By KEVIN HOOVER
For all its claims of inclusivity, horror has, at times, been guilty of pushing the misrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community. For every Mark Patton who escaped his nightmare on Elm Street, there’s throngs of gay, transgender, and non-binary characters fed to horror’s famous murder machines, and that’s a ratio that doesn’t sit well with Alyson Richards and Pat Mills, the writer/director duo behind THE RETREAT.
When Valerie (Sarah Allen) and Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) venture out of the big city into the beautiful Canadian countryside for a pre-wedding retreat for friends Scott (Munro Chambers) and Connor (Chad Connell), things go awry almost instantly. What follows is an unflinching look at extreme violence that, unfortunately, feels all too plausible in a culture that is still miles away from making good on its promise of acceptance for all. Pat and Alyson spoke with Rue Morgue about their new film and how a discussion started nearly a decade ago about creating horror for the LGBTQ+ community is finally bearing fruit.
You’re tackling oppression of the LGBTQ+ community with THE RETREAT. Why has it taken so long for such an underserved population to finally be represented in horror?
PM: I think that sometimes entertainment is just a little behind the culture. It takes time for investors to invest in a diversity of voices, because they’re worried that audiences are too niche to watch these things. But recently there’s been a cultural shift, and pushing diversity is invigorating our industry across each and every genre. It boggles my mind that it has taken this long, and when I was researching other queer films in horror, I couldn’t really find any written or directed by queer people, with queer people at the center. I think we’re finally at a point where we’re realizing how marketable these films can be.
Although your film definitely feels as though it were made with a queer audience in mind, there are graphic depictions of violence and torture against gay characters. Were you worried that in shooting these scenes you could be alienating the very audience you’re hoping to attract?
AR: This is a horror movie, made for horror fans. We made some very strong choices with the direction of this film, because we wanted to shoot a satisfying thriller that also happens to have queer characters in the lead. Something that was important to us, that Pat and I discussed, was that we didn’t want to show any violence towards the queer characters; all the violence happens to the antagonists.
PM: In all the horror films that I love, the violence is usually implied. For our queer characters, I didn’t want the violence to be blatant or exploitive. However, with the villains, I was ok showing throats being slashed and blood gushing out! I meet gay people all the time that love horror films. I’ve always felt like the horror movie celebrates the oddball and the underdog; the final girl has always been that one that doesn’t fit in, and I think that LGBTQ+ members really relate to these central characters surviving these horrific attacks.
As previously mentioned, all the on-screen kills happen to heterosexual characters, while the violence against your gay leads is largely emotional. Was this your middle finger to the heteronormative depictions of cruelty we’ve grown accustomed to?
PM: We’re punishing homophobic killers more so than we’re killing off straight people. Queer people understand that when we go into an unfamiliar environment or dangerous situation, we never turn on each other, we need to rely on one another, and that’s what our film is ultimately about. When you think about a film like Haute Tension, which was really well-crafted, you feel let down by the end of it, like, “Oh, the protagonist, who I love, is a crazy lesbian psychopath!” I went into it thinking this movie was for me, but then it turns out it’s not. That’s the middle finger we’ve been getting for so many years, so let’s give the finger back.
AR: THE RETREAT has a bit of that revenge quality; it’s a turning of the tables.
While “cabin-in-the-woods” horror has been done to death, production notes for THE RETREAT state that it’s never been delivered from the queer perspective. For hetero audiences, can you provide some insight into what that point-of-view entails?
AR: The idea behind our plot came about when my wife and I were vacationing at a remote retreat. We were in the middle of nowhere, we never saw our hosts, and we constantly felt like we were being watched. We’d leave and go for a walk and there’d be fresh towels or baked goods dropped off, and because it only happened when we left, we couldn’t tell if they were being nice or just creepy. As queer women, it made us feel incredibly vulnerable. If we’re out hiking and we’re holding hands, 100% we’ll stop. It’s not necessarily that the other person is going to care, but more not knowing if they’re going to care. The root idea of this film is exploring that idea of being an “other,” and we take it to the worst-case scenario.
PM: I think a lot of people had this expectation that our movie was going to be campy because we had queer characters front and center, but we wanted this grounded as a character piece where these horrific events could actually happen. I’ve driven across America on my own, or my boyfriend and myself have gone into the country, and we can’t relax. Some of it is probably our own prejudices, but we live in a society where it’s impossible to let your guard down if you’re an “other.”
As members of the LGBTQ+ community, did the writing and production take you down avenues that it was difficult to travel?
AR: The thing I found the most disturbing was the research. I’m a daydreamer, so I can explore funny things, dark things…I’m not scared of what’s in my head, I’m scared of what’s real. Going down the rabbit hole of the internet, with some of the hate speech you can find, some of the thoughts that people have, and some of the violence that has happened, that was the part that, once we started shooting the film, I was really happy to not have to go down those rabbit holes anymore. To stop that research felt good.
THE RETREAT is available for purchase on iTunes and most major digital platforms.