Bad Romance 

Midnight Kiss as Post-Marriage Equality Horror

Midnight Kiss | Hulu

Midnight Kiss is a gay horror film, but not because of the masked killer, or the fairly gruesome on-screen deaths, or the sense of paranoia in every frame. Midnight Kiss is a horror film for the age of Mayor Pete, imagining a self-cultivated gay emptiness at the turn of the decade. After the much-mythologized fight for Marriage Equality, after the advent of PrEP (the medication gay and queer people take to lower chances of contracting HIV), after the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s, after the ease of slipping into the mainstream and assimilating into a culture bifurcated between twin hedonisms—one tinged by eras that shaped, and were shaped by, cultural trauma and one that assumes and requires normativity and palatability—our Final Gurl, as it were, survives. But survives what, exactly? The self-immolating politics of modern gayness?

Queer politics—figuring out what that means both for myself and for my work—is wrapped up in my understanding of queer cinema, and my understanding of my own queerness is braided with how film has shaped my life. These are, as film critic Melissa Anderson says in Queersighted: The Ache of Desire, “twin desires blooming at the same time.” The trajectory of my own queer political orientation mirrors that of my emotional state and my taste in film not only because of my desire to better understand structures of power and oppression, but because I thought it would be safer to cordon myself off to the movies if I didn’t feel of color enough for the queers of color and not white enough for the white gays. If your personal angst aligns with your politics, then you can pass off the latter as legitimate and thoughtful, especially online. And while it has become effortless to accept that I must usually experience my queerness vicariously through other bodies on screen, a history of my personal politics emerges: the fury of BPM, the political anxiety of Weekend, the stifling pressure pot of Spa Night, the brash fagginess of The Boys in the Band, the weaponized self-loathing of Cruising, the paranoia of The Killing of Sister George, the rueful submissiveness of Knife + Heart, the class agitation of Fox and His Friends. These movies are and aren’t me; they illustrate an attraction to an aesthetic and form that confront gayness and queerness as existing in a social and political matrix, a tornado of external and internal forces that, when met with the material world, create bedlam. 

The aforementioned trajectory is especially evident in the evolution of my online posts on Coming Out Day, which began sweet and sincere before my earnestness quickly eroded in acid. But isn’t that just another performance, another kind of expectation of how I should be in one space or context, and how I want other people to see me? Yes; it’s impossible to be queer, or to be human, on the internet without at least partially making your identity a product, a criterion for how you judge yourself and others. It can be Grindr or it can be Twitter; you’re still being bought. And if I feel vindicated by the lives of these men falling apart in a made-for-Hulu movie, one in which I don’t feel—as the kids say—seen, that ire can be bought and replicated online, too. Between me and this fictional set of gays there are two limbos, two purgatories, two empty spaces. One just happens to have a nice pool.

Director Carter Smith and writer Erlingur Thoroddsen carve out this entry in Hulu and Blumhouse’s horror anthology series Into the Dark as a four- and five-hander—a little play, almost self-imposed by the characters, about well-off gays left to sort out their personal histories with their straight female friend, Hannah (Ayden Mayeri), in a gorgeous house on New Year’s Eve. The house offers enough space to separate themselves from one another for genre reasons, but enough confinement that they all have to confront the worst parts of one another. Cameron (Augustus Prew), who’s currently on dating/hookup apps like Grindr, once dated Joel (Scott Evans); Joel is hyper anal-retentive and is currently engaged to Logan (Lukas Gage); Logan is naive and asserts himself as morally superior; Zachary (Chester Lockhart) is the prettiest, the only person of color, and the most likely to provoke; and Hannah oscillates between obligatory mediator and accessory beyond her own power. 

The insularity of this group, suggested by the way that they speak, and who they seem to know, and what they like talking about, has a specificity to it, and that narrowness is emblematic of a broader kind of gay group. These aren’t inherently interesting people; their whole affect—the baby talk, the occasional slippage into blaccent, the pseudo-intellectual relationship to photography and tarot, the posturing about sex and identity—represents an archetype of middle/upper-middle class coastal white gayness (in this case, it’s West Hollywood, where there’s an Equinox-sauna-catalyzed orgy on every corner). They’re all extremely hot in the blandest way, the carbon copies that George prophesied in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:  “I suspect…we will have a civilization of men, smooth and blond, and right at the middleweight limit.” Though Albee, who was gay, was not writing explicitly about the gay community, the anxieties (and envies) of assimilation and conformity that drench the play are applicable nonetheless.

