One of the hardest things about Hard was getting the damn thing made
The gay community hasn’t always looked kindly on movies about gay mass murderers. The infamous Cruising (1980), for example, became a cause celebre for featuring such a character, triggering huge demonstrations and a pathetic disclaimer by director William Friedkin that the film was not intended to be “representative of the gay community.” That was nearly 20 years ago, but the feeling persists that the coupling of queers with murderous behavior is too reminiscent of society’s general demonization of homosexuality to be acceptable – witness the reception of films like Frisk (1996) and Skin and Bone (1999), which played briefly to horrified rep house and film festival audiences and then vanished into the dustier corners of a few video stores.
John Huckert’s Hard has had a similarly hard time. The problems started early. Funding for a low-budget ($100,000) genre piece about a gay serial killer and a closet-case cop who gets involved with him wasn’t exactly forthcoming, and in a time-tested strategy, Huckert, co-producer John Matkowsky, and star Noel Palomaria financed their baby by maxing out 67 credit cards. Their strategy was to “do something edgy Hollywood would never touch, that would really get us noticed,” according to Huckert. Hollywood almost didn’t get the chance to notice: several labs refused to print what they called “pornography.” The industry’s largest lab, Deluxe, kindly offered Huckert et al. a deferred payment deal, then reneged when they decided the film was indeed obscene. What did they object to? Incredibly, Huckert says, they balked at “scenes with men kissing. There are guys together. There are women who work here!”
Eventually the film found a simpatico lab and premiered at the 1998 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where much of the buzz was negative. It didn’t help that Variety’s reviewer unequivocally panned it. On the other hand, the L.A. Weekly and some of the New York papers responded positively; apparently their critics weren’t as skittish as the women working in Deluxe’s lab. Still, release has been selective and halting, with a San Francisco playdate expected to be added soon to the New York and Los Angeles runs.
Shot in Los Angeles in 33 days, Hard is creepy from the gate. In the opening scene, a handsome blonde drifter type picks up a young hitchhiker. The conversation turns increasingly strange until the drifter, Jack (Malcolm Mooreman), drives off the road to torture and murder the kid. It’s apparent that this is going to be the first in a string of murders by this charming psycho. The story shifts to detective Raymond Vates (Noel Palomaria), a naïve rookie cop who also happens to be a closet case. He and his partner Tom Ellis (Charles Lanyer) are assigned a new case – a gay serial killer, who happens to be Jack. While canvassing the neighborhood, Raymond goes into a gay bar, meets and is instantly drawn to Jack; they end up in bed together, and Jack ties Raymond to the bed, steals his badge, and dares Raymond to find him. The killings accelerate with deadly results for Raymond. When his badge is found stuffed down the throat of a dead queer, he becomes a prime suspect in the killings. He’s also booted out of the closet, with predictably violent results from his fellow cops, who are arguably almost as unbalanced as Jack.
This gritty story is solid on the police procedures, helped no doubt by the fact that the filmmakers had the cooperation of a homicide detective and an LAPD officer, who were on the set to lend an air of authenticity. Neither does it skimp on the violence or sex, which is certainly defensible given the subject matter. There are a number of disturbing tableaux of runaways being picked up and murdered (offscreen), though most of these scenes depend more on psychological tension than the raw details. Particularly chilling is a scene where Jack is stopped by cops who, in a touch eerily reminiscent of the Jeffrey Dahmer case, don’t take seriously the bruises, blood, and moans of his passenger, whom he portrays as drunk. The film is also refreshingly upfront about the sex, especially in its willingness to show full-frontal nudity and even that rarity in high-, low-, and no-budget movies: an authentic hard-on (Palomaria’s) glimpsed after a steamy encounter between Raymond and another closeted cop.
The acting is mostly earnest, with the handsome, hunky Palomaria credible as the rookie whose education comes too fast and too hard to control. Charles Lanyer nicely sketches in the role of Raymond’s partner, but the real standout is Malcolm Mooreman, who masterfully interprets a role that could easily have become shrill and one-dimensional. While we never learn the details of what made him the monster he is, he does make us believe he could exist.