Winnipeg-based director David DeCoteau is queering the dark underbelly of the film industry in ways that Wes Craven never dared.
DeCoteau has directed more than 50 B-movies since the early 1980s, and in the past few years has taken his career in a new direction with an ongoing string of homoerotic, teen supernatural thrillers that have attracted new legions of horror fans.
DeCoteau arrived in LA as a young buck and began working for “King of the Bs” producer Roger Corman, before directing for another prolific B-producer, Charles Band. He has kept up a heavy flow ever since, directing action pictures (American Rampage), horror (Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), science fiction (Leeches!), “crazy” westerns (Petticoat Planet), martial arts films (Prey of the Jaguar) and even a gay romantic comedy (Leather Jacket Love Story).
Nowadays he releases several titles per year, many of which he also produces. “I spend about 90 percent of my day trying to put together the financing,” DeCoteau confides. “Even though they are low budget they still do cost money. I’m not in any way getting rich off of them so I have to make them very attractive to investors.”
DeCoteau found his niche when he started making “gay appeal” horror flicks in the late 1990s.
“In 1999, I wanted to do something that I would enjoy if I was going to keep working in this industry–which I like doing, even though it’s under the radar–something that would have some appeal to me and to gay audiences. So I started Rapid Heart Pictures to make movies that have been relatively successful with gay audiences, teenage girls, straight couples. I did a film called The Brotherhood, which so far has had three sequels.”
The Brotherhood was DeCoteau’s breakout hit, the story of an athletic golden boy who arrives at a new school and is immediately pegged to join a secret fraternity of studs who need the perfect new arrival for their leader’s demonic bid for eternal life.
Many of his films follow a similar theme of a college-aged fellow being thrown into strange surroundings where he is torn between the forces of good and evil. “It’s a great way to see a character develop, taking a young guy open to anything going into a foreign environment and being seduced into a group of interesting characters.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel. I follow a structure,” he admits. “But I think that the driving factor is that there are images and themes that are provocative. Horror is an interesting genre… you can experiment with homoeroticism, you can try anything and get away with it.”
He loves being able to provide a launch pad for his fresh-faced casts to make it in the film industry. “Hot young actors know they will look good and be treated well in one of my pictures. It’s a stepping stone to other work.” In true B-movie form, the performers are more likely to win beauty pageants than Oscar glory, but this brash favouring of man-flesh over method makes the films that much more of a guilty pleasure.
DeCoteau suggests that the frequent underwear shots are not just smut but can work as a part of the narrative–like the memorable scenes of orgasmic, nightmare-haunted dorm mates in Voodoo Academy, for example.
Often these scenes involve occult rituals and initiation rites. “There are all kinds of sensual situations where they end up in their underwear. There’s a vulnerability to the characters when they’re half-naked and the genre has to have some kind of uneasy or horrific moments. The film is not a sexual film, they’re in the horror section of the video store, but I want the characters to be very, very, very attractive.”
There have been reams of feminist critiques of the horror genre for its sadistic voyeurism and obsession with the graphic suffering of women. While the teen horror boom that peaked in the 1980s has always been a bastion of flesh and frolic, nothing really prepares you for the novelty of DeCoteau’s overtly homoerotic gaze on his mostly male characters–a reversal of the ogling process that adds to the films’ camp appeal.
This has proven controversial not just with hardcore horror buffs but also with queers. “I’ve experienced tremendous negative comments because the [films] aren’t traditional. The horror audiences want their horror ladled up thick and in your face and that’s not what I’m doing.
“There’s also been a gay backlash,” he continues. “Are the characters really gay? Are they not? This [ambiguity] is a reflection of how I want to tell my story. What I’ve chosen to do is keep the characters’ sexual histories a mystery, or when it is defined it is usually fluid. Because I’m working in the horror genre, I don’t want the characters who are the bad guys to be predatory homosexuals. I’m trying not to specify.”
DeCoteau is refreshingly frank about the business that he’s in, but he’s not a jaded cog in a celluloid assembly line. “They aren’t political gay movies, they’re B-movies. The barometer of success is the sales. These films are made because of my passion but also my ability to get them financed.
“But my main purpose is to make the films I want to make. I have to work very hard to promote them because they aren’t released theatrically.”
Instead, his films play all over the world on cable television channels like OUTtv, and sell on the DVD market (“My films are clean enough to be in Wal-Mart, of all places”).
They are popular in unexpected markets because they are “clean”–no drug use, explicit sex, extreme gore or even smoking. This suits DeCoteau’s own tastes, but he is branching out. “I just finished a film called Beastly Boyz. I decided to amp up the sensual and horrific elements slightly. I decided to push the envelope.”
And why Winnipeg? “I love Winnipeg. Manitoba is my home. I work all over but I had enough of living in LA. I’m 43. If you’re 40 and gay in LA you might as well be 140.
“I shoot my movies in a week and I don’t use government subsidies,” he continues. “I’m trying to prove that Canadian content can be successful.”