By RICKY J. DUARTE
In 1963 the world was introduced to one of the most effective and influential haunted house films to date. THE HAUNTING (based on Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE) terrorized audiences with simple parlor tricks and not-so-simple sound and lighting effects. The film is also effective in being among the first to showcase an out gay character in horror. Bold, striking, confident, and clairvoyant, the character of Theodora’s queerness is hinted at in Jackson’s novella, but quite bravely showcased in the film—particularly for the sixties. (Six whole six years before the Stonewall Riots.) While her sexual orientation may have flown over the heads of plebeians of the time, once you’ve seen it, there’s no putting her back in the closet.
Now, sixty years later, a new take on the haunted house trope is so queer it may as well have hung a pride flag on the ghostly abode’s front door. SUMMONING SYLVIA, written and directed by Wesley Taylor (SMASH, THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL), and Alex Wyse (MARVEL’S IRON FIST), may be light on scares, but makes up for it in wit, sass, and spooky storytelling, proving that Theodora walked so these queens could run…in heels.
The film tells the tale of Larry, a giddy “Bride to be,” kidnapped by his three best friends and spirited away on a bachelor party weekend to a rental property with a dark, haunting past. A hundred years ago, a murderous woman named Sylvia killed her son in cold blood; it’s said that both Sylvia and her dead boy continue to haunt the dusty walls of this really fabulous Airbnb, which, of course, leads to an instantly-iconique séance (how could it not?) In addition, the arrival of Larry’s toxically-masc, straight bro-in-law-to-be, Harrison, puts a snarl into the boy’s wigs.
The film benefits from witty writing and clever cinematography (transitions from the present to past are seamless and impressive) but its strongest asset is its cast. Travis Coles as Larry utilizes such precise comedic timing, one wonders why he doesn’t have his own sitcom. He also finds moments of levity, particularly when internalized homophobia forces him to apologize for and douse his queerness in the presence of Harrison (Nicholas Logan, excellent). Frankie Grande’s Niko is all at once “too much” and just perfectly enough. He’s really given the opportunity to flex his comedic chops and doesn’t miss a single beat along the way. Troy Iwata as Reggie and Noah J. Ricketts as Kevin are adorable and lovable in their “will they, won’t they” playfulness. Each are wonderful in their own right, but it’s the combination of this quirky quartet that makes this film shine. One never doubts for a second that these are four best friends who love (and love to read) each other. Their ability to go from prancing about and talking kiki to clinging to one another in terror is seamless and endearing. It’s unfortunately obvious that Michael Urie (as Larry’s groom, Jamie) may only have been available to shoot for a couple of days, as he delivers his scenes entirely alone. Still, he’s a welcome addition to the tribe.
Queer representation in horror has seen a recent surge, but any true horror fan knows it’s always been there. From Theodora’s dauntless gazes in THE HAUNTING to Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius playing drag dress-up with an undead diva in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (werk!), it’s remarkable to see representation that’s uncoded and uninhibited; made for the gays, by the gays…unapologetically.
SUMMONING SYLVIA became available on Cable VOD and Digital HD starting April 7 from The Horror Collective.