LGBTQ HORROR FILMS FOR A HAUNTING HALLOWEEN

Today’s Cinema Adventure is a list of suggested viewing for the Spooky Season.

Halloween (sometimes referred to as “Gay Christmas”) is on its way, and it’s a great time of year to turn off the lights, settle in on the couch with that special someone, and put on a really scary movie.  Unfortunately, though the genre seems tailor-made for it, there are woefully few horror films aimed at LGBTQ audiences – sure, there’s always “Rocky Horror,” or “The Hunger,” or the blatantly homoerotic “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but let’s face it, we’ve all seen those plenty of times.

So if you’re looking for something different this season, I’ve put together a list of alternate choices representing the queer presence in cinema – maybe not overtly, in some cases, but certainly in their subtext and sensibilities.

 

THE CLASSIC:

Bride of Frankenstein
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – You won’t find a gayer horror film from Hollywood’s Silver Age than this legendary masterpiece.  After playing it straight with the first “Frankenstein” movie, out director James Whale pulled out all the gay stops for the sequel.  From the metaphor of a hated monster who only wants to be loved, to the presence of the deliciously queer Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, it’s a prime example of a slyly subversive subtext inserted between the lines of a mainstream narrative – and also one of the best monster movies of its classic era.

The Haunting“The Haunting” (1963) – Even if seems tame by today’s standards, director Robert Wise’s adaptation of a short novel by Shirley Jackson is still renowned for the way it uses mood, atmosphere, and suggestion to generate chills.  More to the point for LGBTQ audiences is the presence of Claire Bloom as an openly lesbian character (Claire Bloom), whose sympathetic portrayal is devoid of the dark, predatory overtones that go hand-in-hand with such characters in other pre-Stonewall films.  For those with a taste for brainy, psychological horror movies, this one is essential viewing.

 

THE CAMPY:

Warhols Dracula“Blood for Dracula” AKA “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” (1974) – Although there is nothing explicitly queer about the plot of this cheaply-produced French-Italian opus, the influence of director Paul Morrissey and the presence of quintessential “trade” pin-up boy Joe Dallesandro – not to mention Warhol as producer, though as usual he had little involvement in the actual making of the movie – make it intrinsically gay.  The ridiculous plot, in which the famous Count (Udo Kier) is dying due to a shortage of virgins from whom to suck the blood he needs to survive, is a flimsy excuse for loads of gore and nudity.  Sure, it’s trash – but with Warhol’s name above the title, you can convince yourself that it’s art.

Phantom of the Paradise.jpg“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) – Again, the plot isn’t gay, and in this case neither was the director (Brian DePalma).  Even so, the level of over-the-top glitz and orgiastic glam makes this bizarre horror-rock-musical a camp-fest of the highest order.  Starring unlikely 70s sensation Paul Williams as a Satanic music producer who ensnares a disfigured composer and a beautiful singer (Jessica Harper) into creating a rock-and-roll opera based on the story of Faust, it also features Gerrit Graham as a flamboyant glam-rocker named Beef and a whole bevy of beautiful young bodies as it re-imagines “The Phantom of the Opera” with a few touches of “Dorian Gray” thrown in for good measure.  Sure, the pre-disco song score (also by Williams) may not have as much modern gay-appeal as some viewers might like, but it’s worth getting over that for the overwrought silliness of the whole thing.

 

THE CREEPY:

The Fourth Man“The Fourth Man (De vierde man)” (1983) – This one isn’t exactly horror, but it’s unsettling vibe is far more likely to make you squirm than most of the so-called fright flicks that try to scare you with ghouls and gore.  Crafted by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (years before he gave us a different kind of horror with “Showgirls”), it’s the sexy tale of an alcoholic writer who becomes involved with an icy blonde, despite visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that she might be a killer.  Things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to her other boyfriend – and the visions get a lot hotter.  More suspenseful than scary, but you’ll still be wary of scissors for awhile afterwards.