These are gay men I find boring more out of personal resentment than objective truth. Cloistered off in their own little worlds, their gayness does not make them as inherently interesting as they think it does. The only difference between Hell’s Kitchen gay (fit, wealthy, white, coastal—think Equinox) and the WeHo victims of Midnight Kiss are the scarves in the winter and the trips to the Standard; they’ll both meet in Purgatory on Fire Island.  

What do these guys really seem to have? Cameron barely wants to be on the trip at all, with his escalating apprehension about presenting a version of himself online, and the viability of his sexual or social capital; Zachary’s supposed blissful obliviousness about gay mortality feels as disturbed as Cam’s explicit uneasiness; and the supposed monogamous joy between Joel and Logan reveals itself to be a cracked surface, an artificiality that masks a deeper emotional void they’re unsure how to fill. A game will help, a New Year’s game called “Midnight Kiss” where you can (consensually) kiss any stranger and follow your heart (and loins) into the night. Midnight Kiss promises a chance to break away from the rigid group structure, the one that’s led to problems in the past. 

Awkwardness lingers in a fancy yet stifling car. Cam doesn’t really want to be there, seeing Joel and Logan’s relationship as simultaneously nothing he would ever want, and the ideal of what he’s supposed to want—not to mention unsettling in its unbalanced power dynamics. Joel focuses on scheduling the trip, overcompensating for the existing history between himself and Cam. Cam doesn’t care for Logan, whom he sees as infantile, needy, and inexperienced. Logan is cordial and game. Hannah, for whom the night has no stakes, is forcing herself to have fun. Hannah’s proposal that they play “Midnight Kiss” is a disruption, a bit of chaos and pleasure, a test not only of their respective feelings of comfort about themselves and others but also of their relationship to the personal and the political.

Joel and Logan should be fine, given the former’s wealth and the latter’s eagerness to play a role, right? Joel’s tendency to organize the lives around him to a suffocating degree conjures a nightmarish image of domesticity, hyper-restrained into the archetypal, (somewhat) gendered role of the “nagging wife”. And that kind of domesticity—the engagement and the ring and the idea of a wedding—presents itself as antithesis to Cameron and Zachary, the idea that without restraints there’s hedonism, which has been disavowed by one kind of gay and clung onto by another (if the community can be dichotomized in such a way). The relationship that passes itself off as not only perfect but the end goal of the political and social “fight” reveals itself to be increasingly strained. The promise of an accepting society and Marriage Equality (or vice versa) was this: big houses and the security of middle-class problems. 

Logan in particular positions himself as having bought into that premise and promise: that, if anything, the advent of apps has corrupted the organic way of meeting someone, the way people meet in romantic comedies. Apps have corrupted gay romance because of the unknowingness of existing in the ether. Being a faceless profile is no way to become someone or become someone with someone. Logan sheepishly passes off the idea of never having hooked up off an app, saying, “I just think something would be missing for me.” It’s an assertion of moral status, the I don’t even own a TV of sexually active gay men’s parlance. “It can’t be the same as a real-life connection”—a theoretical connection fetishized by both holier-than-thou young people and their ancestors who got dirty prior to the proliferation of such apps. The Internet is littered with memes positing wedded bliss as the ultimate gay aspirational fantasy in opposition to a life of empty circuit parties, and almost as many mocking those who post such sentiments in earnest. The “real life connection” will save us all, right?

And Cameron—comparatively blank slated both in personality and through his reliance on apps and faux-deep photography—is still in want of wholeness and a sense of identity. He can have sex with whomever he chooses, perform however and as whomever he wants. He has tremendous freedom, at least so he thinks. He can choose identities at will, as can the people he hooks up with, and this is what Joel and Logan hate about it all: the lack of attachment—the shapeshifting—when the “fight” was to lock down a collective identity and an aspirational milieu, not unlike locking down a partner. 

Which leaves Hannah, always a fag hag and never an actual person. In both movies and real life, the desires of women like Hannah are characterized as cartoonish gossip-fodder, not worthy of being taken seriously. As the night drags on, murder notwithstanding, she tells Cameron how lonely she feels, and questions why she even comes to these things when there’s no chance of her finding intimacy. The accessorization of the equally well-off white woman has taken its toll. 

