A popular theme in horror films is the elevation of everyday domestic and societal problems to the level of the monstrous. For example, The Babadook (Kent, 2014) and Hereditary (Aster, 2018) both take on mental illness in women and the catastrophic effects it can have on their domestic spheres. The Horror at Gallery Kay puts a queer, Lovecraftian spin on this format by portraying romantic codependency as the “monster” through the lens of a queer relationship. Taken as social artefact, it demonstrates how filmmakers can navigate monstrosity as an abstracted concept within a queer romance, but without falling into the trope of demonising queerness itself.
In the first scene, which takes place in a counselling office, the element of horror is conveyed through the formal elements of the film, as opposed to the action. The eerie sound design is composed of real world sounds like jackhammers and subways, manipulated to the point of being barely recognisable in an anxiety-inducing musique concrete. The score is a modern evocation of John Carpenter’s classic horror sounds, activating the sense memory of the viewer and building tension. Dutch angles and slow zooms further drive home the notion that this relationship is threatening to consume those who come in contact with it. The final scene pushes the tension further by incorporating traditional horror aspects of gore, fantastical plot developments, and, of course, the characters’ heightened fear and desperation. It’s apparent that this is a film made by film lovers who understand and draw from established techniques.
Olive (Rosebud) and Petra (Maine Anders) are breaking up. Or rather, they are making a last ditch effort to repair their relationship by visiting a couples’ counselor, Bozill (Brian Sillman). The pair’s dynamic is clear from the first shot of the film; Olive sits alone in the waiting room, on the left side of the frame, a conspicuously empty chair to her right. Petra, her partner of the past 8 months, and co-parent to their cat Calliope, is late. When Petra finally arrives she is harried, impatient, and clearly does not want to be there, brushing off a wide-eyed and imploring Olive.
The counselling session is agonising to watch, from Bozill’s frequent phone distractions, to Olive’s interruptions, and Petra’s cruel and cutting comments. All playing out in real time, like the demonic love child of Sartre and Pinter, we witness three distinct styles of codependent attachment at play. Olive embodies the classic idea of codependency: “If I lose you, I’ll die.” While Petra, despite her insistence that she wants out of this relationship, is addicted to the kind of ego-fueling validation that Olive provides her. If Petra is “I want you to want me,” Olive is “I need you to need me.” Finally, Bozill displays a subtler form of toxic attachment to his partner. His anxiety about whether or not his husband is trying to get in touch with him prevents him from performing his job in a professional or ethical manner.
While the counselling session is relatable and cringe-inducing, is it really “monstrous?” Well, no, not in itself. And that’s a significant part of what makes this film radical. The scenario of couples’ therapy is perfectly mundane—as Bozill says later on, “[it] happens everyday. I see this every day.” There are consistent reminders that Olive and Petra’s relationship, in all its messiness and toxicity, is normal (if unhealthy). The characters’ homosexuality is not presented as one which deviates from the mainstream. This subverts the tendency of film to locate queer sexuality, and any manifestations thereof, as the root of evil/conflict. Petra directly addresses this in a moment that can be read as internalised homophobia. One of the reasons she gives for wanting to end the relationship is their adherence to stereotype. She calls them out; she and Olive are “mismatched, lesbian bed death nightmares” and that they’ve fallen into “the single most boring lesbian mistake of all time. The classic…U-Haul.” Her fear of merging lives quickly and completely with Olive is overwhelming her personal need to assert power over her life and to “gleam.” But this fear of losing oneself to coupledom is not inherently queer, and it is not uncommon to heterosexual domestic partnerships.
Olive does not share this fear, wanting and willing to change—transform even— in order to love and be loved by Petra. While Petra recounts her interpretation of their relationship, Olive frequently interrupts and tries to insert herself into Petra’s story. The scene’s lighting accentuate’s her eagerness, often giving her eyes a look of Disney-esque naivete to contrast Petra’s focused and cold stare. However, this attitude is a drastic shift, Petra says, emerging only after Olive went to an art show at the mysterious Gallery Kay.
The trio is eventually drawn to the gallery by a series of increasingly distressing phone calls to Bozill’s phone. The tone shifts when the trio arrive at Gallery Kay and are greeted by Bozill’s receptionist in a bloody surgical mask. She ushers them into a studio space in which the art is covered in sheets. At this point, Olive has become noticeably more serene, confident for the first time since we’ve been introduced. The time has come for Olive to tell her side of the story.
While Petra and Bozill look around, bewildered, Olive takes the (literal) stage and speaks in an unearthly voice and confirms that her visit to the gallery was indeed transformative. She says she learned of a hidden city of carnal delights located “beneath and behind” New York City. That hidden city could be uncovered by harnessing an incredible power which Petra possesses, unbeknownst to her. In the past, Petra had regularly performed at a storytelling event called The Dactyl. Her tale of accessing a secret world between two stops on the G train compelled listeners to take to the streets of New York with sledgehammers and pickaxes as they try to free the lost city. Since learning of this world, existing silently in parallel to theirs, Olive has been consumed by the need to make Petra aware of her awesome power, and to serve her completely.