Stranger by the Lake“Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)” (2013) – This brooding French thriller plays out under bright sunlight, but it’s still probably the scariest movie on the list.  A young man spends his summer at a lakeside beach where gay men come to cruise, witnesses a murder, and finds himself drawn into a romance with the killer.  It’s all very Hitchcockian, and director Alain Guiraudie manipulates our sympathies just like the Master himself.  Yes, it features full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes – but it also delivers a slow-building thrill ride which leaves you with a lingering sense of unease.

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C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: C.R.A.Z.Y., a 2005 French-Canadian feature by director Jean-Marc Valée about the experiences of  a young man wrestling with his sexual identity as he grows up in a large, conservative, male-dominated Montreal family through the sixties and seventies.  The screenplay, based on the real experiences of François Boublay (who co-wrote with Valée), took 10 years to complete, but the end result was one of Canada’s most successful films of all time, becoming a box office hit and sweeping the Genie awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, for those who don’t know) with 11 wins out of 13 nominations.

Beginning with his birth on Christmas Day, 1960, the film follows the memories of Zac Beaulieu, whose family consists of three older brothers and (eventually) one younger; their father, Gervais, is a loving but authoritarian working class man with traditional ideas of masculinity, and their mother, Laurianne, a doting but submissive woman with deeply-held Catholic beliefs.  Over the course of twenty years, Zac endures the burden of being “different” in the midst of this painfully average, sometimes dysfunctional clan.  First he is branded as a “special” child with a gift for healing; then, as he grows older, he must face the ever-growing challenge of coming to terms with his homosexuality, an unthinkable and insurmountable obstacle to harmony with his family- and in particular, to his relationship with his beloved father.

With Zac’s journey to maturity and self-acceptance at its core, C.R.A.Z.Y. takes its audience on an inside tour of middle-class family life in suburbia; not only do we experience the painful struggle of a young gay man trying to first deny, then repress his sexuality in an un-accepting home environment, but also the other all-too-common scenario of drug addiction, as Zac’s older brother battles an escalating habit that is discouraged but enabled by parents without the knowledge or skills to make a difference.  Lest it seem, however, that the film presents only a bleak and dour perspective, rest assured that the conflicts and tragedies are woven delicately into a total picture that includes a great deal of quirky humor, as well as portraying the many small joys and transcendent moments that bind a family together- and the private experiences, indelibly printed in memory, that give meaning to an individual life.  In the end, though we see Zac and his family embroiled in much turmoil throughout- and mostly with each other- Valée’s film is about love, and its power to redeem and unite, no matter what seemingly irreconcilable differences may exist or how many mistakes have been made between us.

One of the key elements that contributes to the film’s effectiveness (and it is very effective) is the way it captures the third-quarter-20th-Century setting, giving it a particular significance for viewers who, like its lead character, grew up in this era.  Part of the way it does this, of course, is through its superb scenic and costume design; there is an authenticity to the choices that has to do with capturing the everyday look of the era, rather than attempting to give us a flashy, definitive period style.  It is however, the use of music that conjures the period most noticeably, all the more so because it plays a key role in the plot.  Music provides a common bond between father and son, and is an important outlet for both characters.  Highly specific choices are featured prominently throughout: for instance, father Gervais has a fondness for singing along with “Emmenez-moi,” by Charles Aznavour, mirrored later by Zac’s impassioned bedroom performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity;” and in one of Zac’s flights of imaginative fantasy, he has a vision of his epiphanic levitation in the church to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”  The heavy use of the above artists, along with Pink Floyd, Patsy Cline and others, led to the somewhat staggering fact that more than half the film’s budget went to the acquisition of rights for these songs, and director Valée took a cut in his own salary in order to ensure their inclusion.

The excellence of C.R.A.Z.Y. is the result of top-notch work from everyone involved, and it’s an example of a film that is so dependent on the seamless combination of its elements that it seems unfair to single out individuals for specific praise.  Nevertheless, a few standout cast contributions deserve mention.  Most obvious, of course, is the performance of Marc-André Grondin as Zac; whether he is willfully disregarding his father’s behavioral strictures, furtively eyeing his cousin’s teen-dream boyfriend, determinedly trudging through a blizzard as penance for his sinful thoughts, or finding an outlet for his stifled passions through his love of music, he lets us inside and allows us to feel like participants in his story.  The performers who leave the deepest impression, however, are Michel Côté and Danielle Proulx, completely authentic as his father and mother; they inhabit this pair without judgment or caricature, showing us their many flaws but also the good intentions and endearing qualities that make them lovable.  Côté in particular gives an unforgettable portrait of a man who is at once larger than life and touchingly human; volatile, masculine, and charismatic, he commands the screen and makes it very clear why this relationship is so important to Zac.

