Seen as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival
When it comes to queer horror stories, it’s sad to say there aren’t as many as there probably should be. What ones there are either have queer subtext without actual gay characters (Hi Nightmare on Elm Street 2), are problematic as hell (Hi Sleepaway Camp) or actually feature gay characters in a gay storyline (Hi Hellbent). That last one is a lot rarer but can be interesting if done right. Enter The Retreat, a film that uses the horrors of homophobia to tell a story that works on occasion, but also really fumbles the great idea it has.
The Retreat follows Val (Sarah Allen) and Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie), a young couple who are going on a trip to help Val’s friends prepare for their wedding. The trip in question is to a little cabin in the woods where nothing can possibly go wrong… except for everything. See, turns out this cabin is in an area full of what can best be described as “Violent homophobic murderers” who kidnap all the gay people who come to this cabin and film them being murdered. Val and Renee have to work together to overpower the homophobic assholes that’ve done them harm, in a glorious revenge tale that should be far more cathartic than it is.
What The Retreat does well is set up all the main characters, the ones we’re meant to care about. Val and Renee are just a pair of sweet and fun women who it’s almost impossible to dislike. They’re portrayed as capable enough that they can handle any problem (except using a modern coffee machine) so when the time comes for them to be in danger there’s this sense of hope that they’ll be able to take on the bad guys because they’ve proven themselves resourceful throughout the film.
The Retreat also has some genuinely great moments of tension, utilizing an effective score to create a tone that builds effectively in several key moments that allows the audience to feel the heart-stopping fear that the main pair of characters would be going through… which is good because it’s often very hard to see exactly what the main characters are going through.
So The Retreat is another of those films that has a large amount of the film take place at night and uses that to basically mean that a lot of scenes are shot in almost total darkness, meaning that there’s a large part of the film that’s effectively a black screen with some voice over. Sometimes this can be effective, but not when you’re trying to do a character piece that requires us to keep track of several main characters. It’s a little hard to really focus on just what Val is doing to try and escape which makes it a little hard to keep up sometimes with what’s going on… plus it’s just not great to look at, which is a shame because the location they have is really cool and could’ve made for some amazing shots even with low lighting.
There’s also the fact that no one other than Val or Renee matter, which I’m certain you guessed by the fact those are the two names I used. There is another gay couple in The Retreat but they’re basically there in order for the exact reason you have larger casts in slasher horror films. There are also the villains who are so forgettable that the only one that kind of stands out is the one played by Aaron Ashmore, brother of the guy who played Lamplighter in The Boys, and he only stands out cos his face is recognisable. They’re villains who are there to make it clear that these are homophobia based attacks and that’s roughly it.
On paper, The Retreat doesn’t exactly have the worst idea for a film that I’ve seen in a while. Hell giving us a bigotry/revenge film is kind of fascinating on its own but the execution of the concept just doesn’t go as far as it should and the film just doesn’t look that good. It’s certainly interesting, it’s nice to see LGBT characters as part of the horror genre who aren’t the villain and actually stand up to fight but this just doesn’t quite hit the mark like it should.