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There’s a zillion listicles about the best queer horror movies of all time, but to be honest the films are often campy as hell, have laughably low-budget production values or just plain suck. So we asked some experts — LGBTQ academics who study film, media, queer studies and, in a few cases, queer horror films specifically. Their eight answers have a lot in common – note all the Hitchcock shout-outs – but it seems that there is clearly one reigning queen of the horror prom. Get your tampons ready.
Darren Elliott-Smith: Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)
Dr. Darren Elliott-Smith is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at the University of Hertfordshire. He also has a book coming out next year that’s called Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins. Here’s what he had to say:
I’m always reticent to say what my favourite horror film is, as you will probably appreciate there are so many. At the moment and regularly throughout my life, Carrie often thrusts its undead hand into my consciousness. Despite De Palma’s tendency to rip Hitchcock: the style of direction, use of colour and editing are often wildly excessive.
Excess I think is what appeals to the queer viewer, taking pride (and shame) in outrageous spectacle: the frenzy of split screen slaughter, the scenery chewing hysteria of Piper Laurie’s Margaret White, the pig’s blood spattered palette of the red, white and blue of the American dream. It is a nostalgically campy and cult film, it is genre-bending, it is a spectacularly made, classic teen-melodrama-horror. Empathising with the burgeoning sexuality of Carrie, her humiliation, the fantasy of revenge – the film speaks clearly to the queer spectator as a coming out tale. The shame Carrie experiences resonates with the queer spectator who fears that “They’re all gonna laugh at you!”
Gustavo Subero: Somos lo que hay (We are what we are) (Jorge Michel Grau, 2010)
Gustavo Subero is a London-based Researcher in Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Studies. He is also author of Queer Masculinities in Latin American Cinema: Male Bodies and Narrative Representations. His favorite horror film is one we’d never heard of:
My favorite horror film is Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos lo que hay (We are what we are). The film is concerned with the different ways in which the figure of the male monster, and the notion of the monstrous, may operate as a metaphor of a crisis of masculinity as experienced in contemporary Mexico.
When the patriarch of a cannibal family dies, the teenage children must take it upon themselves to continue providing for the family through the preparation of a special ritual, the hunting of potential victims and putting the all-important meat on the table. These newfound responsibilities are even more daunting, however, when you live in a Mexico that is plagued by rampant police corruption, moral decay at the hands of street prostitutes and a level of abject poverty that becomes the neo-gothic, modern scenario in which the Grau sets this horror film.
It argues that machismo can no longer separate itself from the notion of same-sex desire – either homosocial or homosexual – and that, instead, this crisis of masculinity can only be overcome, in its own monstrosity, by the assumption and/or externalisation of those desires. The film disavows the hetero-masculine symbolic order by suggesting that, towards the end of the narrative, the protagonist’s assumption of his queer sexuality and his eventual ‘coming out’ are the mechanisms whereby he can become an authentic macho.
David Greven: Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)
David Greven is Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. He also chose Carrie, but for different reasons than Dr. Elliott-Smith above:
Hitchcock’s Psycho, with its sense of an essential bleakness at the heart of modernity, is the greatest horror movie ever made. But to choose my personal favorite, it is without question Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie and based on Stephen King’s novel.
The film has a mythic, fairy tale, revenge-plot narrative that speaks to timeless themes – the outsider, the ostracized, the pariah. “The Outcast of the Universe,” to use Hawthorne’s phrase. Carrie White, played so magnificently and poignantly by Sissy Spacek, is the the pariah we can all relate to. We get to know and understand her and like her and root for her so intimately that all of the pain and terrible abuse she suffers hurts us as well. The queerness of the film emerges in part from this shared experience of shame and abuse. Brian De Palma’s masterful, voyeuristic, deeply emotional filmmaking style makes the whole experience of watching this film uncannily, intimately personal. Carrie White’s emergent telekinetic powers are directly linked to the terrors and the pleasures of her emergent sexuality — and it is this dynamic that makes the film so queer. In addition, it has a dreamy, fantasy aspect in which we are put in the position of longing for but then – fleetingly –attaining a romantic ideal, in this case the blonde, charming, sensitive prince Tommy Ross (William Katt).
The other queer dimension, oddly, is that this is a film entirely dominated by female power. Carrie’s crazy, sensually passionate religious fundamentalist mother Margaret White (Piper Laurie) commands attention, but so do the gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), the would-be do-gooder Sue Snell (Amy Irving) whose misguided attempts to solve Carrie’s problems put the horror-plot in motion, and the smudgy-lipped teen villain Chris Hargenson, played with aplomb by Nancy Allen. Male power takes a decided back seat to these vivid, memorable women and the dark power they wield. Miss Collins, far from a blandly sympathetic character, is actually quite suspect. You wonder if she may indeed be laughing at Carrie at the prom! She certainly seems to have an overly intense need to punish Chris and may be the person that Chris really wants to punish.
As I argue in my book Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema, the movie retells the story of Demeter and Persephone. The famous prom sequence is justly celebrated, but the sequence at the climax – largely De Palma’s own invention – in which Carrie kills her mother by telekinetically impaling her with kitchen utensils, is just as brilliant. One thing about De Palma: you can be laughing, or feeling terrified, and then suddenly you’re emotionally wounded in a profound way. The keening cry that bursts out of Carrie when she realizes that her mother is dead and that she is now utterly alone – that’s the true moment of movie horror.
Barbara Creed: Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Barbara Creed is Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne. She chose the only sci-fi film on this list:
I think the best horror film of all time is Hitchcock’s Psycho; however, my favourite is the sci-fi horror film Alien. It is essentially a haunted house horror movie set in space. Sigourney Weaver’s performance as the androgynous Ripley is a knock-out. Alien turns the tables on gender stereotypes: men are victims while the hero is a smart, invincible woman. The design of the alien creature, by the Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger, and the film’s special effects are astonishing, particularly the body horror images. The scene in which a male astronaut gives birth to the creature from his stomach is one of the most unexpected and horrifying in film history.
