Queer horror: a primer

From cruisey killers to HIV allegories, LGBT themes are alive and well in cinema horror

Arts+Culture Feature
Funeral Parade of Roses

In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Chucky creator Don Mancini. Check our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back. 

A genre defined in part by its ability to defy its own conventions, horror has often given us queer characters or, at least, characters ripe for a queer reading. One of the primary pleasures of watching a horror movie is being placed in multiple positions. We are encouraged to identify with not only the final girl, but also to cheer on the masked killer with the chainsaw; we posit ourselves within multiple genders and play out fantasies of fear and sexuality.

Horror is the spectacle of the conventional being overturned and slashed to pieces. Traditional relationships and families are the main casualties of their plots, and rarely are they afforded a happy ending. Indeed, the open endings of many horror films, often intended to lead the way for the inevitable sequel, also afford us the understanding of the inherent instability of the neat, Hollywood ending. Horror, it could be said, is inherently queer. 

Beyond a queer reading into conventional mainstream horror movies, however, great pleasures can also be had by reading horror into queer films. By broadening the terms by which a horror is traditionally categorised, we might be able to define a genre of queer horror unto itself.

This selection of films allow an alternate understanding of horror that explores experimental and queer cinema's ability to unapologetically reveal the seamier sides of queer culture, present horror as an exploration of feminism and camp, or force us to see the horror in the benign, the quotidian, the everyday. 

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Norman Bates is not horror’s only example of a transvestite killer. Movie history has generously given us Michael Caine in heels in Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) and revealed Angela’s secret in Sleepaway Camp (1983). But none of those have anything on the cross-dressing entertainers fighting over the affections of same man in Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 psychedelic trans-Oedipal bloodbath, Funeral Parade of Roses. Much has been made of the film’s influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed some of the film’s stylistic quirks for A Clockwork Orange, but the film’s bold use of narrative and documentary to portray Japan’s gay subculture make it a compelling historical document.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Made when she was only 25 years old, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is her masterpiece. A study of a woman’s struggle to provide for her son, told through the obsessive daily rituals of her life, Jeanne Dielman is a formal exercise in restraint and a patience, not least because it runs at over three hours in length. Jeanne’s domestic chores, going to the shops, preparing and cooking food, are done with a fascinating, compulsive precision.

She is, we understand early on, a prostitute, a profession she treats with the same precise manner: each time a towel is laid out on the bed, the money is put in a tureen on the dining room table. But through the repetition of her tightly controlled routine, an act as simple as overcooking the potatoes or making a bad coffee becomes magnified, horrifying evidence that her life is beginning to unravel.  

Cruising (1980)

A few years ago, during the production of the first issue of Little Joe, I became preoccupied with taking screenshots of William Friedkin’s notorious 1980 film Cruising in which Al Pacino plays a cop who goes undercover in New York’s leather bar scene to track down a serial killer targeting gay men. These stills were to accompany an article which I had commissioned my friend Stuart Henderson to write – a reappraisal of sorts – in which he compared the film to Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (which was released the same year).

Amongst some of the murder scenes in Cruising, I discovered that Friedkin had cut in a few frames of hardcore gay pornography at the moment the killer plunged his knife into his victim, perhaps in protest to the 40-minutes of film he had to cut out of the film in order to secure the film a release in the US. These subliminal images of anal penetration contrasted not-so-subtly with those of knife penetrating flesh, and yet seemed wholly subversive – a daring attempt to retain his uncompromising vision for the film against an onslaught of protest and censure. It is only now, over thirty years later, that the film is really, finally, getting the attention it deserves.

Safe (1995)

As one of three intercut stories in his 1991 debut feature Poison, Todd Haynes included Horror, a 1960s psychotropic B-movie pastiche in which a scientist isolates the “elixir of human sexuality” and, after trying it on himself, becomes a hideously disfigured and highly contagious leper. Clearly in part an allegory for AIDS paranoia that swirled around the disease in the 1980s and 90s, Poison became central to the New Queer Cinema movement. In his 1995 follow-up, Safe, Haynes once again dealt with disease, but this time of an invisible kind. Set in Los Angeles in 1987, Safe stars Julianne Moore as Carol White, a self-described “homemaker” living with her husband and his son amongst the rows of immaculate gated houses in a wealthy neighbourhood in the San Fernando Valley.

With shades of Jeanne Dielman, Carol designs the interior of their home, tends to her rose garden, does aerobics and discusses self-help literature and fad diets with her friends. But she exists in this world with a certain disconnection, a barely concealed ennui. Carol begins to have strong physical reactions to seemingly innocuous events, including a nosebleed at the hairdresser, an asthma attack at a baby shower and convulsions at the dry cleaner.

After confounding various doctors with her mystery illness, she becomes convinced that she has become allergic to chemicals found in everyday products and materials and, hearing about a community retreat in the desert for sufferers of this indefinable disease, decides to move there. As she cuts herself off from her old life, we are forced to question where Carol was better off. A kind of latent horror movie about the horror of everyday life, Safe is one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen.

Office Killer (1997)

Universally derided by critics and a box office failure upon its release in 1997, artist Cindy Sherman has all but disowned her first and only feature film. A delightfully perverse tale of how the introduction of email and staff downsizing drives mousy secretary Dorine (Carol Kane) to start murdering her colleagues, Office Killer plays out like some abject version of Working Girl, complete with power suits and big hair.

With each successive murder, Dorine gains more and more confidence and populates her lonely existence with the rotting corpses she keeps in her basement. Produced by Christine Vachon who was instrumental in so many of the films that became part of the New Queer Cinema, and co-written by Tom Kalin (director of Swoon) with uncredited additional dialogue from Todd Haynes, it has an extraordinary pedigree that perhaps raised some expectations a little too high. As it stands, over 15 years later, Office Killer is a 90s horror gem waiting to be retrieved from the spam folder.

Stranger by the Lake (2013)

Set entirely at a gay cruising ground in the South of France, Alain Guiraudie’s new film Stranger by the Lake presents a microcosm of life within a community of strangers as a setting to describe something broader, a dark fairytale of desire. The lake of the title looms large, its tranquil surface glistening and inviting. But barely concealed beneath is the menace and death at the heart of the film which threatens to engulf Franck, whose gaze we follow through the labyrinth of walkways in the woods in his quest for pleasure.

Franck’s ritual finds an object in the figure of Michel, a hyper-masculine fantasy figure straight from the leather bar in William Friedkin’s Cruising. In a strange and unsettling extended point of view shot in which we almost forget we are Franck – so passive and unwavering is his eye – we watch as Michel drowns another man in the lake and swims calmly to shore. Franck, either through obsession or love, enters into a sexual relationship with Michel, and attempts to expand it beyond the confines of the cruising ground. But his need to live fully his desires leads him into the darkness as the film slides into nightmare, taking us with it. 

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