GameStop the Insanity

During these trying times we’ve all come to rely, more than ever, on the essential services that keep us fed and healthy.  Supermarkets.  Pharmacies.  Laundromats.  …GameStop?

 If you’re hearing a chorus of “One of these things is not like the others…” right now, you’re not alone.  Employees and customers alike have been confounded by GameStop’s stubborn refusal to close even amidst the escalating COVID-19 crisis and the shuttering of virtually all retail stores outside of groceries and pharmacies and stores that offer similar product.  Video game site Kotaku has done excellent reporting on this subject, from fears that corporate wasn’t doing enough to safeguard in the early days of the outbreak, to the doublespeak insistence that by providing equipment for remote work and learning, GameStop can be considered “essential” and not mandated to close– never mind that their high-end keyboards and accessories are hardly what someone would pick up for basic needs, or that midnight launch parties for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal were ill-advised in light of restrictions on large gatherings.  Employees were even provided with a letter to show law authorities in case they tried to enforce closure; in Athens, Georgia, police officers countered that letter with one of their own, which did not include the store on its list of essential businesses. A popular reddit thread started by an employee shed further light on the company’s misguided and potentially dangerous approach to the pandemic.

Police officers in Athens, Georgia, forced a local GameStop to close.

This past weekend, GameStop finally switched to a door delivery model and closed stores to customers—those that remain open or have not been forced to close by local ordinances—and officially discontinued video game trade-ins and in-store events.  Calls to a number of NYC area GameStop locations on Tuesday were either not answered, busy, or resulted in a perky message explaining that some stores have been closed in response to COVID-19  concerns.  This is clearly the right move, but as the reddit poster observed, it should not have taken this long for the company to do so.  When we come out of this pandemic, and begin to shop at retail stores, we should think carefully about where our dollars go.  GameStop failed both its employees and the buying public by disregarding their safety in a serious situation, and I, for one, will not be supporting them in the future.

Flagged: The Perils of Being Queer Online

An image of Amp Somers’ boyfriend and co-host, Kristofer Weston, ran afoul of Instagram guidelines.

“Your Post Goes Against Our Community Guidelines.”  This message and ones like it have become increasingly familiar to queer people using social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.  Queer sexuality on the internet has become more of a hot button issue than ever, particularly in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA aka the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.  This piece of legislation, nominally intended to protect underage people from sex trafficking, has had a chilling effect on sex workers in particular and sexual content—especially LGBT sexual content—in general.  (Just look at Tumblr, the once hip micro-blogging platform that’s been hemorraghing users following their controversial ban on sexual content.)  I reached out to a number of queer social media users to get their perspective on this issue. 

Amp Somers

Amp Somers is a kinky sex educator who runs the popular Watts the Safeword channel on YouTube—he’s also a card carrying geek, frequently dressing in sexy cosplay or teaching viewers how to do Avengers-inspired bondage.  Fwee Carter is a photographer and frequent Flame Con tabler whose work includes the Sexy Nerd Project, featuring attractive guys dressed as everything from Ghostbusters to video game characters. The Side Kink is a gay Latino kinkster and academic who “enjoys playing the defeated hero, abducted sidekick and more”; his sexy, handmade cosplay creations have graced Flame Con on numerous occasions.  Peter Clough is a genderqueer artist interested in BDSM and gender representations, as well as an avid Magic: the Gathering player.  All of them have encountered censorship online to varying degrees.

“[There’s been an increase in censorship]to the point where [Instagram] allows harassment from conservative users who flag entire accounts,” Amp states.  “My personal account @PupAmp had a number of posts removed/flagged on Instagram. Many pictures have been removed for reasons from ‘inappropriate content’ to ‘pornography’ to even ‘including children’ in a post. Keep in mind all posts have been of me and only me and cropped out what is considered ‘inappropriate’ by their site.”

Fwee Carter

Carter shares the frustration.  “They have even started to ban the peach and eggplant emoji’s,” he comments.  “It’s getting really bad.”  Carter’s photos are sometimes risqué, but never pornographic.  That didn’t stop him from getting flagged frequently, to the point where he created a separate account,@lewdshoots, which was subsequently shut down.  (He’s since moved it to Twitter, which is very lenient regarding sexual content.)  Meanwhile, Facebook deleted his photography page and refused to reinstate it.

Sexy Nerd Project photo by Fwee Carter.

