I think I say this every October, but there is an incredible dearth of modern queer horror films. I’m not talking about the “queer”-coded hetero horror movies of old (The Old Dark House, Nightmare on Elm Street 2), nor am I talking about the homoerotic not-hetero horror films in the style of David DeCoteau (1313 series, The Covenant*, Leeches!). I’m talking about straight up horror movies with unambiguously queer characters. There are only a handful of these made every year, most of which are made for tens of dollars with little chance of noticeable distribution.
This year, 2 queer horror features are currently touring various festivals. The first is Bruce LaBruce’s campy lesbian horror-comedy The Misandrists, a queer semi-satirical take on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. Set in a German farmhouse amidst and apart from an ideological civil war, a group of radical lesbians plot their sexual and political revolution to take down the patriarchy. Things get complicated when one of the women finds an injured man in the forest and traps him in the basement so he can heal. More sexually calm than LaBruce’s previous horror porn outings (L.A. Zombie, Otto: or, Up With Dead People), The Misandrists pushes envelopes in ways that have even rubbed festival programmers the wrong way. The second feature currently touring is Rift, an Icelandic feature about two ex-boyfriends stuck in an isolated cabin where things go awry. Creepy and nightmarish, the boys are stalked by something which could be related to their history.
In addition to The Misandrists and Rift, we also saw Raw, a feminist movie with an unapologetically and non-demonized gay character (now available on Netflix), and the horror-ish movie Personal Shopper with Kristen Stewart in a queer role. And, the latest in the Child’s Play series has some surprisingly campy (but not very meaningful) plays on sexuality. Even with all of this, I still think there’s more room for some fun truly queer horror movies, but they just need to be made.
In a world where the very queer American Horror Story regularly tops cable ratings for its time slot (if you include the major networks, the premiere of AHS: Cult ranked second in key demographics), why don’t we have more horror stories with alternate sexuality bouncing off the walls? Why aren’t queer filmmakers rushing to make the next big queer version of The Howling or whatever? Where are the lesbians being attacked by werewolves or the gay men getting killed in a Death Spa (if you know what I mean, and I think you do)?
Some of our reluctance to engage in queer horror tropes stems from the fear of being stereotyped. In pre-MPAA Hollywood movies, one method to get queer people past the Hays Code was to cast them as the villains in noirs and horror movies. For those just tuning in, the Hays Code was the censorship system that preceded the MPAA rating system. Written by a group of religious leaders, the Hays Code outlawed open displays of queer sexuality especially in films where the text seemed to promote the accursed lifestyle. As a result, most non-farcical queer characters were either irredeemable perverts (Boys Beware!), immoral killers (Rope), predators (Cat People), and/or victims doomed to death or misery.
In the 1970s, The Rocky Horror Picture Show took these horror tropes and exposed their queerness through deconstructionist satire. It dared to ask what would happen if the villain was flamboyantly homosexual and actively seduced the heteronormative “heros” of traditional sci-fi/horror films. Dr. Frankenfurter was every fey mad doctor rolled into one psycho drag queen who had no compunction about fucking or killing. And yet, The Rocky Horror Picture Show also sympathized with the villains of the movie by exposing the whitebread heroes as boring, flat and uncool until they’d gotten a taste of
Frank’s Cock the other side.
Whole books have been written about the complicated relationship between the queer community and our silver screen image. Monsters in the Closet explicitly discusses the queer relationship to horror films and whether that resulted in a warped cultural identification with the villain. If queer people once sought out horror movies with queer-coded villains in desperate attempts to see themselves on screen, the push for civil rights came with a push-and-pull backlash. As queer culture pushed for respectability, they shunned the dark and deviant as poor homophobic representations.
Clive Barker once said that queer people could identify with the killers in horror movies because we could not identify with the main characters. The main characters were usually explicitly heterosexual, and usually fit into some of the categories that gay kids would associate with their bullies (jocks, cheerleaders, bad boys, etc). In turn, the bullied queer audience could get vicarious vengeful pleasure by seeing representations of our bullies punished on screen. His horror films regularly dealt with non-heteronormative sexuality (even if they stopped short of showing explicit homosexuality). Hellraiser was a fetishistic look at a hot hairy guy who turned himself over to pleasure and Nightbreed was a sympathetic horror-tinged noir about a detective who loses himself in the land of the freaks (read: gays).
