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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

‘Halloween Kills’: The Importance of the Franchise’s First Gay Characters

I can’t say I’m surprised that it’s taken 43 years for a queer character to pop up in the Halloween franchise. There has not been a single character which could even be coded as queer 一 until now. With Halloween Kills, the second installment in David Gordon Green’s blood-soaked trilogy, not only are two gay characters given ample screentime, but their story isn’t a punch line and has little to do with any sort of trauma. Big John (Scott MacArthur) and Little John (Michael McDonald) simply exist in this heightened reality as everyday people, who just so happen to live in Michael Myers’ childhood home.

While legacy character Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) leads an “Evil dies tonight!” revolt at the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, Big John and Little John enjoy a nice, quiet Halloween listening to spooky records, getting high, and eating cheese. There’s a fleeting mention of Big John’s dead mother, but their inclusion in the story isn’t predicated on grief or their survival in a heteronormative world. As suggested by the stylish renovations they’ve given to the birthplace of evil itself, they have a sense of class and style, while feeling like human beings with wants, desires, and hopes for the future. But of course, this is a horror film after all, and they’re comfortable life as real estate agents is soon shattered when The Shape literally comes knocking.

Their deaths are as brutal as you’d expect with a film called Halloween Kills, but the aftermath is oddly touching. When Allyson (Andi Matichak) and her boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold) track Michael to his home, they discover the bodies of Little John and Big John posed in an upstairs bedroom. The 1981 country hit “Could I Have This Dance” by Amy Grant and Anne Murray spins on the record player, and their mangled corpses are repositioned to mirror a nearby photograph. In the framed picture, sitting next to the record player, Big John and Little John flash infectious, warm smiles, an indication of their life together.

Michael’s playfulness is not a new conceit; in the original Halloween, he staged Annie’s body with the dug-up gravestone of his sister, as well as tucked away the bodies of Lynda and Bob in the closet. In Halloween Kills, however, the boogeyman seems to have picked up on their relationship in a weirdly satisfying way. Furthermore, Big John and Little John are the only victims in the film to be handled with such care. Perhaps, like Charles Lee Ray in the “Chucky” TV series, Michael isn’t a total savage when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community.

There have been vastly contrasting reactions and opinions about Little John and Big John over the last few months. Some even went as far as to claim Michael Myers to be homophobic. Even with the comments made in jest, those feelings are completely valid. One LGBTQ+ person’s opinion doesn’t speak for an entire community. The concern, it appears, stems largely from the writers behind the script: all three straight white men. As a few have suggested, could it be Big John and Little John are the straight men’s fantasy of gay men? That’s certainly a valid argument, as well. I would counter and say neither the dialogue nor the death scenes read as malicious or cruel in any way. In fact, Big John and Little John are a step in the right direction when it comes to queer representation in major studio franchises, especially with a series like Halloween, the granddaddy of them all.

Historically, slashers have existed solely in the grip of the white male gaze, always reliant on senseless nudity and the exploitation of women. So, that leaves little (if any) room for queer perspectives and stories to be told and explored. In a deeply insightful 2018 dissertation, Wayne State University student Peter Marra counter-argued that slashers serve “a distinctly queer function,” as it relates to the deconstruction of “normative depictions of United States youth.” He goes on: “They disenchant the American iconography found in prom night, summer camp, Christmas morning, etc. They propose a pleasurable satisfaction in siding with the killer whose role is to literally dismember teenage bodies and to metaphorically disassemble representations of normativity.”

1981’s Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (also known as Night Warning) is a prime example to substantiate Marra’s claims. The film, directed by William Asher and starring Susan Tyrrell, sets its gore-littered action in the height of Gay Panic of the early ‘80s. Homophobia runs rampant with several characters, including the high school basketball coach, frequently dropping the F slur. It’s an uncomfortable watch, and the viewers, especially the queer audience, cheer for the killer to dismember them as quickly as possible.

Then, there’s A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), which re-engages the Freddy Krueger mythos as an allegory for one young boy’s sexuality. Jesse, as played by Mark Patton, who was in the closet at the time, and as a result of starring in this film was shunned from ever working again, is a placeholder for many queer youth. Jesse’s struggle is a universal one. He’s misunderstood by his parents (they simply think he’s crazy), and as Freddy ensnares him in his nightmarish trap, his understanding of himself gets more clouded. Despite claims by both the director and screenwriter in the 2019 documentary, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street, queer themes of BDSM experimentation, sexual awakening, and self-loathing are not subtext as all; it’s just the text of the film.

Around the same time, Sleepaway Camp (1983) took an explicit approach in exploring the transgender identity with its shocking ending, whereas 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 analyzed the central villain Leatherface as a misunderstood queer icon (his lip-stained flesh mask of a woman a clear indication). A favorite knife-wielding maniac named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, a gay man in real life) returned with two Psycho installments in the 1980s; Psycho II came in 1983 and then Psycho III three years later. Psycho IV: The Beginning, among Perkins’ last features, arrived in 1990. Threads of queer-coded themes are present throughout each film, but nothing is ever concrete.

By the time Child’s Play, co-created by openly gay man Don Mancini, arrived in 1988, the slasher genre was exiting stage left. Despite its creator being gay, there would not be a single openly gay character onscreen for another 10 years with Bride of Chucky (1998). Gordon Michael Woolvett’s David pretends to be straight to take Jade (Katherine Heigl) to the prom. The character has very little screen time, playing the quirky gay sidekick archetype, at best. At worst, David is played for laughs when it’s revealed Jade actually does have a boyfriend.