 “I have seen straight cosplayers have lots of content that runs the gamut from romantic to risque, cheeky to comical and I never really see them noting how often they get flagged,” the Side Kink explains.  “Meanwhile queer cosplayers and content can feel like its toeing a very thin line.  They don’t even have to have another person in the photos and just have a suggestion of a bulge and it gets flagged.”  The Side Kink has had his Instagram threatened with suspension on a few occasions after posts were flagged as “inappropriate.”

Peter Clough in Odalisque, performance with projection and recorded audio, 2019.

Account suspension is an especially big fear for Clough, whose Instagram @cloughabunga promotes his exhibitions.  “It’s nerve-wracking because as an artist I really rely on it,” he explains. “I’ve made a bunch of sales through Instagram and connected with galleries and curators so the idea of losing my account is actually terrifying.”  Avoiding suspension is easier said than done when making art that involves BDSM, gender, and sexuality: “my content is extremely sexual but also professional,” he declares. He has a separate, personal “finsta,” or alternate account focused on his sex life, but it’s the challenges to his main Instagram that truly rankle him. “When it’s on my finsta and it’s just smut I don’t get too bent out of shape, even though that kind of censorship really shapes people’s understanding of what forms of pleasure can be valid and acceptable,” he muses. “Erasing images of things is a lot like erasing the things themselves. But also when I’ve got a giant butt plug showing under my thong I can’t get too shocked that the world can’t handle it, as sad and puritanical as that is. But when it’s artwork, it really pisses me off, even though I’m not actually sure what the difference is.” Clough recalls a recent experience wherein he posted his friend Patrick McNabb’s “amazing show at [Brooklyn’s] Haul gallery and the images were instantly removed. There wasn’t even any nudity. I appealed the censorship, and eventually Instagram restored the post, with a sort of thin ‘apology.’ But that was a few days after I’d posted it, and the way their algorithms work, basically no one saw it anyway. That’s what’s so insidiously effective about censorship: once it’s removed, no one knows it was ever censored.”

Amp was similarly rankled by the demonetization of his YouTube channel, which prompted him to join other LGBT YouTubers in suing the company last August. He and co-plaintiffs like Lindsay Amer (Queer Kid Stuff) charged that the platform was systematically discriminating against LGBTQ content by automatically flagging videos tagged “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” as explicit and/or offensive—resulting in lost ad revenue, making them difficult for users to find, and other negative consequences.  It was Amp’s tweets about the situation that inspired this piece.

Amp demonstrating bondage techniques.

So why the increase in censorship?  A couple of my interviewees pointed to the passing SESTA/FOSTA in 2018.  “Sites became terrified of being accused of engaging in sex traffic and tamped down on any sexual content,” the Side Kink remembers. Amp, who co-hosted a talk on the subject entitled “Fuck Your Community Standards,” says that “SESTA/FOSTA actually goes after sex positive content in all forms. From sex education to ethical sex work.”

Sexy Nerd Project photo by Fwee Carter.

Others see a broader motivation for the purge. Carter thinks a desire for younger users is part of what makes Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, stricter regarding sexual content.  He also sees a double standard regarding hate speech vs. LGBT content: “Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the like continue to allow hate speech but always censor LGBT content. I say content because it’s not just half naked posts. It’s articles and people fighting for justice.”

Amp agrees. “The number of posts I see on Facebook that feature death, suicide, even abortions are astounding,” he remarks. “But the second I promote sex education or sex positive resources, websites or photos, I can see a drop in engagement or, at times, a full removal of a post just because it featured a ballgag in the photo.”

Clough in a post from his finsta.

Clough sees a compelling, if troubling, explanation for this. “Images of violence reinforce our need for a police state and are therefore way less threatening to the existing power structure,” he feels. “Images of radical sexual freedom are deeply threatening by showing how oppressive that same police state really is.”

A few of my subjects attribute the censorship to a cultural shift as well as to the transformation of the internet and its platforms into a business.  “I think a lot of social media was something of a no man’s land [in the beginning],” muses the Side Kink. “When these sites and apps were developed there wasn’t a clear sign of how people would use them or even if they’d take off. As social media has become a form of communication that is more universal and more profitable companies have stepped in to make their apps appeal to the masses. These masses tend to be cis-heteronormative and steeped in a view of sex that shuns queerness and kink.”

