Sean Abley has led a varied career in the world of genre media. From his work as founder of the Factory Theater in Chicago to screenwriter for “Sabrina, The Animated Series” and “Digimon” to the writer and director of the gay-themed science fiction flick SOCKET, he’s had enough hats to fill a rack the size of… er, a very large thing indeed.
Recently, he’s been able to add “author” to his resume with the publication of “Out in the Dark: Interviews with Gay Horror Filmmakers, Actors and Authors,” a compilation of the interviews he conducted for his “Gay of the Dead” column published on Fangoria.com, a feature that has been recently revived with a three-part talk with TALES OF POE and SINS OF DRACULA writer and actor Michael Varrati. Sean was gracious enough to talk with us about his book, his revived column and the overlap of gay content and genre films.
PAUL FREITAG-FEY (PF): So, you were living in the basement of the Factory Theater in Chicago in the early-to-mid-’90s? That’s amazing, I was actually living about six blocks from there at the time. What brought you to Chicago?
SEAN ABLEY (SA) : I attended the University of Montana Drama department with the intention of being an actor, and while I was there caught wind of Second City. After four years I dropped out of school and moved to Chicago in 1988 to “get into Second City,” thinking it would be that easy. One thing led to another and eventually I started a theater company with friends, and lived in the basement of our storefront space for almost two years.
By the way, during that time, I watched DAWN OF THE DEAD on VHS in rotation with ANNIE HALL over and over again most nights to fall asleep. It was weird sleeping in our theater’s basement dressing room.
PF: That’s got to have led to some odd dreams. I’m imagining Marshall McLuhan zombies appearing out of nowhere. How were your horror instincts influencing your theatrical work?
SA: Well, my very first play was an adaptation of Ted V. Mikels’ CORPSE GRINDERS, which was awful, but got me a nice mention in Fangoria’s “Monster Invasion” column. After that I wrote an adaptation of REEFER MADNESS, and then a play called ATTACK OF THE KILLER B’S, which was a mashup of ten different B movies. In those early days I was trying to bring the experience of watching a film to the stage. I’m back to playwriting now – I write on commission for high schools – and almost all of my work has some sort of horror comedy element.
PF: I think the question on everyone’s mind after reading the book will be, “Are you still working on a stage adaptation of Joe Gage’s WORKING MAN trilogy and where can I get tickets?” (Well, that’s my question, anyway.) Though I doubt that would be appropriate for most high schools.
SA: Ha! Well, I still have the rights, so who knows? L.A. TOOL AND DIE: LIVE! was a huge hit – we sold out every seat for seven weeks. It’s a tough show to pull off – you need eight men who are willing to do full frontal nudity and simulated gay sex acts. I’ve been hoping some other theater would be up for the challenge, but so far no go.
PF: Lemme talk to some Chicago theater people…
Back to the book, you mention the reaction you had Clive Barker’s coming out in the pages of Fangoria, as it was kind of a turning point for me as well — do you think you would have felt horror fandom as welcoming if Tony Timpone hadn’t written the essay or if, god forbid, he’d written it negatively?
SA: Knowing Tony now, I can’t even imagine him writing something negative about Clive’s gayocity. But Fango was sort of the only game in town at that time, so had they ignored the situation, I can see how young horror gays might have felt slighted. But expectations were low back then (at least mine were), so had Fango ignored the situation, it would have been business as usual. Thank Jebus they didn’t!
PF: Where did the idea for doing “Gay of the Dead” for Fangoria come from?
SA: Tony Timpone approached me about two years before he stepped down as editor. Apparently Tom DeFeo, the guy who owns Fango now, asked him about reaching out to bloggers that didn’t fit the typical straight, white male horror demographic, and so he called me. We’d known each other casually for years at that point, and he’d been very supportive of my gay sci-fi film SOCKET, so apparently I was his first call.
I tell this story in the intro to the book – I was on set as a writer for “She’s Got the Look,” aka “America’s Next Top Old Model”, and I was miserable, absolutely miserable, when my cell phone rang and it was Tony asking me to do the blog. So this was a really great call at the perfect time.
PF: Was this around the time of the “boom” in gay horror films?
SA: A bit later, but it did feel like the boom. That petered out very quickly, however. When I first started the blog, it felt like gay horror as content was going to explode. All the gay film fests I traveled to had at least one gay horror flick programmed. Gay filmmakers came out of the woodwork to be interviewed for the blog.
But then it all sort of disappeared. I blame the economy tanking, making any sort of niche film too much of a financial risk, and distribution companies ripping off filmmakers.
PF: Do you think that might come around again, or that we will eventually move beyond the “gay ghetto” of genre filmmaking and just be able to make genre films with gay characters and themes that can reach a wider audience? From my own personal experience, I have plenty of straight friends that are just fine with watching even fairly explicit gay content in films as look as the movie is good.
SA: I actually would hope for both. I look at gay cinema progressing like black cinema. In the beginning there were super low budget exploitation flicks that caught on, and now we’ve progressed to the point where Tyler Perry (of whom I am a fan) has an empire built on films for African-American audiences with stellar casts, but we’ve also made progress with African-American characters and stories in “mainstream” films. I think that’s great. I’d love for there to be a gay Tyler Perry (yes, yes, I know I said it…) with a thriving gay-content empire alongside studio films that have gay characters and stories. There’s something to be said for creating films in, and appealing to, the “gay ghetto.” Less self-imposed censorship for one.
PF: That’s certainly true, it’s certainly come a ways from the early age of “gay horror,” like LOVE BITES, or LA CAGE AUX ZOMBIES or the other low-budget films that lined the walls of the “Gay and Lesbian” section of video stores to fill space – with the column, have you wanted to go back and look at some of the “earliest” gay-themed horror films (or horror-themed gay films) like those?
