Queer horror is having a moment. Last year, Shudder released a three-part documentary on the subject, Queer for Fear. Meanwhile, films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge are finding a new audience thanks to its not-so-subtle queer subtext. That film and the story of its star, Mark Patton, even spawned a documentary, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, also on Shudder.
Yet, the roots of queer horror run deep, going back to RKO Pictures and some of the earliest Universal Monster movies, specifically the ones by gay director James Whale. There are plenty of great contemporary queer horror movies, too, including Jennifer’s Body, Let the Right One In, The Perfection, and What Keeps You Alive.
In honor of Pride Month, here’s a list of classic queer horror movies that are an absolute must-see.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale and Universal Studios had a major hit with Frankenstein (1931). That film and Dracula, released the same year, essentially established the first golden age of the American horror film and set up the iconic Universal Monsters universe. Whale returned to the Frankenstein world a few years later and directed Bride of Frankenstein.
With the sequel, Whale managed to create a campy horror comedy that still deals with the theme of Otherness so prominent in Mary Shelley’s novel and the previous film. Whale also worked with several stage actors, including queer actor Ernest Thesiger, who plays Doctor Pretorius. Boris Karloff returned to play the Monster and again earns our sympathies due to his longing for companionship and his outsider status, but don’t be fooled. The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) steals the show, even if she’s only in the film for the final few minutes. Who can forget her iconic cackle/scream when she rejects the idea that she was created by man only to marry the Monster? She wants no part of it.
Whale is an important director in the horror canon. His other films for Universal, The Invisible Man and That Old Dark House, also have queer subtexts and sexually fluid casts. His body of work for Univeral is a must-watch.
Bride of Frankenstein is available to rent on Apple TV, Google Play, Amazon, YouTube, and Direct TV.
Queer horror isn’t really a “new” thing
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Dracula’s Daughter, directed by Lambert Hillyer, is such a strange sequel. It’s a Universal Dracula film that doesn’t feature Bela Lugosi. Instead, the movie follows the Count’s daughter, Hungarian immigrant Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden). She arrives in London and receives news her father is dead, thanks to Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who drove a stake through the vamp’s heart.
Throughout the first half, the Countess tries to deny who she is, even telling her man servant, Sandor (Irving Pichel), that she can move away from the darkness and into the light. However, he knows she can’t ignore who she truly is, and by the second half, she kills. Yes, the Countess murders men, but she spends much, much more time and is more intimate with female victims. The camera makes this obvious too, especially her seduction of the young and beautiful Lili (Nan Grey). The Countess continually tries to act “normal,” but she just can’t repress her true identity.
Stream Dracula’s Daughter for free on Tubi.
Cat People (1942)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People’s queer undertones are pretty obvious. The film follows the story of Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant whose accent and personal history make her a total outsider to the gossip-prone community. Desperate for companionship, she befriends Oliver (Kent Smith), hoping for a platonic relationship. However, the two eventually marry but Irena wants no physical contact with her husband. He sends her to a shrink, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), who basically instructs her how to be a good wife and then makes moves on her when her marriage to Oliver fizzles, due to the lack of intimacy.
Early in the film, Irena says she comes from a long line of women outcast from her village because they turned into panthers whenever their sexual appetites were aroused. Through her clothing and connection to panthers at the local zoo, Irena is associated with this unique form of Otherness and lesbian coding. Cat People’s ending is especially powerful when you consider the consequences of Irena trying to hide her true self from the rest of the world.
Cat People is available to rent on Apple TV, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.
The Hunger (1983)
Vampires have long been a metaphor for Otherness, so it’s no surprise there’s more than one vampy movie on this queer horror list. The Hunger, Tony Scott’s directorial debut, has an all-star cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, and David Bowie. In this steamy and erotic flick, based on Whitley Strieber’s 1981 novel, the narrative centers around a love triangle between Doctor Sarah Roberts (Sarandon), who researches sleep and the aging process, and a vampire couple, John and Miriam Blaylock (Bowie and Deneuve).
The Hunger is one of the top vampire movies of its decade and features several memorable scenes, especially the moment Miriam seduces Sarah and bites her.
The Hunger is available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube.
For whatever reason, Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe doesn’t make many queer horror lists. It is partially a medical drama and especially relevant in the context of COVID, or more recently, the Canadian wildfires and smoke clouds looming over the northeastern, U.S. The feature can be considered both eco and queer horror.
Julianne Moore stars as Carol, a suburban housewife totally bored with her circumstance, including get-togethers with other wives who dress in pastel-colored clothing. In one of the first scenes, we see Carol having sex with hubby Greg (Xander Berkeley). When the camera pans in on her face, she looks like she’d rather be doing anything else in that moment.
Is Carol gay? You can give the film that reading, but it’s not explicitly stated. You can also read the film as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. Carol gets sick and goes to a “retreat,” led by Mover (Dean Norris), who did have AIDS. Everyone else at the retreat is sick, and Mover tries to teach them to live a straight and narrow life, specifically heterosexual monogamy.
Safe warrants many interpretations, and you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming there’s queer subtext here. Haynes is just pretty subtle about it.
Safe is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel. It’s also available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube.
As these classic films remind us, horror has a long and layered queer history.