Clough is unequivocal in his assessment: “Instagram is a deeply homophobic and sexphobic platform,” he says. “We’re seeing a shift in our whole culture to the right, and sexual freedom is very threatening because it can be a model for other kinds of freedom, like freedom of thought or freedom of choice. Neither our government nor the corporations that shape it have any interest in promoting those kinds of freedom, so censorship is a valuable tool for policing everything. The scary thing is that this sort of censorship also comes from within the gay community as well. It’s fine to put on a harness at a circuit party, but actual sexual freedom and liberation are just as threatening to mainstream gay Instagram influencers as they are to the corporations who sponsor them.”

Amp is particularly frustrated by the way social media scrutinizes LGBTQ folks more harshly than straight ones.  “Large creators like Kim Kardashian, or YouTube personalities like Trisha Paytas get away with what comes down to nudity on their profiles, which are constantly in my recommendations on websites,” he grouses. “Other straight leaning influencers can post ‘artistic nudes’ and have no problems, but LGBTQ or even sex workers who follow the rules have it much harder.”

Blowjob, 2019 video projection by Peter Clough.

The issue may be less about straight vs. gay or violent vs. sexual, but rather about the changing state of the internet itself. As Clough says, “the real problem isn’t one specific kind of censorship, ultimately. The problem is that the idea of public space has shifted into the digital realm but is controlled by private, for-profit corporations. Let’s be clear: Instagram isn’t a neutral platform, it has a specific agenda. We have no say in the values or representations that Instagram is pushing. The function of these spaces isn’t ultimately to share images; it’s to police them.”  For queer communities, who have always challenged and subverted cultural norms, that may be the biggest threat of all to free and open expression.

Amp is on Instagram and Twitter @PupAmp and on YouTube: Watts The Safeword. Fwee Carter is on Instagram and Twitter @fweecarter. The Side Kink is on Instagram and Twitter @the_sidekink. Peter Clough is on Instagram @cloughabunga.

Review: Birds of Prey

Margot Robie

Birds of Prey—which bore the Fiona Apple-esque subtitle And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn before the Warner Bros. suits switched it to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey—is  a fantastic movie.  The trailers had me worried this was going to be self-indulgent and too focused on Margot Robie’s admittedly note perfect Harley Quinn, but the actual film is not quite that.  It uses Quinn as a way to bring new audiences into the world of its fantastic ensemble of characters.  The Birds of Prey—Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco)—are fully realized characters I’d happily watch in three or four sequels.  Harley, who was a great character/performance in search of a decent vehicle in Suicide Squad, gets one here.

Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco, Robie, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell bring the grrl power

This is largely Harley’s movie, to be sure, but that turns out to be a good thing.  As the narrative voice of the movie, Harley holds the film together and drives much of the plot, including bringing the Birds together for the first time.  Robie is compelling and turns in dynamic, terrific work.  She’s joined by one of the strongest ensembles I can remember.  Smollett-Bell is a standout as the beguiling Canary (who does her own singing on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”), and the always dependable Rosie Perez is great as the no-bullshit, openly lesbian Montoya (her DA ex, played by Ali Wong, has a key role).  Basco is an appealingly naturalistic presence, and Winstead, though she deserves more screentime than she gets, is utterly fantastic.  Then there are the villains: Ewan McGregor is magnificent as Black Mask, and Chris Messina matches him as partner in crime (and, um, probably bed) Victor Zsasz.  The chemistry between these two is nothing short of electric.  I leaned over to my friend during the screening and whispered “they’re totally fucking.”  No, it’s not stated overtly, which is too bad considering DC is in a position to outdo Marvel’s output in this area.  But it’s all too apparent for anyone with eyes, really.  Elsewhere, the clever animated prologue includes a female ex of Harley’s; DC should be bold and give Harley a full on lady love in her next appearance (cough, Poison Ivy, cough).

Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina: yup, I ‘ship it.

Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) create a wholly satisfying package here.  There’s witty dialogue, outstanding costumes and production design (seriously, I covet Black Mask’s wardrobe), and some of the best action sequences and stuntwork I’ve seen in any film lately.  It’s all set to an engaging soundtrack made up of largely female artists like Heart, Kesha, Halsey, and Megan Thee Stallion (Robie is credited as producer on both the movie and the all-female soundtrack album).  There are also compelling themes of feminism, friendship, abusive relationships and misogyny—the type of subject matter that irks online bros but makes for satisfyingly three dimensional storytelling.  The arc of Harley’s recovery from her toxic union with the Joker (Jared Leto thankfully never appears) and struggle to find her footing as an independent human being is vividly relatable and even inspiring.  All in all, it makes for a candy coated, quirky, innovative production that might just be the best DCEU movie to date.  I’ll take a wild swing like Birds of Prey over formulaic comic book product any day of the week.  The proof is in the puddin’.