Change comes at a cost, however, and sacrifices must be made. The now hysterical Bozill confesses their relationship may be doomed and is assaulted by the transformed receptionist, tearing his arm off, and later disemboweling him (due to movie magic, he survives this). Olive begs Petra, on her knees, to take her back so that the two of them may work in total harmony to destroy the New York which crushed the ancient city. This would give them a shared purpose and to ultimately allow them to live a single life— fully realising Petra’s fear.
Petra, drawn to the idea of such power and recognition, acquiesces to Olive’s entreaty. Their reunification is sealed with a perfectly cinematic kiss, complete with 360 pan and swelling score. The smear of Petra’s lipstick across Olive’s face gives the sense that the parting of their bodies causes physical trauma, appearing, in monochrome, like blood. Their bodily connection initiates the transformation of two lives into one being which will end the world as we know it.
Codependency in domestic partnerships is not always one sided, and the film portrays this via nuanced characterisation. Codependence for Petra is a distrust of Olive’s intentions while also having a psychological and bodily need for her validation. For Olive, she only finds value in herself when she is serving Petra. Playing with the notion of who holds the power in the relationship, we are meant to initially see Olive’s submissiveness as weak to Petra’s avoidant dominance. However, we come to realise in the gallery that she’s had the clearest view of this mysterious force and its inner machinations the entire time. Petra’s power is her ability to control the narrative, while Olive’s lies in her ability to manipulate. The dynamics of codependent power relations are slippery and constantly shifting, and sexuality does not determine or absolve a partnership of that.
Queerness in popular narrative media was once relegated to the abstract wilderness of metaphor and euphemism because of censorship regulations. This, in addition to the Global West’s anxiety around matters of human sexuality, led to the practice of queer coding, or providing characters with traits which are commonly viewed as “queer,” while not confirming their sexuality outright. It sets them apart from the pack, adds spice and an extra layer of “Otherness” to an antagonist. This results in distancing them from the protagonist and— assuming a tradition of a heteronormativity— the audience.
The Horror at Gallery Kay does not make assumptions about its audience. The filmmakers avoid this through three methods: 1) making the characters explicitly gay 2) refusing to acknowledge that queerness is outside of the norm in any way, and 3) denying us a clear hero or villain. Other than the receptionist, whose sexuality we are not made privy to, the entire cast of characters are in homosexual partnerships. By making their queerness a non-issue (despite Petra’s early assertions), Abe Goldfarb (director) and Mac Rogers (writer) succeed in creating a story which draws on a monster that potentially exists in every relationship. And that is truly horrifying.
Another trope which commonly befalls queer characters is their inevitable (and usually brutal) death—Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Seeing Red,” S6E19), Martha in The Children’s Hour (Wyler, 1961) immediately spring to mind. Driving home just how often we “bury our gays” in the media, a 2016 article by Autostraddle CEO Riese lists “All 214 Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters On TV, And How They Died.” Destabilising the trend once again, Olive and Petra not only survive, but meld together to form a unified supreme being. Even the mutilated Bozill lives to escape the gallery, only to discover that outside New York is being razed to the ground. The lack of literal or symbolic death of queer characters removes the archetypal sacrificial lamb which often leads to resolution in horrors and thrillers. Furthermore, because the ensemble is 99.9% gay, they all become essential characters; one is no less “expendable” than another.
Does it have a happy ending? Goldfarb frequently asks viewers their interpretation of the film’s ambiguous conclusion. While Petra and Olive certainly reconcile, it is at the expense of their individuality and New York City. The Horror at Gallery Kay is very focused on the personal and interior experience of Olive and Petra, while simultaneously exploring the emotional stakes of their potential uncoupling to earth-destroying large ones. While the relationship of these women is indeed horrific, their queerness is never the fundamental reason for it. This monster of codependency and toxic attachment plays out both in the realms of realism and fantasy as an abstract villain that defies traditional representations of queerness in horror. Goldfarb and Rogers prove the possibility of drawing upon the established aesthetics and grammar of cinematic storytelling to create an arthouse horror-cum-romance where the lesbians, for once, do not die.
The Horror at Gallery Kay is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.
by Brett Ashleigh
Brett (They/Them) is a queer femme sound designer and editor. They hold an MFA in Sound Design and an MA in Cinema Studies from Savannah College of Art and Design. Their work addresses sonic characterisations of marginalised bodies in film. They know every word to The Princess Bride, are a sucker for Center Stage and Bring it On, and consider director Todd Haynes their spiritual soulmate. Find them at brettashleigh.com and https://soundcloud.com/brettashleigh on Soundcloud.