C.R.A.Z.Y. is not a film that invites in-depth analysis of its underlying themes and archetypal symbols, though these things are present; rather, it is a heartfelt, sometimes painful slice-of-life movie filled with bittersweet nostalgia, ironic hindsight, disarming levity, achingly familiar moments of commonality, flashes of revelatory observation, and a cumulative emotional resonance that subtly builds to an unexpectedly powerful climax.  It accomplishes a rare feat for this type of movie, allowing us to be drawn so completely into this family that we truly feel a part of it.  This is partly due to the way Valée and Boublay show us the kind of mundane everyday details that become shared touchstones through repetition and associated memories, and their effort to invest each member of the family with as much individual life as possible, even the brothers whose smaller roles in the proceedings leave them more or less in the background; the final effect is that these characters seem like real people in our lives, people that we know intimately, and this serves to deepen our connection to them and give their experiences the weight of shared universal memory.  Perhaps most importantly, the movie possesses a sincerity which derives largely from the genuine love it has for all of its characters- even as it reveals their maddening imperfections and their often inadequate skills at coping and communication.  This quality alone makes it superb, far-and-away superior to so many similar cinematic memory-plays that start promisingly and then devolve into just another manipulative tear-jerker before the final scenes; but what makes it a truly remarkable film is the primary perspective it takes in its exploration of the trials and tribulations of family life.  With Zac as our window into the Beaulieu clan, our sympathies are naturally transferred to him, and we are therefore led to identify with his personal conflict, which is, of course, the central focus of the film.  His gradual progression- an anguished process of fear, denial, self-loathing, and self-deception, built around his emerging homosexuality-  is thereby made relevant to audiences without firsthand understanding of his experience, a sadly familiar one to millions of gay and lesbian people the world over. It’s a heartbreakingly complete and specific portrayal: Zac’s fear of humiliation and rejection from his family, his desperate bargaining through prayer to have his “curse” removed, his rejection of faith and rebellion against normalcy even as he continues to hide his true nature; all these and more are important facets of the movie’s dominant subject matter, and though it’s all so common as to border on cliché, it’s a social phenomenon that has been long obscured by stigma.  By investing us in Zac from the beginning of his life, the movie opens it up to be shared- and experienced, at least through extension- by all.  I may be wrong, but I can, unfortunately, think of no American film that even comes close to making the reality of growing up gay so painfully accessible to a wider audience; I invite your corrective examples, because if there are such films, I very much want to see them.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401085/

Vampyr (1932)

Today’s cinema adventure: Vampyr, a 1932 French/German horror film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, about a young man, obsessed with the occult, whose wanderings lead him into the dark troubles of a remote countryside manor, where the owner’s mysteriously ill daughter may be in the grip of horrifying powers from beyond the grave. Dreyer’s first film using sound, it was also his first effort following The Passion of Joan of Arc, a feature which, despite enthusiastic acclaim from critics, had been a box office disaster. With no studio willing to take a chance on the basis of his artistic promise alone, Dreyer found private financing from Nicolas de Brunholz, a young Baron who was a fixture of the Parisian social scene, known for his extravagant parties and his patronage of the arts, who would later become a prominent fashion editor for such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (and a mentor for designers Bill Blass and Calvin Klein, among others). De Brunholz’s condition for backing Dreyer’s film was that he would be its star; under the pseudonym of “Julian West,” assumed to assuage his prominent family’s disapproval of his acting ambitions, he portrays the wispy focal character of Allan Grey, and though his acting abilities were decidedly limited (and wisely un-stretched by Dreyer’s demands), his tall, slender frame and his handsome, elegant appearance set a distinctive tone at the center of the movie, aptly suggesting a strong spirit that has perhaps found himself over his head in a situation beyond his grasp.