Review: Black Christmas

Imogen Poots is Riley in Black Christmas

The latest victim of toxic internet backlash, Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, remakes the classic 1974 horror film for the #MeToo era.  In a society where a groundswell of support has taken down serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein even while an accused rapist sits in the White House, it’s not at all surprising that the film has “earned” a 3/10 user score on IMDb– boosted by scads of scathing reviews complaining about “sexism” (female on male, natch) and “third wave feminism.”

The truth is that the movie, while imperfect, benefits immensely from Takal and April Wolfe’s script explicitly addressing sexual assault, misogyny, and patriarchy.  The emphasis gives the film a strong point of view, sets it apart from both the original and a previous 2006 remake, and continues the horror tradition of holding up a perverse funhouse mirror to real life anxieties.  In the 1974 version, outspoken, independent women—one of whom wants an abortion despite her boyfriend’s wishes—are stalked by a mysterious killer in a college sorority house.  Here, an equally distinct, tight knit group of sorority sisters face a similar threat on the atmospheric campus of Hawthorne College.  Riley, played by Imogen Poots (who’s been quietly building a resume of interesting roles for years now) is struggling to overcome the trauma of an assault at the hands of charismatic frat boy Brian (Ryan McIntyre).  Nobody believed her then, but a campus talent show gives her an opportunity to confront Brian and his buddies.  When girls start disappearing, and Riley and her friends receive threatening text messages from someone claiming to be their school’s long dead founder, they suspect that the disgraced fraternity might be behind them.

Kris (Aleyse Shannon) faces off against the killer

The on the nose gender politics aren’t the whole show.  This is a horror film, after all, and Sakal and Wolfe’s overwritten screenplay (I mean that as a compliment) gives us characters we care about, namely: Riley, her activist pal Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and the not-as-vapid-as-she-looks Jesse (Brittany O’Grady).  Cary Elwes is in grand scenery chewing form as pretentious, smarmy Professor Gelson.  The production design is terrific, with a gothic campus and plenty of holiday atmosphere.  Sakal also stages some fun set pieces and includes clever Easter eggs for fans of the original movie.

Cary Elwes as the slimy Professor Gelson

The biggest issue here is with the third act, when the movie loses steam just when it should be hitting its stride.  The cathartic final battle between Riley and her tormentors doesn’t land with quite the oomph it should, and the supernatural machinations of the plot are a little too Harry Potter.  Still, Riley is a wonderfully real, complicated, and endearing character—one with a dynamic arc.  Black Christmas is consistently entertaining, funny, and often surprising, with a fresh and diverse cast.  I give the filmmakers props for taking a bold swing and making a statement about important contemporary issues.  The fact that this PG-13 rated film will be accessible to young women, and potentially inspiring to many of them, is profound.  That goes a long way towards forgiving its defects.

Review: Stonewall Outloud

I love gay history, so I jumped at the chance to attend a screening of the documentary short Stonewall Out Loud at the Stonewall last week.  It initially premiered on June 5 of this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the riots and is currently streaming on YouTube.  After viewing the film by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – the acclaimed directors of Inside Deepthroat and Party Monster, among others—I’m happy to report that my enthusiasm was rewarded. 

As Bailey told the crowd at the screening, there are very few photographs from the Stonewall riots, so he and Barbato had to get creative.  Their brilliant conceit was to bring audio recordings of the participants to life by having various LGBT celebrities “play” the storytellers: i.e. lip sync.  It seemed a little odd at first, seeing the likes of Lance Bass, Adam Rippon, and Isis King “speaking” for the participants, but I quickly got used to it.  Considering lip syncing’s long association with drag, the technique is actually all too appropriate; in fact, Drag Race’s Jinkx Monsoon “portrays” the legendary Sylvia Rivera.  The film also includes conversations between the actors and the still living “voices”—like Fredd E. “Tree” Sequoia, who still bartends at Stonewall today—and reflections from both generations on the significance of these events in shaping our community’s ongoing history.    There are also cinematic close-ups of smashing bottles, flashing lights, and other images evoking the riots and the context surrounding them, as well as incendiary footage of Rivera lashing out at a hostile crowd at Pride 1973.  Watching this documentary in the spot where it all happened was a truly moving experience.

