It’s late Sunday on a rare rainy night in Los Angeles. The final stages of a dinner gathering are in progress: Sweet treats are laid out, wine glasses are full, and the whole scene is complimented by contemplative conversation. It’s decidedly chill in comparison to the festivities in the film we’re there to discuss.
“There’s nudity, blood, and gore. It has everything a proper slasher movie should have,” says screenwriter Erlingur Thoroddsen over sips of red.
At this, director Carter Smith chimes in with a grin: “…but it’s got a gay twist!”
The movie in question is Midnight Kiss, the latest offering from Blumhouse’s Into the Dark series, an anthology of horror features that each center around a holiday. Written by Thoroddsen and directed by Smith, Midnight Kiss not only has the distinction of being this year’s tale of New Year’s Eve mayhem, but also Blumhouse’s first expressly queer horror project.
Although a new endeavor for the company that brought us Get Out and The Purge, Midnight Kiss is in many ways the natural evolution of two filmmakers who have already made their mark in the landscape of queer horror. Thoroddsen created significant buzz in 2017 when his film Rift (which he wrote and directed), about two men haunted by their dead relationship, traveled the festival circuit. Similarly, Smith, known to most horror fans for directing the celebrated adaptation of The Ruins, helped change the discussion on queer horror with his seminal short film Bugcrush, as well as the esoteric feature Jamie Marks is Dead. As such, the union of these two filmmakers, whose work is in many ways foundational to contemporary discussion on the subgenre, is at once a perfect match and an extremely well-informed choice on the part of the studio that hired them.
Telling the story of a group of longtime best friends who travel to a desert home to celebrate New Year’s Eve, things in Midnight Kiss get complicated when the crew enacts their annual tradition of playing the film’s titular game: A challenge where each member of the clique, regardless of relationship status, must find a stranger to share a (consensual) midnight smooch with on New Year’s Eve, only to be rid of that person by morning’s light.
What’s more, even as the group’s relationships become strained, things go from bad to worse when a sadistic killer wants to join in the fun…ensuring that this year’s kiss may well be deadly.
A seemingly classic set-up for a slasher, Midnight Kiss nonetheless bucks tradition merely by existing. Subverting the audience’s usual expectations by injecting a queer sensibility, the film gives horror fans the opportunity to look at one of their favorite subgenres through a new lens…and LGBTQ+ audiences the chance to finally see themselves at the center of the story.
A step forward for visibility in a horror landscape where viewers are still clamoring for queer content, Midnight Kiss asserts itself as more than just a film trading in identity politics, but rather a universal story of strained relationships and broken traditions with which all audiences relate. For Smith and Thoroddsen, the motivating factor for the movie was never merely to make a gay film, but rather a horror story that would help all who watch ring in the new year with a bloody good time. Still, the duo are well aware of what this project means…and the importance of having a company as visible in the genre space as Blumhouse behind it.
Over the course of dessert and wine, I discussed Midnight Kiss’s journey with Smith and Thoroddsen, including the project’s quick genesis, the predominantly queer cast, and the unspoken weight of trying to do right by an oft-underrepresented community. Whether we were digging into the queer draw to slasher films or the project’s universal appeal, it became clear that for these two filmmakers, their resolution for the new year was simple: To deliver something fun and frightening…and maybe make us think twice about the dangers of a seemingly innocent kiss in the process.
FANGORIA: Tell me a little bit about how Midnight Kiss came to be and how you both got involved.
Erlingur Thoroddsen: I was brought to a meeting at Blumhouse knowing that they were looking for a New Year’s Eve episode of Into the Dark. All I was really told was that they wanted a slasher film and were hoping for a gay angle. I prepared a take on that, complete with beginning, middle, and end, and pitched. They decided on making it there and then…and then I had a few days to write the first draft of the script! It happened really fast, but knowing that it was a slasher…I love slashers. There were immediately things I wanted to do and found exciting. That helped in getting the story fully-fledged fairly quickly, because it was already something I had been wanting to make for a very long time.