Nevertheless, despite the support and participation of one of Europe’s most prominent society figures and the attendant buzz which surrounded it, Vampyr proved to be a worse flop than Joan of Arc, booed at its debut screening and, this time, even derided by the critics, who found it slow-moving, incoherent, and/or laughable; for many years it was widely considered Dreyer’s worst film, falling into such neglect that all but a few damaged original prints were lost. Indeed, produced to capitalize on the popularity of such American horror films as Dracula and Frankenstein (though it was initially conceived before these films had been released), it had such a marked difference in tone and style that it is easy to see why it perplexed and disappointed movie-goers of the time. The film’s failure contributed to Dreyer’s declining financial and emotional stability, which led to a nervous breakdown and kept him from making another film for another 11 years. It was only after his subsequent career and the retrospective appreciation of a later generation that reassessment granted it a status more deserved by its innovative and unique contribution to the horror genre and to cinema in general.

Ironically, many of the elements which made Vampyr such a flop are the reasons it is considered such so significant today. On a superficial level, it is one of the first horror films to feature a female vampire (and an elderly one at that) as its main antagonist, having been partly based on the short story Carmilla, by L. Sheridan La Fanu, a popular 19th-century fiction known for its decidedly lesbian overtones- some of which carry over into the film. It was also one of the first times the obvious sexual implications of the vampire myth were explored more overtly; though there is no explicit reference or depiction of sex, the metaphoric connection is clear, particularly in the decidedly romantic manner in which the young heroine is seen being victimized by her attacker. The film is also notable for its re-imagination of the standard, Dracula-based formula seen in most vampire movies; although it features most of the key archetypes inherent to the story, many of the familiar stock characters are absent or significantly changed, and the locations, though suitably grim and antiquated, are not the gothic staples of our expectation- the village is an idyllic, sun-scaped riverside town, devoid of torch-waving mobs, and in place of a foreboding castle for the vampire’s lair, we are given a decrepit flour mill.

More important, however, is Vampyr‘s visual and thematic style, and the underpinnings of its influences from dominant artistic movements of the time. Dreyer’s artistic sensibilities, while distinctly his own, were clearly influenced by his involvement with the French art scene, resulting here in a movie reminiscent of works by his more directly avant-garde contemporaries such as Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. His stated intention with Vampyr was to take the art of cinema in a new direction, using a vehicle which lent itself to imaginative treatment by nature of its supernatural content; in realizing this goal, he blended his own passion for realism (enhanced by his use of natural lighting and authentic location photography) with the heightened theatricality and Freudian overtones of Expressionism, the seemingly nonsensical and dreamlike imagery of Surrealism, and the piecemeal construction of Impressionism. The resultant film glows with an ethereal beauty, combining a variety of cinematographic techniques (exquisitely executed by Rudolph Maté) that range from the sharply defined to the gauzy and murky; the narrative is deliberately cloudy and illogical, filled with non-sequiturs and credibility gaps, creating the feeling of a dream or even a delusion, an effect bolstered by camera trickery that gives us such jarring elements as shadows moving independently (or in compete absence) of their owners, and otherwise commonplace actions occurring in reverse; deeply symbolic or arcane iconography is everywhere, and the screen is filled with a rich and varied texture of design- mostly the result of decor and objects inherent to the actual shooting locations; and finally, the overall effect of Vampyr is created by a cumulative process in which the broad and vivid strokes of its seemingly disjointed progression combine to form a complete picture that is unified and harmonious- if somewhat unsettling.

Adding to the hallucinatory feel of Vampyr is its primitive use of sound. The European film community was behind the curve with the new technology of talking pictures, and the location shooting of Dreyer’s movie only exacerbated the difficulties, as did his plan to shoot the film in three separate languages- French, German, and English, though the existing print was restored from surviving copies of the former two versions and there is no evidence that the latter was ever completed. The problems were surmounted by a screenplay (co-written with Dreyer by Christen Jul) containing a minimum of dialogue, mostly cryptic exchanges that were overdubbed in a studio after the fact by actors other than the ones onscreen; however, the inclusion of aural elements was an integral part of Dreyer’s technique here, and he utilizes a wide variety of eerie effects, not only to underscore the action (along with an elaborate and effective score by Wolfgang Zeller- a pioneering inclusion for early sound films, which were mostly devoid of musical accompaniment), but also to aid in telling the story, with several key scenes relying heavily on soundscapes to convey important events that are taking place off-camera.

