the underdeveloped coming out/fatherly acceptance subplot. 

That the crucial scene you mention was deleted makes it sound like someone (we’ll never know who) wanted to make the film less queer. You’re right: removing that scene completely changes the reading of not only Pitchfork (the character), but also Pitchfork (the film). Here’s my take on why that scene was removed: if we are to believe that Pitchfork is gay and hooked up with Hunter at one point, the implication is that Pitchfork’s queerness is the result of the incestuous relationship he has with his mother. Equating someone’s sexual orientation with incest would not have been a good look for this film, and would have landed it firmly in Groupers territory. Of course, this may not be the case, but I can easily see someone coming to that conclusion (though if that were the reasoning, why not just remove the gross incestuous moments from the climax?).

Okay, Joe. Close us out. What did you think about how brightly the film was lit? I swear there was an Instagram filter slapped on this thing. Were there any bright spots for you? I’ll confess that I did like the final shot with Pitchfork running towards our three survivors. Why don’t you think Pitchfork killed Jenny? Why did Matt make it so far into the film before getting killed? Why, why, why? That’s all I can ask when discussing this film.


Horror Queers Pitchfork

Joe

Oh god, I still can’t believe Matt lasts as long as he does. It’s truly mind-boggling.

Yes, “why?!” is a pervasive part of the experience of watching this film. It’s likely safe to assume that a lot of the creative decisions were informed by what Packard could do with the time, money and cast he had, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about even basic narrative questions. I’m willing to forgive elements like that unclear opening death (I rewatched it a few times and I still can’t determine exactly what’s happening), but it’s harder to overlook some other pieces.

I can appreciate your speculation about the rationale for deleting that key scene and, if that was the reasoning, I’m all for it. We are both exhausted with films that equate incest or sexual abuse with queerness and/or future homicide, principally because the film isn’t interested in doing the work to investigate that (last month’s editorial on In A Glass Cage is a notable exception). You’re definitely more generous and forgiving than me, though; when I watched Pitchfork the message I took away was that queer narratives were less interesting than paying homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That’s why the third act in the Holister basement makes it into the final print while the neighbourly kiss is excised. 

But moving onto things I did like: despite what I said above, I actually kinda enjoyed the lighting in this film. I know a number of other reviewers flagged this as a weakness because it makes everything so easy to see and cuts out the tension, but personally I’m a sucker for some neon lighting. The combination of neon green lighting and smoky fog in Rocky and Janelle’s forest death scenes, as well as when Flo walks by Pitchfork casually hanging out in front of an abandoned building were striking and stylish to me. For jaded horror fans, Pitchfork isn’t particularly scary, so I appreciated the attempt to make the film stand out from its contemporaries in this way. It also (kinda? sorta?) tied into that ridiculous line dancing sequence and, in the process, turns several of the death scenes into the equivalent of something like their own music video. It certainly won’t work for everyone, but I didn’t mind it. 

As for your other questions: Jenny’s ability to control Pitchfork has a Pavlovian element, doesn’t it? Clearly we’re meant to infer that his parents have broken down his humanity via years of demeaning abuse to the point that he’s little more than a guard/attack dog. It’s an indictment on Pitchfork’s parents, Ben and Judy (Andrew Dawe-Collins and Rachel Carter), who are revealed to be the film’s ultimate villains, but there’s also something extremely uncomfortable about parents using abusive social conditioning to change the behaviour of their children. 

Again, if we consider that excised scene and identify Pitchfork as queer, these scenes take on the aura of conversion therapy. Seeing as we’re wrapping up Pride Month, we would be remiss to address just how dangerous, misguided and outdated this practice is (more than 700,000 adults in the US have been subjected to conversion therapy, which “increases [the] risk of depression, substance abuse, and even suicide” in an already vulnerable population of people). Coincidentally Pitchfork is set in Michigan, which in real life is one of the States that has not passed laws protecting LGBTQ+ youth from conversion therapy. To find out more about this inhumane practice, please click the link above and consider supporting GLAAD’s work with Born Perfect, an organization that supports survivors of conversion therapy.

Next time on Horror Queers: we’re headed on vacation to Mexico for some quality nunsploitation with 1977’s Alucarda. It’s streaming on Hoopla or you can rent it on iTunes for $2.99.

Don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles here or check out our podcast page here.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3620552/horror-queers-pitchfork/

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