“Tree” Sequoia with Adam Rippon

Afterwards, legendary journalist Michael Musto conducted a Q&A with Sequoia and Bailey before opening up the floor to audience questions.  One self-identified “zennial” (cross between a millennial and generation Z) professed that they talk about Stonewall “all the time” with their circle of friends and that it’s quite meaningful, “especially for the trans community”—this comment brought a chorus of snaps from their friends in the crowd.  With Stonewall Outloud, those young people and generations to come have an invaluable new testament.

Review: Terminator: Dark Fate

Mackenize Davis and Natalie Reyes

What if you made a sublime sequel and nobody came?  That seems to be the problem facing two new films this month: Terminator: Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep.  While I haven’t seen the latter, it’s gotten rave reviews—but underperformed at the box office this past weekend.  So did Dark Fate, which I can say unequivocally deserves to be a massive hit.

Linda Hamilton

Maybe it’s franchise fatigue.  There have been three sequels since 1991’s revolutionary Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a blockbuster sci-fi action extravaganza that made Linda Hamilton (waitress turned survivalist resistance leader Sarah Connor) a butch lesbian icon.  They’ve all been pretty meh, especially 2015’s mythology busting Terminator Genisys, which lamely swapped in Emilia Clarke for Hamilton and featured an evil cyborg John Connor (Jason Clarke), or something.  But Dark Fate distinguishes itself by bringing back original director James Cameron as a producer and Hamilton as star, while wisely ignoring everything after T2.  Essentially, it pulls a Halloween (2018): hello creators, goodbye years of convoluted mythology.

Gabriel Luna

Despite Cameron’s above-the-title billing, this movie really belongs to director Tim Miller (Deadpool), and he does an outstanding job.  The action sequences are at the same thrilling level as the first two films; if I occasionally lost track of the combatants as they chased and fought over highways and through manufacturing plants and government facilities, that’s a very minor quibble with a sensationally entertaining package.  Once again a hero and a villain face off as the fate of a future savior hangs in the balance.  This time, Mackenzie Davis’ cyborg Grace must save Dani (Natalia Reyes) from the relentless Terminator (Gabriel Luna, who’d be sexy if he weren’t so scary).  Into this fray steps Sarah (Hamilton), who’s developed a hilariously cynical sense of humor but is just as much a force to be reckoned with at age 64—I think of her as “Action Grandma.”  (According to a recent Queerty interview, the actress reminds many gay men of their own fiercely protective mothers.)  Eventually, our heroes ally themselves with a T-800 played, of course, by original franchise star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once again puts his stoic affect to comic use.

Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger

A number of factors make this a superior sequel.  It makes use of the series’ well-worn formulas while giving them enough twists to stand on its own.  At one point, Arnold picks up a pair of the same sunglasses he rocked in the original films before putting them back down, a knowing wink at the audience’s expectations.  The cast is uniformly good: Davis is utterly compelling as the androgynous Grace, and Reyes believably embodies Dani’s arc from innocent bystander to battle-ready warrior.  Hamilton, though, walks away with the film.  She’s so terrific, and displays such range, that I truly hope this movie leads to a career renaissance for her.  As iconic as she was in The Terminator and T2, I don’t know that I truly realized just what a great actor she was until this film.  The special effects, meanwhile, are predictably top notch, especially when the new cyborg and Terminator are involved.

Terminator: Dark Fate also has some intriguing socially relevant touches.  Whether purposeful or not, Grace has a gender fluid quality that might connect with non-binary audiences—for instance, in two separate scenes she chooses men’s clothes over women’s.  It could be coincidence, but Miller’s last film Deadpool 2 certainly suggests he’s comfortable with queerness.  There’s also a stretch of the film detailing the characters’ tortured journey across the Mexican border, ending in a detention center—when Grace asks a guard where “the new prisoners are taken” she insists that they refer to them as “detainees.”  It’s a timely plot element that isn’t overly didactic or preachy, and grounds the film as firmly in the twenty first century as T2 was in the 1990s.

Ultimately, this is a funny, exhilarating entry that rewards longtime fans.  Regardless of the box office, time will be kind to it, and if this is the end of the line for Cameron’s creation, it’s a satisfying finale.