Carter Smith: I came on board and things happened very fast. I got the script about nine days before the first shoot day. I had a video chat with Erlingur on a Monday morning and was in LA on Tuesday. I landed at the airport and went immediately to work. It was wild.
FANGORIA: For all intents and purposes, this is Blumhouse’s first foray into making an expressly queer horror movie. However, for both of you, queer horror is literally your foundation. In digging into this project, were you able to tackle aspects of the queer community that you hadn’t before? Or did you feel like, because you were appealing to a broader audience, it was more about just getting the representation down?
Erlingur: The other film that I did (Rift) was very moody, atmospheric, and sad. This was much more vibrant, fun, and funny. Instead of focusing on a relationship breaking apart, this was about a group of friends. I drew a lot of stuff from my group of friends and the way we talk to each other. It was fun to do something that was more social, in a way, than private. I feel that aspect was something that I hadn’t really done before.
Carter: Well, it takes place on New Year’s Eve…and in many ways, that’s the most social night of all.
Carter: I think all the queer horror that I’ve done before, like you, has been a little melancholic and sad. It has been very tied up in high school and struggling with things, where this felt like a project where the characters are 100% comfortable and happy with who they are. It’s just a different set of characters to make a movie about.
FANGORIA: Much has been made about how gay men really go all out for Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and other such festivities. While I realize that Into the Dark is a holiday-centric series, there’s something about the construct of this story that just feels right. Do you think that’s because of that relationship to these kinds of events? Do holidays allow us to more boldly express our queerness?
Erlingur: I think so. New Year’s Eve is always going to be a big party night for a lot of people. But with this story and the game within it, where you’re free to roam around and make out with whoever you want regardless of relationship status, I don’t know that a lot of straight people would…
Carter: …come up with the Midnight Kiss game?
Erlingur: Right! In that way, it did feel specifically gay. I feel like I would believe that a group of gay guys would do something like this. A group of gay guys or maybe straight girls.
FANGORIA: Do you have any specific New Year’s Eve traditions?
Carter: I’ve run the gamut from going crazy and being out for two days…to being asleep by 9pm. There’s no real tradition.
Erlingur: For me it’s the same thing every year- Half of it is with my family, the other half is with my friends, which is the party half. Though, I will say the whole “midnight kiss” thing is something that is very much always on my group of friends’ minds. We don’t have a game about it, but we always tease “you have to find someone!”
Carter: “You can’t ring in the New Year without a kiss!” Yeah, I get that. The pressure is there. But I think that’s universal. It’s not just gay.
FANGORIA: Let’s dig into that. We’ve already discussed a little bit about the gay connection to the holiday and how that manifests in the game in the movie, but on a broader scale, what are the universal themes of Midnight Kiss? I know it was very important to you both to make a queer movie that was not just for queer audiences. What can viewers across the spectrum expect?
Carter: One of the things that I’ve heard from people who have seen it that are not queer is that the relationships are relatable. Hannah (Ayden Mayeri) and Cameron’s (Augustus Prew) relationship especially. She’s the straight friend who watches out for them. The fact that it’s not just about sex and sex apps, there’s actually a heart to the story. In a lot of ways, without giving away the ending, it’s the idea that the relationship you least expect to come to forefront is the one that is the most significant: A gay guy and a straight girl.
Erlingur: Also, even though gay guys have the ability to complicate relationships in the way that your lovers can become friends and your friends can become lovers, we still tried to ground the relationships in a way that everyone can relate.
Carter: Everyone can relate to having an ex that’s still in their life that they have mixed feelings about and are forced to interact with because of shared history. You end up being with that person whether you like it or not, and it’s all about how you deal with that baggage.
Erlingur: It’s never really over, you know? Things might seem done, but they never quite are.
FANGORIA: We discussed how this was the first fully queer-focused project for Blumhouse. Is there a sense of burden in that fact? Do you feel like eyes are on you to get this right?
