I wrote this response to Fangoria back in June, and I thought I would share my thoughts on Pat Mills’ The Retreat with the rest of the class, with spoilers.
As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert in the exploitation genre, or any of its subgenres. As of this writing, I haven’t even seen I Spit On Your Grave. However, after reading Phil Nobile Jr.’s “I Spit On Your Gatekeeping” on the Terror Teletype I watched Pat Mills’ The Retreat at the beginning of Pride Month, where a lot of other discussions about respectability politics, and some resurgent controversies about marginalized identities in horror itself were — and perhaps still are — taking place.
In particular, I’ve been thinking about queer exploitation, and if a slasher revenge subgenre has a place within it. I personally think it does, and I think that The Retreat is both — to paraphrase Phil Nobile — something that portrays “queer folks fighting back against hate and violently fucking up some bigots,” and also has “nobler goals.” One thing I’ve learned in my crash-course in the exploitation genre is that it has the potential to subvert the very subject that usually gets maligned by mainstream society, even if sometimes the piece of art that results is made problematic by doing so.
The Retreat addresses itself. It doesn’t sexualize its characters. Scott and Connor at the beginning of the film, and Valerie and Renee are in loving relationships and attempting to live their lives: the former wanting to celebrate their coming nuptials, and the latter trying to figure out just what they are as a couple after some time together. The tension is there from the start of the film, and not just because of what happens to Scott and Connor. It’s stated by partners of both couples that they feel uncomfortable out of the city, which tracks with many LGBTQ+ experiences of ignorance and fears of violence and discrimination. Moreover, in the midst of the rural convenience store with its knickknacks joking of putting putting a bullet in your ex’s head, and a man very micro-aggressively coming onto a clearly uncomfortable Valerie while waiting for Renee in the restroom, we see Renee herself going out of her way — awkwardly — trying to downplay their romantic relationship to this imposing heterosexual man, and the toxically masculine environment around them. .
Those tensions are symbolized the most in Renee and Valerie’s relationship: where the latter wants to be open, and know where they stand as an official couple while the former — having her own experiences growing up as a rural hunter, feeling bad for the deer her family killed and not answering Valerie’s question about whether or not she had a choice in that, or indeed any questions about where their relationship is headed. Fear is already a factor there, and The Retreat goes out of its way to illuminate this trait in an otherwise loving LGBTQ+ relationship. What if they are seen? Who is watching them?
The surveillance screens shown in the convenience store, and in the house of the extremist snuff-film homophobe hunters, are no coincidence. Nor is the deer stand Val and Renee come across on the “Gay BnB” retreat property, or even the painting of a stag being beset on all sides by a pack of wolves in the dark of the wood. This place screams of the masculine gaze, of LGBTQ+ people being objects of violation, violence, and entertainment, and as such prey to be hunted by anonymous killers of an “Alpha-male” quality. Even the one other woman in this whole film is homophobic, perhaps consumed by internal misogyny, and all of this contributes to the hunting ground outside of the safety of a more accepting city that the protagonists must escape. There is nothing titillating about it. What should have been a safe space, a place of joy between friends, brothers and sisters — of family of the made-kind — is, literally, a trap.
But perhaps some of this is the wrong perspective to take. Maybe the titillation is not sexualizing or objectifying the LGBTQ+ characters in this film, but rather the cathartic element of watching the protagonists escape their predicament, and turn the rules of the twisted game against their homophobic kidnappers and assailants. There is certainly a historical precedent for it. Documents like the Queer Nation Manifesto, Michael Swift’s “Gay Revolutionary,” and even the Queer Nation banners of “BASH BACK” — along with other bodies of thought — advocate retaliating against systemic violence with its own methodology: going as far as to take back the slur of “queer” to make it mean an outside agency or power that puts the tool of the oppressor in the hands of the oppressed to destroy the entire structure.
Of course, the label of queer — taken back or not — is still contentious among the LGBTQ+ crowd in and of horror. Certainly, Kirk Cruz — from The Mutant Fam fan-run community — discusses these details, and his own experiences growing up LGBTQ+ and dealing with the horror genre and scene on Twitter, but I feel like The Retreat not only covers a need for burgeoning — and veteran — LGBTQ+ people to vent their frustration and fear against social structures that still persecute them, but it comes from the very spirit of Pride and the Stonewall riots that led to the former’s creation. Sometimes, talking and reasonability — respectability — can only go so far. Even Renee attempts this in the beginnings of the film, and actually hesitates in killing the homophobic wife while she’s down. She and Val consistently beg, even plead, for the hunters to let them go, as did Scott and Connor before them. It’s only when Renee tells the leader of the hunters that she doesn’t even know what he looks like, that he can just let them go, and he takes off that dude-bro macho camouflage skull mask — perhaps a shot at homophobic anonymous elements online, especially given that he and his buddies make snuff executions of LGBTQ+ people for online consumption — and when his wife proves to be just as sadistic as he is, that’s when Renee realizes she has to survive at all costs. That’s when she, and Valerie — who deliciously mixes chemicals together into something acidic against the toxically masculine man who cornered her at the store, and killed her friend in front of her (I just love poetic justice) — realize that the only way they will live if they kill the people trying to murder them.
The pay-offs are beautiful. Not only is there the aforementioned getting his face burned — albeit not as much as I would have liked — the wife, who likes to watch the violence voyeuristically through cameras gets a screen smashed onto her head, turning it into pulp, while the man who orchestrated the whole thing is shot by a bullet from the deer stand he used to hunt, and his throat slit on camera by the lesbian women he hunted. The tools of the oppressor are turned against him, and the spectacle of ending lives — Scott and Connor being portrayed as more than victims or casualties of cruelty in this film, but as human beings that love, and are loved — is thrown back in the face of the silent, cowardly, unseen spectators and enablers of the Dark Web as love lives.
I also love the fact that there is nuance in the film. We see the leader of the hunters kill another kidnapper, who doesn’t want to go along with the murders — who just wanted to “scare the queers.” Toxic masculinity and homophobia turns on itself too. And even at the end of the film, Valerie and Renee make it out. They get to that pick-up truck with those two male passengers. You are expecting something horrible, for these men — whatever their sexuality — to turn on them. It gets even more tense when Renee finally, after that entire ordeal, kisses Valerie in the back of that car in full view of the driver’s front view mirror. She feels no need to hide, or be afraid anymore. She’s faced the demons, worse ones, she and Valerie. They’ve fucked fear, and now they want to embrace love. And then, the film ends and as far as we know the protagonists are safe.
It was a nice, straightforward revenge slasher film with a solid LGBTQ+ theme. No twists. No honey-pot subversions like you had with Get Out, and the women live at the end. I’ve watched short films such as Blake Mawson’s Pyotr495, and Bears Rebecca Fonté’s Etheria Film Festival 2020 entry Conversion Therapy with similar themes, but while the former has supernatural elements and the latter has twists and focuses primarily on the torture and punishment of a high-profile homophobe, Pat Mills’ The Retreat fleshes out its characters in the trap of what should be a safe place turned violent — a microcosm of social factors against LGBTQ+ people — and shows that despite terror loss, they survive, and persevere. So, I definitely think that while The Retreat has that “cathartic homophobe bashing” element, it uses its own self-awareness of exploitation to comment on exploitation and use it against itself while telling a story about love and survival, and that is a story that is — and will always be — relevant.