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Spiral review

Spiral is the quintessential film I wanted to like more than I actually did.  I was excited to review a queer horror film, especially one specifically addressing homophobia in the 1990s.  Alas, Spiral’s reach winds up exceeding its grasp.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman

In director Kurtis David Harder’s film, a gay couple with a teenage daughter move to a small town—and Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) soon suspects something is amiss.  Are the neighbors part of some bizarre cult?  Did the lesbian family who lived in the house previously suffer a horrible fate?  Or is Malik—still traumatized from a hate crime years earlier– just suffering from a delusion?

Bowyer-Chapman (UnREAL) is the best part of the movie.  He gives an arresting performance and is believable, endearing, and sexy as a gay man trying to find his footing in a relationship with an older man and as a step parent.  As his partner Aaron, Ari Cohen essentially plays the standard disbelieving husband role we’ve seen in countless horror films, but for the most part he avoids coming off as unsympathetic (he’s a cute daddy, too).  Jennifer Laporte is the other cast stand out as daughter Kayla, whose angst never rings false. Lochlyn Munro (Betty’s slimy dad on Riverdale) is effortlessly slimy here as the suspicious neighbor.

 The set-up is tight, with the film seemingly aspiring to be a gay take on Rosemary’s Baby and/or Get Out.  Intriguing threads are set up: Malik realizes the documentary he’s editing is about a conversion therapy advocate; the grieving man from next door seems like he might be interested in Malik; blackmail photos appear to threaten his relationship with Aaron.  But the shift to overtly supernatural content feels jarring and a little silly, and those three threads never really pay off.  By the time the end game is revealed, Spiral has trampled over the goodwill it earned during its first hour.  The tone is a problem, too; the premise is fairly ludicrous, but the movie wants to be deadly serious.  If it had leaned into the campiness a bit, it might have been an enjoyably pulpy allegorical thriller.  Instead, the movie comes off as pretentious, with its statement on the shared struggles of different marginalized groups landing with all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil.  (A quote lifted from Harvey Milk feels almost blasphemous.) What’s more, the audience’s investment in Malik and his family is betrayed rather callously by the narrative.  Ultimately, Spiral is a misfire, though I’d love to see Bowyer-Chapman in bigger and better things. 

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Slayed! Review

“Bathroom Troll”

This year marks the second year for Slayed! LGBTQ Horror Shorts at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.  This co-presentation with NYC’s queer NewFest film festival continues to offer an eclectic and interesting selection, even if a couple of entries fell a little flat.

In “Jeremiah,” a young Asian man with a crush on his football teammate is troubled by visions of a folk tale monster he grew up dreading.  The eerie cinematography and locations are top notch, as are the young actors playing the boys; they have a believable chemistry.  The Hitchcockian score also adds a sense of dread.  But the short left me wanting more information on the monster and the storyline—it may be intended as a pitch for a feature length film.

In the Spanish language “Estigma,” my favorite of the program, two young men start to get it on—but a freakish insect interrupts their liaison.  I’ve long remarked that some of the best horror exaggerates real life fears, and this short dramatizes the anxiety experienced by HIV positive men quite well.  The makeup and practical effects really help sell the film, and the two leads are authentic and sexy.

“The Original”

The black-and-white “The Original” concerns a lesbian couple and has an intriguing premise: a specialized surgery can transfer the ailing partner’s mind into a healthy new body.  But although the piece is emotional, creepy, and at times darkly humorous, the ending didn’t quite land for me.  I was left with a lot of questions; maybe this, too, is a stealth feature film proposal.

“Penance”

My two least favorite shorts, though very different, both come off as one-note gags that barely justify their extremely brief runtimes.  “Penance” is a smug, heavy handed take that! to the Catholic Church’s homophobia.  It’s a deserving target—I say that as a former Catholic myself—but the gruesome perversion of communion doesn’t really go far enough to be truly satisfying.  It abruptly ends before it can justify its own existence.  Meanwhile, the bizarre “Docking” was somehow selected by the Sundance Film Festival; I can only assume somebody wanted to be cool and subversive by picking it.  It’s nothing but a dirty visual joke with giant erect penises subbing in for Star Wars spaceships.  I’m no prude, but this just felt like a waste of time, effort, and money.

“Bathroom Troll” is a candy colored satire that, while not as clever or as much of a statement as it thinks it is, is nothing less well-executed and quite fun.  The crowd-pleasing Carrie takeoff has “Cassie,” an androgynous teen, getting tormented in the bathroom by mean girls and then roped into a plot by her religious zealot mother.  The twist is that, unlike Carrie’s mom, Cassie’s is a Satanist, and the pair conjure up a demon to enact vengeance.  The demon is entertainingly campy/vicious in the Freddy mode, and every actress (it’s an all-female ensemble) knows exactly what tone to hit to make this short work.  I just wish there was a clearer transgender element, since the recent “bathroom panic” was clearly the inspiration here.

