23 Queer Horror Films to Soothe (and Scare) Your Tired Soul
It’s been a pretty gross time to be a non-straight-white-dude in the film industry this month. (Did I say this month? I meant forever.) So this October, as I aim to watch as many horror movies as possible and escape from it all, I have no tolerance for stories filled with misogyny—or L.A. arthouse/repertory theaters deciding to program a Roman Polanski double-feature on Halloween night. (Yep, that’s happening.) And so I present this alternate offering: From explicitly clear gay storylines to films drowning in sapphic subtext to heaps to films with LGBTQ-relevant themes (not to mention selections that have gained a sizable gay following over the years), I’ve scared up 23 queer horror movies that I hope will soothe, delight, and frighten your tired, horror-loving soul this next week or so. (I’ve also linked to a few sites that go deeper into the queer themes in each, and will be posting an article about the best books on the subject tomorrow.)
1. ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE: Now here’s a horror movie (slash queer romance slash feminist revenge flick) that gets explicit about the subtext that’s always been at the core of the genre. The cheerleaders of ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE are queer, and they’re not presented as such purely to entice the male gaze (and it’s a wild ride). The plot, in a nutshell: After being killed by a jealous football player in a car “accident,” the cheerleaders return to school as hungry zombies who seek their revenge.
2. ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE: Speaaaaking of genre-stradding off-beat zombie films… Screened at Fantastic Fest late last month (where it quickly became an audience favorite and kept me riveted during a midnight showing—a rare feat), this fun gem of a zombie flick–meets–Christmas story has memorable musical numbers galore, and guess who swoops in (in her little white sedan) to save her fellow classmates from the clutches of the undead? That’s right, it’s my girl Steph, a badass queer teenanger whose sexuality is presented without comment. The musical numbers are great, and you'll be humming them all the way through Christmas.
3. THE BABADOOK: How and when, exactly, did the titular monster of THE BABADOOK become a gay icon (and undying internet meme)? It all goes back to a Tumblr post from October 16, when Ianstagram wrote “Whenever someone says the Babadook isn’t openly gay it’s like?? Did you even watch the movie???” It was all very tongue-in-cheek—until it wasn't. “He lives in a basement, he’s weird and flamboyant, he’s living adjacently to a single mother in this kind of queer kinship structure,” Karen Tongson, an associate professor of gender studies and English at USC, told The Los Angeles Times.
4. THE BLACK CAT: This under-the-radar classic Universal horror picture directed by Edgar G. Ulmer has invited queer readings for decades, and the reasons are many. First, there are the characters of Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi) and Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), who together make one of the queerest “couples” one can imagine seeing on screen back in 1934, the year the film hit theaters. There’s devil worship, sadomasochism, the movie’s delightful Art Deco aesthetic, incest—what more could you ask for from a horror film? (Side note: Is this film the namesake for Silverlake's historic gay bar?)
5. CARRIE: Brian DePalma's 1976 Stephen King adaptation is another film that's been embraced for its queer themes—as Richard Lindsay of Pathos points out, there's literally a scene in this uber-campy film where Carrie gets locked in a closet by her insane super-Christian mother ("I can see your dirty pillows" is one of the film's most memorable lines). And then there's the way that Carrie is "othered" by her classmates and bullied mercilessly from the scene's opening frame; it's easy to empathize with the character, who is frightened by her own body and developing sexuality.
6. THE COVENANT: An all-boys CRAFT ripoff starring Chace Crawford and Taylor Kitsch sans shirts? Okaaay. Of course, I’m not saying this film is good by any stretch of the imagination—the film was widely and rightfully panned upon its release back in 2006. It makes basically no sense, the script is laughable (a character seriously threatens to turn another character into his “wiyotch”), and it currently sits with a 3% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, but on the homoeroticism scale, it gets a 100% from me (and pretty much anyone who watches it).
7. THE CRAFT: Ah, the movie that made queer (and straight, TBH) teens everywhere decide to become witches back in the '90s. And it's easy to see why: You've got outsider teenagers recognizing one another as witches while not fully "out" yet, witch-phobia, a the creation of a safe haven for said teen witches and their new chosen family, and some incredibly campy performances by a fantastic quartet of young actresses. (Still, as a product of the '90s, it isn't surprising that the film ends with the teens swearing off magic.)
8. DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS: Harry Kümel’s English-language Belgian horror film is just one of many sapphic vampire movies made in the 1970s, but it's been elevated to cult status thanks to a ridiculously cool performance by Delphine Seyrig as Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Once the Countess swoops in to interrupt a honeymoon at a desolate resort, aiming to dispatch Stefan and have Valerie all to herself in this baroque, off-beat thriller, it's obvious poor Stefan (scratch that "poor part"—this character sucks) isn't long for this world. This also happens to be one of the most stylish horror films ever created, in terms of the costumes.
9. DRACULA'S DAUGHTER: Back in 1936, when Lambert Hillyer made DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, filmmakers had to be wily to get queer themes past the censors. This particular psycho-sexual film's tagline? "She gives you weird feelings." (Weird feelings indeed!) In the film, the lustful Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) is seen consulting a psychiatrist in a bid to "cure" her of her vampirism, and she has her manservant fetch her nude female victims to feast on and help satisfy her cravings.
10. FRIGHT NIGHT: Okay, can we please start by discussing Chris Sarandon in that tight white sweater? Where were we? Oh, right—Sarandon plays a handsome (widely read as bisexual) vampire named Jerry Dandridge who moves in next door to the film's teenaged hero, Charley. Almost immediately, Charley starts spying on Jerry (and Jerry's doting sidekick/lover) while ignoring the sexual advances of his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Charley's best friend, Evil Ed, clearly has a thing for Charley, and ends up being turned into a vampire by Jerry. You can skip the 2011 remake, which chops out a lot of the gay subtext and homoeroticism (and thus all the fun).
11. THE HAUNTING: Based on a book by the excellent Shirley Jackson (also recommended—WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE), 1966's The Haunting centers around a professor who seeks to study paranormal activity (as one does) at Hill House and recruits Theodora, a lesbian psychic, to help him check it out, along with Eleanor, a meek woman who spent most of her life caring for her invalid mother. The film's depiction of Theo is clearly ahead of its time—she's presented more or less without judgment, and is shown to be a successful and powerful, and she's neither a victim or a monster.
12. HELLBENT: If you live in L.A., you know that Halloween is a BIG deal in West Hollywood (aka Boystown). And in the WeHo of HELLBENT, billed as the first gay slasher film at the time of its release, the annual party gets a little more out of hand than usual. This super-low-budget film otherwise doesn't deviate much from your average slasher flick, but it's solid enough to merit a watch before you head out to the festivities on Santa Monica Boulevard tonight.
13. HELLRAISER: Multihyphenate British artist Clive Barker's films are all far more transgressive and queer than their mainstream following might suggest, and it's little wonder. Barker was an openly gay man working in horror, and his works like 1987's HELLRAISER (which Barker says was inspired by a hardcore S&M club in NYC) are populated by characters living on the margins of society. Yes, the cenobites of the film (like the iconic Pinhead) are "monsters," but Barker is working a different framework. "Horror fiction tends to be reactionary," the filmmaker has noted. "It's usually about a return to the status quo—the monster is the outsider who must be banished from the sanctum. But over and over again, I've created monsters who come from the outside and who call out to somebody to join them in the sanctum."
14. THE HUNGER: Tony Scott's 1983 erotic horror film features David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as a pair of vampire lovers on a quest for eternal youth, after they begin to realize eternal life is not enough. If that weren't enough, Susan Sarandon plays the gerontologist they seek out for help reversing signs of aging—and one of Denueve's character's eventual lovers. (Vampires have long been depicted as hedonistic, swinging, bisexual creatures, and the films of the '70s and '80s in particular seem obsessed with this idea.)
15. JACK AND DIANE: Girl A meets Girl B, heart-eyes ensue, and Girl A turns into a werewolf—not quite your average rom-com meet-cute. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray's film turns to the old familiar trope of using werewolves to symbolize nascent sexual urges as the pair fall in love and their relationship deepens. The film's script falls a bit flat, despite winning performances by Juno Temple and Riley Keough, but Rust Gray did go on to write and direct a much better LGBTQ-centered romance, LOVESONG, last year, which also features Keough (and my other favorite, Jena Malone).