Erlingur: As I was writing it, I didn’t feel it…but afterwards, I now wonder how people are going to receive it. I think it’s a dangerous place for anyone creative to be trying to represent an entire community in one narrative. It’s impossible. Instead you just have to focus on the task in front of you: Who are these characters and what is the story? You’re only beholden to those things…and hopefully you’ve done your job well enough that people will relate.
Carter: One of the things that was so interesting about the script when I read it for the first time was the feeling that “Oh, I know these people, I know this party, I know this getaway weekend…I’ve been there, I’ve done that.” The conversations they were having and the way they related to each other, it didn’t feel like a straight person writing a gay character or a movie throwing in a gay character as a comedic prop. It was very genuine in terms of the story it was telling and the characters at its center. It was the same thing with the actors, who are all gay…they all felt they could relate to the script.
FANGORIA: It’s the knowledge that you can’t represent everyone, but you need to authentically represent someone.
Carter: I think that because we’re both gay and so is the cast, that’s already a tip of the scale to telling our own story as opposed to having someone else trying to do so. All of the queer characters in the movie were played by people who were queer. That was something Blumhouse and Hulu both were very adamant about.
FANGORIA: That certainly creates a sense of authenticity both in front of and behind the camera, as everybody is drawing on similar experiences. Thinking about folks outside of that world, were there challenges in communicating the realities of our community on the day-to-day?
Carter: I think there was a level of trust in us, as the storytellers, in knowing what we were talking about. They were smart enough to realize that we had it down. We were telling the story responsibly.
Erlingur: I think the only thing I remember getting any pushback on, and it was very minor, was over a line about PrEP in the script. They originally said they didn’t think we needed it, but I explained that I believed that every gay guy in America is going to have heard someone use that line on them. Once they heard that, they were like: “Okay, great.”
Carter: All it took was that, because it was unfamiliar to them.
Erlingur: They were pretty much cool with everything.
Carter: …and plus, who doesn’t like a naked go-go boy covered in glitter?
FANGORIA: Midnight Kiss is loudly and unabashedly a slasher movie. In the discourse of the intersection of the queer identity and horror, the draw of gay men to “final girls” is often discussed. When you make a slasher movie where the final girl is actually a gay man, how does that manifest? And why, do you think, we’re drawn to slashers in the first place?
Erlingur: In terms of the final girl…most slashers don’t have any gay characters or they’re coded gay, therefore we latch onto the final girl because she’s usually the tomboy or the outsider. We are drawn to her because we relate to her otherness. For this project, I don’t know that I was necessarily thinking of those tropes. I didn’t write Cameron as the “final boy,” necessarily. I just was trying to tell his story.
Carter: I think, since we’re both such huge genre fans anyway, so much of that stuff is internalized and you end up using it even if you’re not consciously aware.
FANGORIA: …and that brings us to influences, both conscious and not. What were your inspirations when you were writing/directing this project, if any?
Erlingur: I do remember in our initial interview/meeting, we talked about how this type of movie was the kind of movie we wished we would have seen when we were kids.
Carter: Yeah. There was something so refreshing about not having to wade through the coding or the smoke and mirrors of a gay allegory. We got to actually show someone that looked like me and sounded like me and had the kind of relationships I did.
Erlingur: Also, when the titillation comes not from a woman but a guy…you don’t have to project yourself onto something else because it’s already there. But, I think for me, the two biggest influences that I had in mind as I was writing were Scream and Basic Instinct. They were both in the back of my head as I worked.
FANGORIA: Which is interesting, because Basic Instinct, when it first came out was actually vilified by the gay community.
Erlingur: True…and now that tide has turned quite a bit.
FANGORIA: Kind of like Cruising.
What is it about the movies that we initially turn away from we eventually embrace as a community?
Erlingur: I think at that time, gays in the world were villainized by other people. We didn’t have the same respect or the same rights that we have today. I think to be represented as villains…that’s not how we wanted to see ourselves portrayed. It needed to be more positive so the rest of the world could see us. I think today though, that’s not as heavy on our shoulders, allowing us to look at these films with tongue in cheek.
