Texas Observer: A New Dallas Production Company Is Bringing Queer Horror to the Fore
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
From the Texas Observer:
By, Nic Yeager
When critics first asked Dallas filmmaker Brock Cravy what his debut film was about, he didn’t know how to answer. He’d been waiting to make a movie for 40 years. When he did, he says, “I vomited color and expression and pain and anger and fear.” The short film, called Innocent Boy, is a crazed, grotesque, neon fever dream set on a seedy stretch of Texas highway. Its genre is queer horror. “It’s a mess,” Cravy says affectionately. “It’s a colorful mess. It bleeds outside the lines.” It’s creatively gory and shamelessly bizarre. And it’s exploding boundaries in the horror genre, just as Cravy intended.
Innocent Boy is the debut project from Cravy’s Dallas-based production company, The Contested Edge, which he started last year to make room for queer characters and actors in areas of the industry where they’ve been left behind. Cravy, who is gay, wants to focus on experimental genres, specifically horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, where openly gay, trans, and nonbinary characters have been historically absent or poorly portrayed. The goal is to elevate queer artists at every level—within the stories, the casts, and the crews. With Innocent Boy, Cravy accomplished just that.
The film, now streaming on Amazon Prime and HereTV, made history as the first horror film with a Black trans lead. It challenges the conventions of scary movies in other ways, too: It boasts a predominantly LGBTQ2+ cast and crew and brings horror to a rural setting without making caricatures of the people who live there. Set in a trashed, rickety old country house, the film includes such characters as a neglected Black trans boy named Penny, his fellow hustlers, a murderous cowboy, and the wicked, greedy head of household, Momma. Desperate visitors pass through the place looking for hookups, drugs, and a taste of “Momma’s special milk”—an allegory for the opioid crisis.
The Contested Edge is at the vanguard of a new generation of scary movies concerned with the horrors of injustice. Key players like Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, the home of Get Out and Us, have renegotiated the role of Black characters to ask questions about their fear, shifting the gaze of scary movies to marginalized audiences. Cravy also cites David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows as one that does so on behalf of women living in rape culture. In Innocent Boy, Cravy explores, with a dystopian bent, what fear can look like for some queer rural Texans. By bending the norms of horror, a genre that has traditionally demonized gender nonconforming people as inherently frightening (see: The Silence of the Lambs, A Reflection of Fear, and Psycho), Innocent Boy leads us to ask new questions of our culture: What does it mean to be horrified? Who gets to be horrified, and who is horrifying?
Cravy has been obsessed with horror since he was five or six years old. Among the films that influenced him are Night of the Living Dead, which daringly cast a Black man as its heroic lead in 1968, and Alien, written for a male star but made famous by Sigourney Weaver. Those two films changed history, he says. And while queer representation was sorely lacking in his favorite movies as a kid, he remembers finding traces of it in Fright Night (1985) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). When he was a kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), now famous for its thinly veiled homoerotic themes, came on TV late at night, and Cravy remembers “knowing it was gay.”
Now, The Contested Edge is a part of that lineage. Cravy believes a golden era of queer horror is beginning. As a genre, it hasn’t been mainstreamed yet—and its content hasn’t yet moved from subtext to textual queerness—so he and his contemporaries are constructing the path. He’s shaking up the norms of queer cinema, too, which he says has also left out important groups, specifically rural and trans folks. Innocent Boy’s setting, filmed at Cravy’s father’s house in Goldthwaite, in Central Texas, was crucial for Cravy, who’s adamant that stories about addiction and exploitation outside of cities need to be told.
The film has set his company on a path to remedy imbalances like this in both content and hiring. On this production, the rest of Cravy’s creative team were all women. The lead actor, Unique Jenkins, is nonbinary. Brooklyn-based distribution company Mattioli Productions, which sought out Innocent Boy and sells and distributes it now, is trans-owned and queer-focused, too; distributor AJ Mattioli says the film has become a favorite for his dedicated fan base.
Cravy has spent most of his professional life in the Texas film industry, and has almost always worked alongside straight, cisgender men. As a producer for the Fort Worth-based Q Television Network, the first cable television channel specifically targeted toward gay, lesbian, and bisexual audiences, he was the first gay hire in 2004. Cravy grew up in Keller, a suburb of Fort Worth, where he says he and his fellow theatre students were the first high school students in Texas to perform a show about HIV/AIDS. They staged a production of The Yellow Boat, a 1994 play about a child who dies of AIDS, which sparked dialogue on the crisis. This became a harbinger of his career to come. “I realized this was where my work had always been,” he says. “At the contested edge,” emboldened to push culture forward. Horror and fantasy stretch reality while revealing truth in peculiar ways. In Innocent Boy, when violence erupts, it challenges us to ask where conflict and rebellion come from. More broadly, the presence of openly queer characters exposes the questions we haven’t been asking in their absence: What is actually scary for people whose fears are not listened to? What’s scary about being poor, or a sex worker, or an addict? For Mattioli, the distributor, centering these questions while moving beyond two-dimensional portrayals of trans characters is powerful. “People deserve to watch the genre of movies they want to watch and have queer people in them,” says Mattioli, who is a trans man. “Every single thing I watch that has trans people in it is about them being trans.” He appreciates that Penny, the lead, is established to be trans but that the narrative goes beyond that fact. “Although this film is very traumatic, it’s not traumatic because they’re trans,” he says. “Sometimes horrible things also happen to us because we’re human.”