In 1996, Scream would totally change how slashers looked, of course. From Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) resembling an evolution to The Final Girl archetype to an entire rule-breaking third act sequence revolving around sex, the Wes Craven-directed picture was a signifier of a cultural shift. In a recent interview with The Independent, screenwriter Kevin Williamson reflected on how his queer sexuality informed much of the story, again reaffirming Marra’s previous claims about slashers serving gay functions. “As a gay kid, I related to the final girl and to her struggle because it’s what one has to do to survive as a young gay kid, too,” Williamson said. “You’re watching this girl survive the night and survive the trauma she’s enduring. Subconsciously, I think the Scream movies are coded in gay survival.” 

Gay survival would continue to be the crux of many modern horror films. Several films, including Hellbent (2004) and Make a Wish (2002), suggested an LGBTQ+ reclaiming of the narrative. Paired with Mancini’s much-maligned Seed of Chucky (2004), in which the infamous Chucky and Tiffany have a child named Glen/da, a non-binary doll struggling with identity and a legacy to kill, the tides seemed to be turning.

However, alongside such queer progress, many blockbuster films returned to the days of rampant homophobia. The most obvious example is the Ronny Yu-directed Nightmare/Friday the 13th crossover Freddy vs. Jason (2003). In a crucial scene, Kelly Rowland’s character Kia blurts out the F slur: “What kind of faggot runs around in a Christmas sweater.” As Louis Peitzman wrote for Buzzfeed in 2013, “Those words weren’t spoken to me, but they stung just the same.”

In another popular franchise, Scary Movie (2000) and the sequel Scary Movie 2 (2001), Shawn Wayans starred as Ray, a character which upheld the flamboyant gay stereotype. “It was strangely thrilling to come across him, even in this lowbrow comedy,” offered Rob Dozier for Slate. “But the depiction also made me wonder if other people might be less comfortable with my emerging sexuality than I was.”

Meanwhile, the rising torture porn trend took similar cues with its bigoted tendencies. High Tension (2003) and Hostel (2005), for example, featured homophobic undercurrents to the story and characters. Horror journalist Eric Langberg dubbed the latter “a gay-panic movie through-and-through, a film littered with homophobic slurs, a horror flick deeply repulsed above all else by the idea of men penetrating and violating other male bodies.”

Slashers went out of fashion 一 and then came back in again. But proper queer representation continued to be in a slump. Wrong Turn 4 (2011) featured a lesbian couple, but their two sex scenes leaned into exploitation, leaving an icky aftertaste, and 2015’s Most Likely to Die, starring Perez Hilton, did little to the move the needle one way or the other. Even Scream 4 (2011) mishandled the queer storyline. The character of Robbie (Erik Knudsen) asserts that he’s “gay, if that helps” in his final moment, as Ghostface drives a glinting blade into his chest. Without any real exploration into his gayness, it’s played as a joke and nothing more. Four years later, the Scream television series included a bi-curious student named Audrey Jensen (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in its first two seasons, and in the third installment, dubbed Scream: Resurrection, Giullian Yao Gioiello plays a gay student named Manny. Meanwhile, in Scream Queens, popstar Nick Jonas played Boone, who initially came out as gay but was later revealed to be pretending 一 a revelation upholding the “gays as villains” trope.

(from left) Josh Detmer (Misha Osherovich), Ryler (Melissa Collazo), The Butcher in Millie Kessler’s body (Kathryn Newton) and Nyla Chones (Celeste O’Connor) in Freaky, co-written and directed by Christopher Landon.

In the late 2010s, things went on the upswing. Between gay Nurse Carlos (Zak Santiago) in Cult of Chucky (2017) and the fabulously queer giallo film Knife+Heart (2018), slashers fully embraced being gay without a reliance on homophobia, trauma, or jokes. Freaky, directed by openly gay man Christopher Landon, who co-wrote the script with Michael Kennedy (also a gay man), arrived in 2020, signaling yet another important transition in the discussion of queer inclusion and representation. Nonbinary actor Misha Osherovich plays gay student Josh, best friend to the film’s lead Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton). Josh never feels like a cliché or played for laughs; he simply exists in this world as another victim trying to survive. Later, after Millie and the Blissfield Butcher swap bodies, Milllie in the Butcher’s body has a touching scene with her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton), during which they make out. Millie, as the Butcher, expresses how empowered she feels being in his body, a suggestion of non-binary exploration.

In 2021, we saw gay tragedy and redemption with Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy, a story about a young lesbian couple named Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Sam (Olivia Scott Welch). With their friends, they discover the truth about The Witch, who was actually hanged for being a lesbian. Then, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman included a Black gay couple, who actually survive, defying the “bury the gays” trope, and Don Mancini’s coming-of-rage Syfy series Chucky, in which Zackary Arthur played Jake Wheeler, a gay high school student with a major crush on his classmate Devon (Björgvin Arnarson).

Amidst this very queer slasher renaissance, Halloween Kills slipped in the first gay characters in the entire franchise. I can’t help but think it is a significant moment in time. As a long-running fan of the franchise, who, like Kevin Williamson, only had straight women to root for, I felt seen in those brief moments. Big John and Little John aren’t a joke, and they’re never treated as one. And they aren’t simply thrown away as dog meat in a film that packs death scenes one right after another. I would certainly have preferred queer screenwriters been given a stab at those bits of dialogue 一 but for many, it’s a huge leap forward in a genre that has largely mistreated or ignored the LGBTQ+ community.

I am excited and hopeful for what this could mean for the genre moving forward.


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