While Jean-Claude Schlim’s study of Frank (Layke Anderson) and Jake (Benn Northover) is ostensibly about two young men learning to deal first with their sexuality and then the horrors of HIV/AIDS in 1984, the film also has much to say about how abusive, uncaring parents can forever poison the lives of their offspring.
The House of Boys is an Amsterdam stripper bar where virtually anything goes if the price is right in the backroom. The era of drugs, booze, cigarettes and Ronald Reagan is fancifully depicted. Ruler of the pretty-boy roost is drag queen extraordinaire, Madame (Udo Kiere). House Mom (and everybody’s favourite fag hag) comes in the form of Emma (Eleanor David) whose uneven past culminated in giving up her two-day old son only to become the de facto mother of good looking guys who can be persuaded with cash to open wide and pretend to enjoy largely unwanted, bareback intrusions.
When Jake gets a routine blood test following a particularly “hot” duo dance with Frank (for Snow White—definitely not Disney’s, sporting one of many over-the-top T-shirt inscribed with “Staying Alive”—the few measures of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” only succeeded in sending the production over the abyss of saccharine purgatory), he’s soon condemned to a miserable end as his immune system collapses.
The film works best when the boys and Madame strut their stuff on stage. The tracks are a veritable treasure trove of era-reinforcing hits (the treatment of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” being just one memorable example). Between numbers, the scenes are completely predictable and too plot-driven by half: “I’m not gay” soon discovers otherwise; new boy becomes the next hottest of the hot only to fall briefs-over-heels for his predecessor; Madame tries to rule with tough love but can’t find his/her character; runaway boys rely on a new “home” for care and nurturing only to be turfed when the HIV/AIDS diagnosis is confirmed.
On the plus side is Carlo Thiel’s cinematography. Whether teasing as the dancers flash their booties or employing marvellous upshots to cue the next episode of back-story, the eye is constantly delighted and engaged.
Sadly, the final act loses momentum even as the deadly virus moves along its inevitable course. The marvellous revelation of just who is running through the cornfields could have been more effectively turned into a sky-high ending, but Schlim seemed more interested in moving into the bully pulpit than letting his considerable art speak for itself. Even with that potential for greatness dashed, the film is worthy of a view—especially for those who’ve been confronted with the desire for a loved one to, finally, mercifully, let go. JWR