However, even with full appreciation for the skill and artistry with which it was made, watching Vampyr is hardly a thrilling experience; with its emphasis on atmosphere and its artistic conceits, it fails to concern itself with such usual priorities as pacing or continuity, and in spite of the macabre crisis it depicts it is largely lacking in suspense or action, contenting itself instead to create a series of elegiac encapsulations of mood and concept. As it approaches its ending, however, Vampyr suddenly shifts gear and delivers a pair of sequences that transform it from an intellectual exercise into a genuine horror movie. First is an extended set piece in which its protagonist has a premonition of himself lying wide-eyed in a windowed coffin, being prepared for and carried off to burial. Through the use of first-person perspective, Dreyer creates a highly uncomfortable, claustrophobic identification of the audience with the corpse, forcing us to imagine our own death and experience the ominous finality of these moments, as well as conjuring the universal fear of being buried alive. Continuing to capitalize on the latter, we are shortly afterward given a scene in which one of the characters, trapped at the bottom of a storage shaft and surrounded by the cold sterility and inhumanity of ominous industrial machinery, is slowly submerged in a cascade of sifted flour until his desperate cries for help are silenced by death. These sections of the film distill its underlying theme into a direct and palpable form; for Vampyr, at its core, is ultimately a meditation on the inescapable reality of death, the fear of which, as Dreyer rightly understood, is at the base of all our obsessive fascination with the dark mythology of our folklore and fiction. When we cringe at the imagined threat of the undead monsters or unspeakable diseases that haunt our shared nightmares, we are really responding to the shadow of our own mortality; and though an iron spike through the heart may end the vampire’s reign of terror, and an emergence from fog into a sunlit clearing may temporarily provide the comfortable reassurance that all will now be well, we know that staving off these supernatural horrors can only delay the inevitable fate which awaits us all. The power of Vampyr derives from its recognition of that fact; and though much of the film expresses the concept of death through motifs and moods that impress us without involving or exciting us, it blindsides us in its penultimate scenes with these visceral evocations of our most primal fear, rendering hollow its obligatory happy ending and leaving us with an indelible sense of the bleak hopelessness summed up in the familiar words inscribed on the lid of our hero’s hallucinatory coffin: “From dust are you made and to dust you shall return.” It’s an uncomfortable reminder, and one which Vampyr provides more vividly than the vast majority of gruesome splatter-fests that represent the horror film genre of today.

http://www.imdb.com/9/title/tt002364

Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe (1996)

Today’s cinema adventure: Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe (the grass people), a 1996 French documentary depicting the behavior and interaction of various insects and other minuscule creatures as recorded with specially-developed cameras and microphones that reveal their tiny world in a staggering and beautiful wealth of detail.  Fifteen years in the making and originally shown on French television, it was marketed in the U.S. as a family-friendly nature film and became a relative hit at the box office- for easily understandable reasons.  With remarkable cinematography that rivals today’s high-def technology in clarity and depth, directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou construct a riveting chronicle of the world under our feet, accomplishing the improbable effect of inspiring empathy with the kinds of animals that, for most, normally inspire nothing but revulsion. Spiders, snails, mantises, ants, bees, earthworms, dung beetles and water bugs enact their daily experiences, and the titanic nature of their struggles is made visceral by the scale in which they are shown; the audience, transported into their tiny realm, is given a bug’s eye view of what it takes to survive, as well as being treated to some breathtaking footage of nature’s beauty, all to the accompaniment of a haunting score by film composer Bruno Coulais.  Even more remarkable is that, with a bare minimum of narration (provided in the English-language version by Kristen Scott-Thomas), the audience is treated to drama, suspense, and even humor, arising naturally from the behavior of the film’s multi-legged cast; the overall result is a film experience that is not only educational, but entertaining, awe-inspiring, and, somehow, strangely moving.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117040/