The Retreat. 2021. Directed by Pat Mills. Screenplay by Alyson Richards.
Starring Tommie-Amber Pirie, Sarah Allen, Aaron Ashmore, Rossif Sutherland, Celinda Sinden, Patrick Garrow, Chad Connel, Gavin Fox, & Joey Coleman.
Alyson Richards Productions / Clique Pictures / Outside Line Studio
Not Rated / 82 minutes
Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled.
Oh, the straights will hate this one! Because lord knows queer people have never been harmed by any heterosexuals. Horror is vast because it encompasses the anxieties of everybody. But historically queer people haven’t been the ones writing their own stories in pop culture, at least not until very recently—same goes for BIPOC, women, people living with disabilities, trans people, and the list goes on, unfortunately. And that’s a problem, for a number of reasons. One of those reasons being that queer fears are markedly different than the fears of hetero people, often simply by virtue of the precarity involved in living openly as a queer person. Luckily we have films like The Retreat to represent the lived realities of queer people through the horror genre—a genre that, arguably, is at its core queer; I’ll get back to that another time.
The film follows Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (Sarah Allen), a lesbian couple headed to a pre-wedding retreat with their soon-to-be married gay friends. The lovely weekend’s interrupted by a group of terrifying serial killers bent on using psychological torture and brutal murder to feed online right-wing hate against queer people. Except these maniacs come up against something they didn’t expect, as Renee somehow manages to fight back against her captors and would-be killers. She and Valerie fight for their lives to survive the homophobic horrors of a backwards, backwoods town.
Alyson Richards’s screenplay comes to frightening life at the hands of director Pat Mills. The story’s deceptively simple, yet packs a huge punch. The film has already been tanked on IMDB, surely due to anti-LGBTQ viewers who are angry that politics keep getting in the way. If some folks simply didn’t like it, that’s their opinion to which they’re entitled. For many queer people, The Retreat holds real terror and true horrors. It’s the embodiment of so many anxieties us queers feel when we’re watching these backwoods slasher-type films, let alone when actually being in the middle of the woods. What a lot of straight people simply can’t comprehend is that though the scenario of The Retreat is amped up for cinematic sake there are constantly people out there wishing death upon those of us who live non-heteronormative lifestyles. The biggest, scariest problem is that those real people are out there in the world spouting their hate, and just like the homophobic murderers in the film they’re organised, online and offline. Plus, horror, as well as exploitation films, has always touched on serious issues, unless you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard.
First of all, the rural v. city theme in the film is a significant part of the horror because it’s subverted somewhat from what we typically expect in the sub-genre. The rural horror sub-genre generally reflects genuine human anxieties about leaving the city and going into an unfamiliar territory in the countryside. The rural is where things become forgotten, whether it’s people, towns, or ideologies, and a space where bad things can fester. For straight people, rural horror usually entails fantasies like backwoods inbred cannibals/mutants, or insane families of indiscriminate murderers. For queer people, the rural can mean actual living horror, and The Retreat depicts actual horrors that are visited upon real queer people. As I briefly mentioned, the rural is a space in which some of the worst ideologies are allowed to fester, whether it’s doomsday cult leaders, hood-wearing racists, or, as we see in the film, violent homophobes.
We see queer rural anxieties early on when Renee’s concerned about Valerie nearly mentioning their relationship to a stranger—who actually turns out to be one of the killers later—and for valid reasons. While some might see that as her being ashamed of her lesbianism, or at the least being worried about how others will perceive her if they know she’s a lesbian, it’s more so reflective of her concern for letting others know about their sexuality for fear of harm. She recognises they’re not in the city anymore and that the rules, for them, have changed. The best scene where we see hints of that before the full-on terror begins is when Renee jokingly points out a Boob Inspection bumper sticker to Valerie, along with another one that says Take Out Your Ex. All of this further shows how deeply heteronormative and patriarchal values have filtered down into pop culture, to the level of gas station bumper stickers. The heteronormativity and patriarchy embedded in pop culture gets perfectly turned on its head when, during the finale, Renee literally subverts the male/hetero gaze back onto one of her male captors, turning the camera around to capture his vicious death on tape.
The heteronormative horrors of The Retreat are vivid, especially with the parallels between Renee’s talk about culling “the problem deer” through “selective slaughter” and the way queer people have been treated as societal problems that need culling. Like Renee points out, the deer are only a problem depending on “who you ask.” What she’s talking about is the dominant culture and how it operates; who’s on top of the food chain. Who’s seen as the ‘problem’ in society is determined by those with the power to do so, such as, in this whole analogy, straight people. The language here, when considering the relation to queer people, is reminiscent of the 1980s in America when the AIDS epidemic was raging. AIDS was seen as a punishment from God by right-wing America—and even many supposed liberals—that God was culling the herd, so to speak, by killing gay men for their transgressions: queer sexuality. The language used in the film referring to culling is extremely potent, and, like many moments throughout the film, subverts the ideology—or here, the language—of heteronormativity.
Something we see several times in The Retreat is the ever watchful eye of heteronormativity, the Panopticon of straightness bearing down on queers all the time, from the gas station convenience store to the cameras setup on the property where the killers do their murderous deeds. That’s to say, queers are always being watched and policed by heteronormative society and patriarchal values, which the film represents through actual physical screens; later, the surveillance room is uncovered by Renee and Valerie when they try to escape. We can’t forget that men aren’t the only defenders of heteronormativity and patriarchy, either. Women who’ve internalised misogyny into their views of other women carry water for the patriarchy, in turn helping spread and perpetuate heteronormativity. This is why Layna (Celina Sinden) plays a large part in the killing of queer people, alongside her husband Gavin (Rossif Sutherland) and his partner-in-crime James (Aaron Ashmore). Particularly she plays the role of watcher, doing surveillance on their queer captives through a sophisticated camera setup. She’s just as complicit in everything else that happens, given her disgust with Renee whom she calls a “pervert” and whose life she refers to as “disgusting.” Layna’s the biggest example of that hetero Panopticon, literally via security cameras. Worse due to the callousness she shows. It’s one thing for her to degrade Renee, then beat the hell out of her, it’s another to watch over the cameras–which eventually will capture queer deaths–while drinking a Diet Pepsi and eating snacks. It’s important that Layna’s shown here because we, as a society, have to remember that heteronormativity is a cancerous ideology, one upheld by people of all genders. Renee once more finds a symbolically fitting end for Layna, too, dropping a computer monitor right on the hateful woman’s face.
Queer cinema is beautiful and it’s especially fun to see synchronicity between queer films, like the way Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster and The Retreat both use “Bitch” by Allie X so well. Pat Mills does wonderful work in the director’s chair, capturing plenty of sweet, funny moments along the way, but, most importantly, reflecting the suspense and terror of queer fear in a way that doesn’t just sensationalise, as a lot of horror can do. Even the final scene with two men picking up Renee and Valerie in their truck doesn’t quite end on a comfortable note; I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for these men to turn out to be bigots, particularly when the two women share a kiss in the backseat.
That’s the power in how Mills’s directing and Richards’s words powerfully evoke horrors felt by queer people. Although this is a good horror romp it’s a stark reflection of the real world. For those who don’t want to see this type of stuff in horror it’s possible you’ve not been paying attention to the genre at all, dating back to the earliest days of Gothic literature. Just because something isn’t your lived experience doesn’t mean it isn’t somebody else’s reality. More horror films like The Retreat will help illustrate the rich tapestries of queer lives through a lens of fear, and while I love to see happy queers living their best lives in fiction, I refuse to ignore the importance of using fiction to reflect those many fears, especially if it can open a few eyes through blood and guts.