“Switch”

The program ended on a high note with the endearing “Switch,” a sort of 21st century Orlando with a teen who inexplicably changes genders– and lovers.  It’s fun, engaging, and sexually explicit, but in a very heartfelt and tender way.  The young cast is appealingly naturalistic, and the performers who play the lead’s two personas complement each other quite well.

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival Review: Carmilla

Devrim Lingnau and Hannah Rae in Carmilla

It feels like it’s been a few years since we had a good old fashioned Victorian horror film; perhaps not since Guillermo Del Toro’s underrated Crimson Peak.  So the moody, intelligent Carmilla (inspired by the gothic novel by Sheridan Le Fanu) is a welcome addition to the genre—not to mention a queer one!

Writer/director Emily Harris’ film immediately makes a strong impression with gorgeous cinematography and a vivid locale.  Teenage Lara (Hannah Rae) lives a lonely existence in an isolated mansion.  Her well-meaning governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) is caring but strict; her father is usually away on business.  More than anything, Lara wants a friend, and one finally arrives in the form of Carmilla (a gorgeous Devrim Lingnau), who the family takes in after she survives a mysterious carriage crash.  The two immediately form a close bond that develops into a romance, but there may be more to Carmilla than meets the eye

Rae and Jessica Raine

 Carmilla is essentially a drama with horror elements, a character-driven film that showcases terrific acting from all three of the women featured.  Rae and Lingnau come across as genuine teens, not the twenty-somethings who play high schoolers in so many movies and shows, and their performances feel wonderfully authentic.  Raine, meanwhile, is outstanding in her role.  She comes off as fully three dimensional and compassionate despite her old fashioned beliefs and strict rules for Lara.  In one standout scene, she hints at her own same sex attractions while trying to steer Lara away from her feelings for Carmilla.

Lara’s growing attraction to the other girl gives way to a tender eroticism.  Harris does a terrific job of capturing their chemistry and generating heat; it’s a rare treat to see any kind of love scene in movies these days, and all the sweeter to have ones involving two women.  There’s also a moment of unexpected and powerful sexuality between two other characters late in the film.

Carmilla is a dynamic and well-crafted movie, pleasingly ambiguous and understated with its horrific elements.  When things get creepy it feels organic – Lara has some morbid interests and fantasies, which Carmilla appears to share–and in keeping with the serious tone of the film. The movie is brimming with interesting motivations and relationships, and keeps you involved all the way through its poignant finale.

Interview: Joe Zaso, the Himbo Chef

“It was one of those freezing cold days,” author and actor Joe Zaso recalls, explaining the genesis of his series of “Café Himbo” cookbooks, “I was home and I love to cook, and I decided to start dabbling in recipes and things.  Back then I was in the West Village.  Jessica Harper [from the original Suspiria] had just written a book called The Crabby Cook Cookbook and I was very inspired by [it], so I said, I think I’m gonna start a blog.  So we can exchange recipes.  And because I’m called the Horror Himbo by some sites, [like queer horror site Camp Blood] I made the name the Café Himbo, which became a blog, which became a cookbook, which became a little featurette show on YouTube, which became a brand, and here we are, still going strong.”

Zaso and I are chatting in a coffeeshop in his current neighborhood in the lower east side.  Zaso is jovial and easygoing, talking quickly and excitedly and using his hands.  He has an amusing tendency to imitate the voices of the people in his life—and books—perhaps reflecting his background as an actor.  Apart from his own roles in horror films like Revenge of the Egg and 5 Dead on the Crimson Canvas, the “Himbo Chef” is a lifelong fan of the genre himself, and his books are filled with recipes from other horror players like Rutanya Alda (Amityville II: The Possession, Mommie Dearest) and Candice Azzara (Pandemonium).

“It’s what’s so surreal about people like Rutanya Alda, I’ve been watching them in movies since I was kids, with my brother on HBO, and here I am 30 years later and we’re talking about their cats, kvetching about rent, she’s telling me about her past relationships,” Zaso says.   “She will slip into Amityville II, here and there, but, you know, we’ll be meeting here and she’ll tell me how she’s into gluten free [foods].”  Zaso draws collaborators from his personal life, horror conventions, and occasionally messaging people on social media.  “It’s cute because everybody, I think they find it flattering and fun,” he states.  “Some people they don’t return emails, or they say thank you for asking.  Camille Keaton, from [the notorious “rape revenge” film] I Spit on Your Grave, she said that she makes popcorn, and that’s about it.”

