The Alien Horror of Gregg Araki’s ‘Nowhere’

February 8th, 2021 | By Anthony Isaac Bradley

James Duval Gregg Araki Nowhere

In 1997, Gregg Araki’s Nowhere unleashed a loud contemporary soundtrack and rowdy teenage behavior on unsuspecting video stores across the country. Its minimalistic cover didn’t tell you much about the film; in fact, one might think it just another Soderbergh-esque indie about taboo subjects. Instead, the film is a hybrid genre weirdo, a mix of Angel (1984) and Fire in the Sky (1993). Nowhere manages to be corny and disturbing, with an emphasis on bodily horror. Your body has been tampered with; it is no longer your own.

In the decades before Araki’s films, queer representation was often tied to the horror genre. Queer themes and characters hid beneath the surface of films like The Old Dark House and Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker. As the genre suffered post-slasher, many filmmakers moved to theater-safe thrillers. Meanwhile, queer creators took their shot at being taken seriously with more reality-based films. While the late 80s/early 90s boasts a robust canon of dramatic cinema, queer horror fans were left wanting.

Representation being what it was, Araki balled-up the quiet pain of queer folks into art he could hurl back at Hollywood. Araki’s punk sensibilities spit in the face of a queer “mainstream” scene increasingly-dominated by straight actors. Much like the UK’s Derek Jarman, Araki used film to show how these citizens were made to feel like aliens: unable to exist except as a special effect or performance. Araki gave the victims of the AIDS crisis names and faces. He also gave them knives and guns.

Released in the wake of New Queer Cinema—an early ’90s movement of independent films made for and by the queer community—Nowhere was the final entry in Araki’s “Teen Apocalypse” trilogy. The Doom Generation is the most well-known of the three, thanks in part to its iconic cover featuring Rose McGowan. McGowan sets the tone for Araki’s universe, pointing a skull ring straight at you from the VHS case—a promise that Queers were as scary and strange as TV evangelists wanted the masses to believe. Doom Generation, the second film in the trilogy, resonated with a searching counterculture reeling in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. 

By the time Nowhere was released, Araki was already known for his color-bathed teenagers that either stand doe-eyed or punch and fuck anyone within reach. As the trilogy’s closer, Nowhere’s story revolves around Dark (James Duval), an aimless kid who seems to have survived the aggressive world that Doom Generation built. If that film was the apocalypse, Nowhere is the aftermath, a bleak landscape where nihilism is resigned to the occasional cat-call. Adolescent sex proves an unreliable escape; in keeping with the New Queer Cinema tradition, sex can kill you via partner or possession. Araki’s films are lush with pastel vibrance and beautiful figures, but the results are as ugly as they should be when someone is hurt.  

During its runtime, characters make earnest requests for love while others brutalize their peers. Heads are pulped with blunt weapons; one scene features a particularly memorable use of a tomato can. Characters are eviscerated across bed sheets with rigid legs pointing towards the sky. Look close, and you might spot a space lizard grabbing a beer from the fridge. These tonal shifts from heartfelt desires to tragicomic violence sent signals to queer youths who could recognize the sadness behind the absurdity. If you were going to die, you might as well laugh yourself into the grave.

For context, films showing a same-sex kiss were marked NC-17, which meant most theater chains would not carry them. Gay Panic was all-too-real; early in his career, actor Will Smith requested special effects for a same-sex kiss because of its damage to his reputation. No movie featuring a male-on-male directorial gaze was going to place high in a US cinema—not that Araki cared. This is especially the case for a film as weird as Nowhere. Throw in a few cosmic lizards, and Araki seemed hell-bent to deliver upon Midwestern fears.

On the surface level, Duval, a mainstay in Araki’s films, seems ripped from the violent but serene world of My Own Private Idaho. For many queer viewers, Duval’s turns as Jordan and Dark provided an iconic vessel, one destined to fail in a straight-binary world. Duval’s earnest delivery and innocent charisma made that ill-fated journey somehow easier to bear.

Dark bounces from conversation to conversation as others relate alien abduction stories. Having been burned by his FWB love interest (Rachel True, The Craft), Duval discovers a connection with Montgomery (Nathan Bexton), another boy who seems to have insight into Dark’s problem. Surprisingly, the chaos leads to Dark and Montgomery finally alone together. It’s a peaceful moment. The audience lets out a sigh of relief because the horrors have passed.

But this is a Gregg Araki film. Boy meets boy. Boy tries to kiss boy, but boy violently explodes into goo as a giant insect emerges from Montgomery’s body. “I’m outta here,” it says. 

While TV adverts were declaring the dangers of premarital sex, Araki knew teens didn’t need any help conjuring up fears. Forget the inevitable Kafka interpretations—this scene parodies how queer narratives must end in tragedy, with Araki delivering a horrifically comical end to his film. Nowhere thumbs its nose at tragic story conventions, devices that straight directors continue to use as punctuation for queer tales.

To clarify, this isn’t to suggest that Araki’s films damaged the LGBTQAI+ community by playing up conservative fears. Realistically, these horrors were going to be present regardless, and many were used to it. Queer viewers had to find onscreen representation alongside the violence and humiliation of those characters. It was typical for gay characters to experience sexual assaults or emasculation, reinforcing the idea that punishment is an inevitable outcome (2018’s Knife + Heart addresses this trope in a way that Araki might appreciate). 

Even while straight-made films like Cruising drew outrage in San Francisco for stereotypes, isolated viewers searched out this same content because it was the only way to see yourself onscreen. While Crusing offers a strong lead performance, it’s precisely that: Al Pacino dons the make-up of a gay man in the same way Lon Cheney becomes a werewolf (or mummy, take your pick). A prestigious film does not make the real horrors or homophobia any easier to accept or understand. You’d have a better chance spotting a UFO than reckoning with anti-queer motivations.

Araki’s legacy is one of queer representation that stood up to the stereotypes of a weak, dying breed. Doomed or not, there would be a fight. Californian aesthetics aside, the alien horrors of Nowhere are especially relevant to anyone living in Bible Belt areas with no Act-Up or community centers to offer teenage guidance. Nowhere captures a critical time in both LGBTQIA+ history and the evolution of Hollywood. Some of us grew up on The Breakfast Club, but me and mine grew up on Gregg Araki. Nowhere is proof that hands-on representation will find an audience, no matter what planet they’re from.

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Anthony Isaac Bradley

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