When I was offered the opportunity to write on the topic of LGBT in horror — especially by a true aficionado with a formidable reputation for high standards of the genre, I couldn’t help but jump at the chance. I plan to share my insights, and hope that you’ll do the same, since this will be a new adventure for me as I broaden my horror palate, so to speak.
You see, as fond as I am of horror, I am woefully untutored when it comes to the horror cinema world in general. Oh, sure, I’ve seen some of the “greats,” like Night of the Living Dead, most of the Halloween franchise, not to mention extraordinary hybrids like Alien and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In fact, speaking of hybrids, you may agree that horror finds its way into many other genres, and for good reason: its basic element is fear, one of the most fundamental — if not THE most fundamental — of human experiences. I ask you, good readers, to bear in mind this reference to hybrids for later on.
First, though, please allow me a tribute to someone whom I truly admire. With respect to the broader presentation of gays in cinema (horror included) I defer to the late, great Vito Russo, whose tome “The Celluloid Closet” (and the subsequent film of the same name) remains the unparalleled authority on the subject. If you have not yet read (or seen) it, I highly recommend you do so at once.
So, my first task as a novice in horror in general — and gay horror in particular — was where to begin? Google, naturally, which — naturally — listed two sites prominently: Wikipedia and IMDB; the former had 124 hyperlinks, the latter had 100 entries with dates, which affords some perspective over time, especially as it relates to the impact of gay persons in an evolving society. So from that list of 100 I culled what I believe is a good — meaning fair — sampling of LGBT themes in horror. The first thing I noticed that with scouring for films dating from 1936 to 2014, there were very few until the 1980s: Dracula’s Daughter (1936); Rope (1948); and The Creeper (1977).
Technically, Rope — an adaptation of the 1929 play of the same name — is not so much straight-up horror as suspense, something director Alfred Hitchcock was known for; but it also explores the banality of evil (also a Hitchcock watermark) even among the overbred like the rich-kid antiheroes, Brandon and Phillip, styled after the true-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. As these two were lovers in real life, it’s not surprising that the Hayes Office allowed the hints at the nature of their relationship to underscore queers as cold-blooded villains, a phenomenon that wasn’t honed to perfection until the 1970s, a good example being the two scenes involving LGBT criminals in Freebie and the Bean (1974).
My point is that horror isn’t limited to the supernatural or blood-soaked in chaotic mayhem. Horror is often clean and shiny, all around us, in the shadows of human experience, just as quiet but invaluable acts goodness and charity shine in the daylight yet little regarded.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more expertly explored as in Britain’s 1961 landmark drama/horror hybrid, Victim, in which a gay, highly placed government official decides to expose a blackmail ring against homosexuals (the first time “that word” was used on film) at the risk of destroying not only his own career, but his standing in society. The pursuit and persecution of “Boy Barrett” in the first part of the film is nothing less than terrifying and poignant. And more horrific yet, in its own way, is a subplot (and red herring) that involves a pair of male lover extortionists. Interestingly, the audiences polled at the initial screenings were horrified that the pair of blackmailers (a homophobic, priggish woman and her smug, mercenary male partner) were presented in such a negative light. Despite this, the film is unflinching in presenting a balanced view of attitudes and biases, both on behalf of gays and straights, within the context of that era.
In the final analysis, clearly neither the filmmakers of Victim nor its actors who took on these controversial parts had any intentions of shying away from exposing the horror that was commonplace in everyday British life. It’s important to bear in mind that in the UK in 1961, sex between consenting adult males was a criminal offense, punishable by two years in prison. Victim is felt to be instrumental in eventually changing the laws for the better: homosexuality “downgraded” to a mental illness in the UK, and finally decriminalized altogether in 1967.
So while Victim is a landmark film in terms of social justice, more to the point it also breaks ground in terms of mundane evil, horror of a very special, folksy variety, full of sunshine, but horror nonetheless.
Now, in future I will discuss the topic of LGBT persons in the more conventional presentations (in film terms) of horror: blood and guts, bumps in the night, werewolves and vampires; there are a plethora of films that include LGBT persons.
See you next time!
David was born in Baltimore into a military family and moved across the United States throughout most of his childhood. He received a BA in Liberal Studies from Thomas Edison State College and has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. He has written critiques for prose and film for various publications while writing screenplays, four of which have placed in competitions, his last being the psychological thriller, “Little Girl Found,” a Second Rounder at the Austin Film Festival. He has worked as a producer on three films with a fourth in the works, including his own short screenplay “Gambit.” Meanwhile he is finishing the first in a series of male-on-male vampire fiction entitled “Shared Blood,” due to be published early Summer 2015. You can follow him on Twitter: @deepfocusllc and on his website at: http://davidemcdonald.com
(Photo from Wikipedia.)