Flipping to the mainstream of the 80s and 90s, filmmakers still used condemnatory queer representations in horror and as horror. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge explicitly used queerness as the murderous monster that haunted a teenager who just wanted to be straight like everybody else (even if he secretly got off on being his coach’s play thing). Similarly, The Silence of the Lambs had one queer character be its serial killing villain (Buffalo Bill could be read as either a gay man and/or a transsexual). Even as queer people were being killed off by AIDS and violent homophobes in real life, we were still being cast as villains in mainstream horror movies; it’s not difficult to imagine why the community would begin shying away from queer representation in horror movies.
In the ’00s and ’10s, the queer community did make a handful of exploitation horror movies, exposing a need in the community that wasn’t being filled. Just like straight people, some of us do enjoy the purient nature of genre filmmaking and rejoice in being seen as equals as victims, survivors and killers. One such horror movie was Hellbent, a terrible film that made its name by being the first explicitly gay slasher movie ever made. To be fair, it was one of the first movies I’ve seen where a male stalker chased a bunch of lithe young male bodies through the bars of West Hollywood…but the movie only had a handful of saving grace images to distract from the complete and utter ineptness of the filmmaking.
Hellbent spawned a handful of knockoffs, but also spawned a mini queer horror renaissance. First came the porny horrors like Dead Boyz Don’t Scream, A Slice of Terror, and Bruce LaBruce’s output that pointed to a need for horror to make its big fat gay presence known. Then came the grindhouse and camp. From the post-Grindhouse assault-revenge movie Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives (an actual title) to the campy Stage Fright, queer horror is slowly unearthing itself from its grave. But, there hasn’t been nearly enough to satisfy my bloodlust.
Currently, HIV/AIDS is still simmering in the background (even after PrEP) but is far less of a wave of gay death like it was in the 80s and 90s, gay acceptance has been on the rise in America (though a backlash has been brewing for the past couple of years), and television has experience a marked increase in mainstream representation. With any luck, these “safer” conditions should create fertile grounds for the rise of queer horror movies to explore fear without being laden with the fear of being ugly or obsessed with death.
What are your favorite queer horror movies of past and present? What might I be missing out on?
Afterthought #1: Promoting lesbians and transsexuals in horror is a harder sell for many intracultural reasons. For example, I’ve experienced pushback on lesbian movies that deal with death or murderers in comedic formats (Suicide Kale, Women Who Kill) because of even strong negative cultural associations between the lesbian community and an obsession with death and murder. While I do want to see more of my queer brethren and sistren represented in horror, I can understand why some sections of our community might not want increased representation in a genre whose whole point is death and violence.
Afterthought #2: Queer horror may not be having a moment in feature length films yet, but there are more queer horror shorts than ever. Last year, Twist, Seattle’s queer film festival, had a very strong horror shorts program that was disturbing as hell. They were able to collect 90 minutes of creepy and creepy funny horror shorts including the rather intense Tonight, It’s You and Pyotr 495. This year, they’re trying again with a program that includes Iconoclast (an identity horror that played at Cannes), Breathing Through A Straw (a thriller about dealing with trauma), and Rute (a Lynchian…um…thing).
I love horror shorts. I actually love short films. But, I think short films have a tendency to stick to queer festival circuits. It’s difficult to find a horror short without being told about it and then having to pay $5 for a rental on Vimeo. Shorts still need to find a better form of distribution that will find crossover into the mainstream. Maybe if there was a show on television that collected shorts into a weekly feature, I would probably be in love with that.
*Fun Fact: The Covenant, that 2006 homoerotic horror movie about boy witches who shoot each other with blasts of magic in a barn, was actually directed by Renny Harlin who made his name with Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, and Cliffhanger. Wait, what!?