Andy Campbell: Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Andy Campbell is an independent art historian, curator and critic who is currently Critic-In-Residence with the Glassell School of Art Core Program in Houston. He’s also a fan of vampires, apparently:
Let The Right One In is a favorite of mine. The relationship between Oskar and Eli is one of the most confounding and sweet screen romances, and the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema captures the dense, bleak, Swedish winter landscape. Light seems to be absorbed by the darkness, forcing everyone to become something of a creature of the night. I appreciate how generous the film is towards a queer film viewer, never nailing down the sexuality of its protagonists; instead it quietly suggests that we’re all just figuring this out as we go along.
Bonus: for anyone that wants a good read, too, there’s a chapter on horror in Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes. Tyler was a film critic who had close associations to American Surrealist and poetry circles. His text (released in 1972) was the first in-depth exploration of homosexuality in film history — long before Vito Russo’s acclaimed The Celluloid Closet (and I think it’s much better than Russo’s text, too. But that’s heresy to some). Tyler is by turns campy, funny, and seriously cutting. The first chapter is about Mae West and is called something like “Mother Superior of the Faggots and Some Rival Queens.”
Kristopher Woofter: The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Kristopher Woofter is a PhD Candidate in Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University as well as a faculty member in the English department at Dawson College. Additionally, he is co-director of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. He chose one of our all-time horror favorites:
Horror is such a varied genre. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining might be the one I’d highlight. It is a tour de force of the uncanny. It’s a full-scale, epic indictment of American idealism, the damages of American capitalism and American colonialism. It subverts the myth of an America that was destined to stretch from sea to sea, and it suggests the horrifying effects of all these ideals upon the American family. It also makes an implicit argument around the alienation of American citizens based upon their “queer” status in terms of alterity (that is, the state of being other or different; otherness): race, gender, age.
The Shining is sublime horror, overwhelming and beautiful in its impact. It is a film of pervasive dread. When it shocks, it wrestles viewers into an awareness of a repressed and forgotten horrific history that undergirds all that is “American.” It takes the concept of a “haunted” America to critical end.
Quinn Miller: The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Quinn Miller is Professor of Queer Media Studies in the Department of English at the University of Oregon. Quinn also wanted to play with us — forever and ever and ever — and listed a bunch of good scare-flicks while approaching their final answer:
The Shining might be the closest thing I’ve seen to a proper horror movie. It scared me almost as much as that academic screening of The Silence of the Lambs that maxed out my creep-o-meter. I’ve always avoided horror, with intermittent attempts to overcome my fear. I ditched the eco-noir The East thirty minutes in, right before it turned terrifying. Last Halloween I slept through most of Chopping Mall, despite the edge-of-your-seat fashion. Further back, I survived 28 Weeks Later, the skeezy ambiance titillating deep within a decrepit downtown art house theater I happened upon after dark in an unfamiliar city.
Trashy psychosexual thrillers are a mainstay for me, and I’m good with violence, gore, and gross-out, but my fear, feminism, and fragile genderqueer outlook make me shy away when it comes to the nonsatirical supernatural and the slasher/scary side of things.
When I first saw this question, I tried to finesse The Dying Gaul into the horror category. I also rewatched, with similar intentions, The Children’s Hour — at least until James Garner showed up. But even the thought of bringing a horror lens to these pictures (or to Dead Ringers, a friend’s suggestion) scares me off; I flee, genre-wise, despite the relevant overlap in mood, pacing, and characterization. I’ve heard great things about the Chucky franchise. I just can’t hack it.
Which brings me back to The Shining, a movie that has haunted me since fifth grade. That was when a friend aggressively deconstructed the film for me, popping in a rented VHS tape and fast-forwarding to the “good” parts of what they claimed was comedy. Debilitating associations with this cut-up Shining stayed with me, even after I watched from start to finish (my mom’s failed antidote for reversing the haunting effects of the out-of-context highlights).
Given my aversion to horror, I submit Dial M for Murder as a camp fave for Halloween suspense. This post-Rope showdown features Bob Cummings out-gracing Grace Kelly in the role of pop-icon Mark Halliday. It’s a technicolor Hitchcock piece released just prior to the debut of Cummings’ second sitcom.
Christopher Mitchell: Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)
Christopher Mitchell is a lecturer at Rutgers University and also a fellow Carrie fan. Who knew the tortured telekinetic had so many queer admirers?:
It’s hard to pick one favorite, but if I had to it’s probably one that a lot of others will choose: Carrie. There’s really nothing I can say that hasn’t been said before about this film, but the real horror of the movie isn’t the supernatural stuff. It’s all the supposedly normal stuff in our everyday lives.
From a queer lens, in which the normal evokes horror, Carrie seems to have all of it, but I’ll follow the rule of three here and just point out the following three big observations, which, again, are hardly original: first you have the adolescent body that becomes an object of horror in the context of the American high school (the opening scene [of Carrie having her period] in the girl’s locker room), then there’s the violence latent in Christianity and its ability to transform parenthood into filicide (Carrie’s mother), and finally the bloody rites of a social hierarchy that stigmatizes outsiders (when Carrie is literally marked with pig’s blood).
The best part of this horror film is that it’s not really possible to identify a single villain: Chris Hargenson and Carrie’s mom are not really individual villains, they’re basically stereotypes and agents of the larger cultures (the church and the schoolyard) that they parrot. I would entice a friend to see it by either saying “It’s so good!” or, y’know, subtle intellectual shaming, because academics are trained to persuade people to consider media in this way.