For his latest book, The Comforts of Café Himbo and Friends, Zaso teamed up with his friend Beverly Orth-Geoghegan.  “She’s fun to work with, she’s very seasoned, she knows her wines, she’s a good cooking partner,” Zaso enthuses.  “So I was like let’s write a book together.  And she said, [Zaso slips into an impression] ‘oh, it would be fun!’  We exchanged recipes, and cooked at each other’s places.”  Orth-Geoghegan has a horror connection herself; her husband Ted Geoghegan is a writer/actor who wrote the critically acclaimed independent film We Are Still Here (2015) and appeared in last year’s The Ranger.

As the title indicates, Zaso’s latest focuses on comfort food, from “Tiramisu French Toast” to “Creamy Dreamy Tomato Parmesan Soup” to “Single White Trash Chicken” (the latter from Rockbar co-owner and fellow horror fanatic Jason Romas).  “The book is about comfort food and just comforts, period,” Zaso explains. “There’s just unease at the moment, you almost feel guilty for having fun and doing certain things.  On Facebook I would see people posting every day with their favorite junk foods and all these decadent things, and I said, ‘didn’t we used to be really health conscious?’  And I think people are just saying ‘no, we want fun right now.  We want to be healthy, but right now we want to be, you know, are souls need to be improved.’”

Zaso finds certain horror films from the 70s and 80s to be a sort of comfort food, and was tickled to include some of their stars in his latest.  “One person I like very much is this actress Elizabeth Shepard, who you may know as Joan Hart, the woman who got pecked by the raven in Damien: Omen II,” Zaso says.  “She is such a doll.  She lives uptown, she teaches Shakespearean classes down here.  She gave me a whole bunch of recipes over the years.  The weirdest, most interesting recipe I got from her was for Pigeon Pie, which is very Northern English, it’s like squab, so we made a joke, ‘in honor of my attacker.’  For this one she gave me Welsh Rare Bit and Elizabeth Shepard’s Shepard’s Pie.”  The book also features Lynne Griffin, who famously played the first victim in the original Black Christmas (1974) and has found more recent success starring in Hallmark movies like Santa Baby (2006).   “She’s bubbly,” Zaso shares.  “And she has her fans, she has her horror fans, and if you’re like my mom– and I’m becoming a bit of one myself– she has Hallmark.  She’s such a good cook herself, she has such great advice.  She and her husband have recipes galore in the book and they’re just wonderful.”

I ask Zaso why he thinks horror has such devoted queer fans, and he ruminates on the topic a bit.  “I have this theory that half the horror fans in this world are gay people,” he says.  “What made me discover this is when you go to newsstands and Barnes and Noble, all the horror magazines are near the gay magazines.  Everyone who likes Pino Donnagio [composer of films like Carrie and Dressed to Kill]they always turn out to be gay, I don’t know why.  What is it about horror sequels: Damien: Omen II, Exorcist II, Elm Street II, they are always big with gay fans.  What is it?  There’s something there.  I don’t know what it is.  There’s something in horror that just speaks to their soul.”  Later, Zaso brings up a theory a friend once offered about the author’s personal connection to the genre.  “My friend Ricardo, from Rome, who’s straight, he said, ‘I think you liked horror in the 80s and 90s more, were you out yet?’  And I said, no.  And he goes, ‘when you came out, you noticed that you liked horror less, maybe it’s an exchange of aggression, maybe it was your guilt, or like hatred or darkness that exchanged,’ and he was being very philosophical and as soon as I became more comfortable with being gay I stopped liking horror as much.  I don’t know if that had something to do with.”

Zaso is more assured when it comes to advice on becoming a good cook.  “Patience and space, are the two vital things that will help you become a better cook,” he declares.  “Because when you have that, then you want to try things and relax and not rush and not burn things, and you want to take a little more time to cut that tomato up and not just, you know, hack away like Jason.  When you have a nice kitchen, and you have people there, and you have a glass of wine, and you’re talking, it’s pleasant, it makes the whole experience fun.”

The Comforts of Café Himbo and Friends is now available in physical and e-book form on Amazon and at joezaso.net.