Carter: …or even see the camp value. They’re not necessarily about gay representation and we can look past that fact. At one time, to be the villain it was enough to just be gay…that would be the cause, what would make you the crazy killer. I think audiences, filmmakers, and hopefully beyond, have moved forward from that notion.
FANGORIA: Is it different when it’s created by gay people? Joe Eszterhas writes Basic Instinct, William Friedkin directs Cruising. These are instances where straight creators took our identities and used them as villains. What if it’s a gay creator? Are we allowed to villainize ourselves?
Carter: I think so. If anyone can, we can. We have more right to do it than someone else.
Erlingur: I feel like we almost have to. We can’t just present a one-sided, one note version of ourselves. There needs to be a spectrum there as well. Beyond that, villains in stories tend always be more fun. Queer people have always been drawn to the Disney or Batman villains, we latch onto them because they’re flamboyant and larger than life. We love heightened reality.
Carter: They always have a better costume! *Laughs*
Erlingur: There’s just more there. It goes back to the final girls discussion: They are the outsiders. And we are as well…so we tend to see things in them that other people don’t see.
FANGORIA: We’ve talked a lot about what we internalize, project, and learn from the horror movies we watch. What do you want the audience to see/take away from Midnight Kiss?
Carter: For me, it’s actually two separate things. For a gay audience, I’m excited for them to have a movie where they can see themselves. That’s something that really hasn’t happened yet in this kind of film. But also in a lot of kinds of films. I think for a straight audience and a genre audience, I want them to see that just because these characters sleep with people that you don’t sleep with, that their sexuality is different from yours, (That doesn’t mean you can’t) still engage with their story and their relationships…and feel something during their gruesome murders. There’s something in it for both audiences, hopefully. Gays will see themselves and straights will say “oh, you’re not as different as maybe I thought.”
Erlingur: I think that though some of the specifics are particularly gay, the character dynamics are very similar to what everyone goes through. It’s also been awhile since we’ve had a movie in this subgenre that just has a sense of fun. I think it’s going to be funny, not just for a gay audience, but for everyone that watches because the actors nailed their relationships so well. Watching them have fun on New Year’s Eve is very infectious. It’s a good film to watch with friends or a crowd. There’s a lot of screams and there’s a lot of laughs. It’s a joyride.
FANGORIA: Midnight Kiss is a step forward for visibility and representation within our genre. What are the next steps? Where would you like to see queer horror go from here?
Erlingur: More films where the queer characters are the protagonists, whether the story is about queer issues or not. Once you have a queer protagonist and they are out and open, it’s going to be a queer story in a sense anyway. We’re so often the sidekick character or on the sidelines, and I feel like often people just pay lip service to the community, saying “Oh, we included something” but it’s frequently something that is not really relevant to what’s happening in the film. I just want more front-and-center queer characters.
Carter: What I long for is movies with queer characters where it’s not about them being queer. Where their sexuality is not what the story is about. That’s what I love about this: It’s just who these characters are…there’s no painful coming out story, that’s already happened. This is the story of their relationships. It’s refreshing to read and see something where the gayness is not the point. It’s there, it’s something a lot of people will relate to, but it’s not what the story is about.
Erlingur: I think that’s the thing: Because it’s there and it’s so unapologetic about it, for the right audience it will mean so much. But for the other type of audience, it doesn’t matter. Everybody gets what they need.
Carter: I’ll be really curious to see what non-queer, genre audiences think about Midnight Kiss. I have the highest of hopes.
FANGORIA: One last question with regard to your characters who are about to have one hell of a holiday debut: What happens on New Year’s Eve 2021? Are they still playing the Midnight Kiss game?
Carter: Not after what happened in 2020!
Michael Varrati is a filmmaker, producer, and host whose work frequently explores the intersection of queer identity and the horror genre. As a writer & director, he's been behind such projects as Tales of Poe, the award-winning thriller The Office is Mine, and the most recent season of the hit Netflix series The Boulet Brothers Dragula. He also serves as creator & host of the queer horror podcast Dead for Filth, and his work has been covered by such publications as the Wall Street Journal, MTV News, Out, and more.