16. LES DIABOLIQUES: In this 1955 French film, a ruthless boarding school master's wife and mistress team up to take him out, and I don't think I have to tell you that there are some pretty obvious lesbian undertones floating around here. Henri-Georges Clozout beat his rival, Alfred Hitchcock, to the punch on this one, and legend has it that the British director was livid—watching the film, you can clearly see how Hitchcock's interest in the source material lines up.
17. THE LOST BOYS: Joel Schumacher's has developed a massive cult following over the years, thanks to its pitch-perfect mix of leather, violence, camp, and sex. Schumacher, an openly gay filmmaker, was tapped to direct after Richard Donner (of The Goonies) dropped out, and under his direction, the film took on a queerer feel than the kiddie movie was likely originally intended to have. THE LOST BOYS' pack of pretty lost teen punks follow their flamboyantly dressed leader and do his bidding, and the film's hero, Sam, has a poster of Rob Lowe on his wall and wears a shirt that says "Born to Shop."
18. MEMENTO MORI: My girlfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble… This Korean horror film released in 1999 centers around a doomed relationship between two high school girls, Yoo Shi-eun and Min Hyo-shin. The film unfolds via a series of hallucinatory flashbacks as their classmate, Soh Min-ah, reads the joint diary Hyo-shin left behind after committing suicide by jumping off the school roof. As Min-ah begins to discover the truth about the girls’ relationship by reading through the entries, Hyo-shin’s spirit begins stalking the school.
19. MY FRIEND DAHMER: The film in which a teenaged Jeffrey Dahmer’s sexual awakening is set off by the sight of Pete Campbell from Mad Men (okay, a young, handsome doctor played by Vincent Kartheiser) jogging down the street in a pair of short shorts. Again, this film portrays Dahmer as a seriously sick misfit longing to fit in but unable to tamp down his increasingly disturbing urges. It doesn't help that his friends—preoccupied with "normal" teenage things like girls and college admissions—egg his eccentric behavior on, unaware of what's really going on inside his head. The film largely shies away from getting too graphic (a good choice for this particular story), but the suspense in one particularly horrifying final scene will chill you to your bones.
20. NIGHTBREED: Three years after directing HELLRAISER, Clive Barker returned with a film director Alejandro Jodorowsky called "the first truly gay horror fantasy epic." The story centers around the relationship between Aaron Boone (Craig Shaffer) and his psychiatrist, Dr. Phillip Decker (played by David Cronenberg, naturally). Decker convinces Boone that Boone is a serial killer (again, naturally), and their relationship feels a bit outside of the doctor-patient boundaries. There's also an underground sanctuary called Midian where the queer-coded monsters take refuge from those who seek to destroy them, and the film positions the monsters as the good guys (a nice change).
21. THE OLD DARK HOUSE: Old Hollywood director James Whale was making his campy, gothic, subtext-filled tales before the Production Code went into effect, and his stories often center around misfits and outsiders. This is certainly the case in 1932's THE OLD DARK HOUSE, in which a bunch of strangers take refuge from a brewing storm inside a sinister mansion populated by a mute mountainman (Boris Karloff), a wild-eyed old woman (Eva Moore), and all sorts of creepy creatures lurking behind locked doors. Whale's landmark film clearly set the stage for the equally campy but much more explicit ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.
22. OTTO; OR UP WITH DEAD PEOPLE: Canadian auteur Bruce LaBruce is known for his transgressive look at sexuality, and his 2008 film OTTO is no different. Centering around a teenage zombie named Otto, LaBruce's take on the genre fittingly offers up hardcore zombie sex as well as a poignant message about being different and feeling alone (no small feat). LaBruce has also said the film's zombies are a commentary on gay cruising culture in cities like Berlin (where OTTO takes place): "It really is pretty much like of the living dead," he says. "People are in a somnambulist, zombie-like state. … It's not really about the individual."
23. PSYCHO: There's a lot to unpack in PSYCHO, a film that explores gender roles, sexual identity, and repression in the guise of a more straightforward thriller. Of course, nothing about PSYCHO is actually straightforward: Hitchcock's seminal film is remembered for so many things, not least of which is the way it subverts audience expectation while laying the groundwork for the slasher genre. Queer actor Anthony Perkins delivers an absolutely riveting performance as Norman Bates, the shy, boyish motel keeper who took his love for his mother a bit too far. (Perkins has said in interviews later in his life that his own uber-close relationship with his mother during childhood made it hard for him to sustain relationships with women.)