If there’s anything sadder than watching a dying man sew his own piece of the memorial AIDS quilt, it’s watching that same man’s ghost continue to work on the quilt. Yes, after his untimely death of the dreaded virus, Mark (Ian Williams) returns as an unhappy quilting spirit to haunt his lover, Simon (Thomas Arklie). Mark cleans the apartment, does a little cockblocking, makes sure his belongings stay in their accustomed places (including his drag show wigs which are sometimes still on his incorporeal head), and intensifies old arguments with Simon. The trouble is, unlike the grief-stricken living partners in most supernatural romance films, Simon doesn’t miss Mark all that much. Or is that just what he’s telling himself?
If there are two things I love very much besides horror movies, they are 90s queer cinema and ghost stories. To find out that the two had been combined, in a film I somehow missed seeing in the actual 90s, is a delight. But does this film work?
Well, it’s decently acted, particularly by the supporting cast of the drunken, straight, volatile, clueless, spontaneously-Irish-dancing neighbor (Dillie Keane) and her painfully liberal beau (Tony Slattery). Also, it’s shot on film, and therefore doesn’t look like someone’s vacation video, as too many 90s indie films were wont to do. The comedy bits are great, especially the part where Simon finally comes out to a bigoted co-worker by taking him on a surprise field trip to a gay bar, and the cameo by scream queen Caroline Munro as a horny customer of Simon’s. The dramatic parts, however, mostly don’t put a hole in my heart like they could have. But maybe that is by design.
I’m on a quest to see every ghost film ever made, and the questions I like to ask when watching are: what purpose does the ghost serve, what does it represent, and why is it still here? We know that Mark isn’t really here to solve the mystery of his own death, because there isn’t one, and he isn’t there to help Simon get over him. Uniquely, he is hanging around to help Simon get over himself, to use an old 90s expression, and start having healthy emotions, a task which has seemed insurmountable for Simon ever since his coming-out talk with his father went badly. So, because of that, I suspect the film doesn’t reach the emotional highs and lows it could have due to Simon, the stoic, really being the main character and not Mark, the dramatic one.
It’s curious to me to see how little things have changed since the 1994 in which Heaven’s a Drag exists. Sure, we don’t have those amazing CD changer stereos anymore, and it’s fun to see Mark put one to good use haunting Simon and a trick he brings home. I’d forgotten about those stereos. Much better than that is the fact that AIDS is no longer nearly an automatic death sentence as it once was. But we still have some parents who are homophobes, like Simon’s dad, and some who are wonderful, like Simon’s mom (Jean Boht). Many people still have to be in the closet at work. And some people still have so much trouble connecting with their partners, gay or straight. Also, on a less serious note, I’m pretty sure shitty house music still reigns in the clubs, although I don’t go out as much as I did in 1994, to make an understatement.
All that is to say that because the story of Heaven’s a Drag isn’t overly dated, even though some of the constants really should have changed by now, this is a movie that is still relatable, which helps to overcome what may or may not be shortcomings in the script and makes this a very watchable film. Besides, any film in which an invisible dead guy runs a vacuum cleaner around to freak out the bothersome neighbor is alright with me.