Cameron is positioned on the opposite end of an ideological spectrum from Joel and Logan, one that emerged, pointedly, after marriage equality. On one end are those happily enmeshed in an ecstatic hedonism that mixes the pleasures and politics of various eras; on the other are those who value the security of monogamy, marriage, and money. People on either team point at the other, accusing them of emptiness, or callowness, or callousness, of betraying of some sort of politics. Their respective rules and definitions fluctuate from person to person, and depend to some degree on background and/or self-awareness. Though it’s inclined towards gay mid-life crisis theatrics, the genre trappings of Midnight Kiss are intact: the masked killer leaves cards for each prospective victim, reading “be my midnight kiss;” as required, the victims-to-be are surprised by the attacks and suspect that it must be someone they know; and the hint of sexual moralism (and racial hierarchy) is as much a part of the killings as it has been since the dawn of the slasher film. But all these factors accentuate Midnight Kiss’ tension between horror trappings and gay existentialism. The deaths—which begin with the killing of a hunky sugar baby on his way to vacation with his sugar daddy (“He surprised me with the tickets!”)—aren’t as frightening as the moral and philosophical questions these characters must face. Though both issues are caught up inextricably in sex and death, it’s less Cruising and more B-movie Weekend, less Knife + Heart, and more grindhouse Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo.

You’d never find me at this house, and I wouldn’t go if I had been invited. That latter part is self-protection; it’s easy to hold yourself morally and intellectually superior to those that you think wouldn’t want you in the first place. It’s easier to submerge oneself in the acid of envy and performed rejection, delineating yourself from that kind of gay—the rich guys devoid of self-awareness who are held up as the apotheosis of desire and status. There is no place for me there, even if the mixed-race Chester finds himself amongst the crowd, but he is the second person killed off, an added piece of vindication for my own shallow argument against clusters of men like these. They talk about connection as if the spark of chemistry isn’t itself dictated by a presumed notion of desirability and access, and as if those things aren’t now heavily shaped by gross neoliberal consumption. The art for Midnight Kiss shows the killer’s mask—a leather pup mask, part of the puppy play subculture—with a gaudy, shiny disco ball at the mouth. To write these milquetoast men off as just consuming different iterations of the same poisonous politics, buying others into a lifestyle that, whether gay or queer or straight, nonetheless posits itself as both disingenuously egalitarian and gleefully hierarchical—I could do that in my sleep. 

I’d be more inclined to hang out with Hannah, basically extraneous to the main proceedings, happily amused for a couple hours but quickly realizing our lack of necessity to the environment. The complex history between straight white women and white gay men, one that circles issues of identification, representation, objectification, empathy, and performance, finds itself concentrated and thus adrift in Hannah’s quasi-outsiderness. They’re both basically people on the margins of society, whose privilege grants them security but only situationally (just read any of the incessant think pieces about whether straight women should be allowed at gay bars). Hannah, though once fitting an archetype that bolsters the humanity of cis gay men by flattening her own (a reversal of the gay best friend), finds herself purposeless and aware of her own objectification. Depending on the context, the straight cis woman provides access to a broader society, heternormative though it may be, allowing the gay man to explore outside of his own so-called subculture. A gendered exploration, to be sure, one shaped by cultural understandings of what masculinity and femininity mean, but a kind of freedom allowed nonetheless (see: Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy). But, in this post-marriage equality landscape, who needs a Hannah anymore? We got what we wanted.

Logan’s position on this ideological spectrum is motivated by the same kind of gay loneliness that might put me politically on the opposite end, but emotionally we’re in the same place. When he’s revealed to be the “psychopath bottom” killer that’s been terrorizing everyone, his melodramatic backstory involves personal dissatisfaction, a discernible difference between the liberated gayness he imagined—the fantasy of community—and the way it played out. Our resentments come from similar places, but he found a way in. That’s less realistic for me; there’s little space for boys with chrysanthemum skin when gardens are cultivated for calla lilies and tulips.

Midnight Kiss shreds the ideological spectrum that I anxiously sit—and sometimes vacillate—on alongside Cam, Logan, and Joel. The story argues that the ideological arguments trotted out by these kinds of gays—both the assimilationists and hedonists amongst us—are products of historical, social, and political trauma, and that these continuing debates are themselves a kind of gay and queer existential crisis. In spite of hard-fought battles (and a lack of awareness both of those still at risk and of those excluded from the bacchanal), and with little political objective to orient around, the middle class narcissistic white gays—and those who yearned to be like them—are left with their own sad, middling inbetweenness, the unsatisfying emptiness of realizing that the promises weren’t all they were cracked up to be. “Careful the wish you make, wishes are children,” the Witch warns in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. After the night is over and the blood has been let, Hannah, Joel, and Cameron have survived. Hannah and Cameron sit out in front, exhausted, the land in front of them barren. What’s left of them now? It turns out that those questions of who you want to be, who you want others to be, who you want others to see you as, how you want to become that thing in person and/or online, all those questions in a post-marriage equality gay culture…well, the answers might just kill you.