SA: Occasionally I’ll come across one and watch it – I recently watched CURSE OF THE QUEERWOLF, which is, of course, horrible. And I found a copy of the old Jon Vincent gay porn vampire flick, THE BITE, the other day. But I have to admit – I’m not an archivist watcher of horror films, of any variety. I tried to be a completist at one point, but there’s so much out there, and some many other things I like to do of equal interest to horror flicks, I basically just watch what crosses my path for the most part.
PF: Do you ever worried about being pigeon-holed as a “horror” writer? I know SOCKET was sci-fi, would you like to do a similar series reaching out to gay science fiction or fantasy filmmakers, actors and writers?
SA: Funny you should ask – my publisher just asked if I’d be interested in doing just that. The details still need to be worked out, but I’d be happy to. As far as being pigeon-holed, it doesn’t bother me at all. I have a lot of different interests, but as a writer my expertise is definitely horror. And I also do get to write in other genres as a playwright, but I’m known to a completely different set of people as that writer. It’s kind of cool to have a dual writer personality, although in the age of the internet, it can be a challenge to keep the more salacious stuff away from the prying eyes of the high school drama teachers.
PF: I’m terribly jealous of your interviews. I’d honestly love to argue with Bruce LaBruce for hours. Who were you most looking forward to talking to?
SA: One of the cool things about doing the blog that turned into this book was being introduced to people I knew little or nothing about. I have this thing about knowing all the details about people who aren’t well known. So I was excited to pry everyone open.
But for those that I actually knew about before the interview, Joe Gage aka Tim Kincaid was at the top of my list. Joe/Tim is a bit of a man of mystery, and I was dying to know about his turn from gay porn to low budget horror exploitation (and back). I’ve gotten to know him more as the years have passed, mainly because of my licensing and adapting LA TOOL AND DIE for the stage, and he’s a really nice guy.
Bruce LaBruce was also high atop my list. I actually thought he’d never consent, but he was absolutely gracious and gave me great answers to all my silly questions. He also invited me to the L.A. ZOMBIE set, which was an eye-opener. I’m proud to say that set visit resulted in the first on-set report about an X-rated film to grace the pages of the Fangoria website.
PF: Were there any artists that you would have loved to have included in the book? Clive Barker is an obvious one, but maybe someone like David DeCoteau, or Ryan Murphy? I know you just did an interview with Michael Varrati about his amazing cavalcade of stuff including TALES OF POE.
SA: I’d love to interview Clive, and I reached out, but never heard back. I really would love to talk to him about theater, which is where he got his start. I don’t really have anyone that I’m more interested in than others – I’m into hearing everyone’s story, and that’s the honest truth. The main obstacle right now (and when I was putting the book together) is time – I’ve been made aware of so many guys that would be good interviews, I just don’t have time for them all. But now that I’ve jumpstarted the “Gay of the Dead” blog, I’m circling back and scooping them up.
PF: Is there a particular reason you haven’t interviewed any lesbian filmmakers, or was the intention to stick with gay males? I know there’s not a whole lot of lesbian genre filmmaking (outside of the stuff meant for titillating straight guys), but was that ever on the table? Sharon Ferranti, for example, who directed the lesbian slasher movie MAKE A WISH?
SA: I actually interviewed Sharon ages ago for an article I wrote for The Advocate on gay horror filmmakers. She actually had some great stuff to say about what it meant to be a feminist working in horror. I’d love to interview lesbians for the blog/next book, but it’s all about finding them. The guys approach me for the most part, so they go right in the queue. I’m hoping to get Kimberly Peirce or Guinevere Turner or Rita Mae Brown at some point. And I’d love suggestions for more!
PF: Cheryl Dunye wouldn’t be bad either, though only THE OWLS would really qualify as horror. Is your husband Matt as interested in horror films as you are?
SA: He’s more of a comic nerd. He’s a fan of a good horror movie, but his tolerance for bad horror films is almost zero, where mine is absolute. So I spend a lot of late nights with Netflix steaming after he’s gone to bed.
PF: I know the feeling! What’s the last horror film you’ve watched?
SA: ANTISOCIAL, which I really liked! It’s a low-budget indie that has a lot of chutzpah!
PF: I’ll look for it!
What genre films with gay themes can you recommend? I think PORNOGRAPHY: A THRILLER is a hell of a movie, and more recently, I loved STRANGER BY THE LAKE, which is impressively haunting.
SA: I had a great time working on PORNOGRAPHY (har har). (Sean was a producer on the film) Dave [Kittredge]’s vision for that film was really great. For a really raw, uncompromising film, check out A FAR CRY FROM HOME by Alan Rowe Kelly. Although it’s not a rape-revenge flick, it’s definitely a modern take on an ultraviolent grindhouse flicks like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. I have a soft spot in my heart for [1985’s] FRIGHT NIGHT, if only for the scene between Chris Sarandon and Stephen Geoffreys. And of course, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2. There’s also a short by JT Seaton called NIGHTSHADOWS that I like.
PF: I’ll wrap thing up with something you did in the book: I googled “Sean Question” and the first question that made any sense at all was “Do you like Aquaman?” So, do you like Aquaman?
SA: I do like Aquaman, but he still owes me $20 from a bet he lost, so we haven’t talked much lately.
PF: Give him a break! His baby died and his wife went insane and had a hook hand and he keeps getting promised TV series that never happen!
Keep up with Sean’s work here, and be sure to check out his book and other work below!
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