By now, you’ve likely figured out its Halloween. The leaves have changed, a chill is in the air, and you’re either stocking up on candy to hand to costumed kids, or stocking up on liquor to black out in a cheap Thor outfit and spend the next morning hungover and seeing how hot your ex looks in their costume on Facebook. However, if you have the time, I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey. Already, two authors have given you their Halloween highlight, now its my turn (basically, we’re like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, except we all gather around a campfire to argue who better portrays fictional British spies and men in capes). However, while Tom and Andrew each highlighted a single film, this piece is going to be a bit different. Indeed, it’s going to be different from even what I’d originally intended it to be.
Originally, I’d set out to tackle why music is what drew me to horror. How one of my earliest favorites’ most chilling line was about music. How I’d had a long held fixation on Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, and how that was in no small part due to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s transfixing theatrical adaptation (as well as Lon Cheney’s manic, monstrous mad man in the character’s finest screen portrayal). I intended to thread that through all the chillers that had captured my mind over the years, from Psycho and Hellraiser to Marilyn Manson and Nightmare on Elm Street, when I suddenly had a Phil Dunphy moment, if you will. It dawned on me that all the horror that had attracted me since my earliest days gazing up at the Universal Monsters had an undercurrent running through it, a throbbing pulse that burned through the celluloid and pixels and reached deep down inside the viewer, not merely creepy but somehow…carnal.
There are countless chimerical creatures who stalk the fictive night, from as far back as there has been written word. Homunculi, gorgons, chupacabra, kraken. Yet, any person tasked to name “monsters” will immediately conjure up images of vampires, werewolves, mummies and most confounding of all, Frankenstein (the others have deep roots in classic mythologies, whereas Frankenstein is the the creation of one woman less than 200 years ago). So how is it that these monsters have become so iconic, so ingrained in the cultural language, as to trump creatures immortalized by the greatest of bards, like Homer’s sirens or the witches of Shakespeare? It’s because, quite frankly, Universal perfected them. Its undeniable. They did these haunting visages so fucking good they redefined them. After all, every reader is stunned to discover Shelley’s original monster spoke not in groans and guttural wails but eloquent prose. And why did these films succeed as well as they did? For example, Shelley’s beast had been brought to the screen three times prior, and countless times since, yet none of those came close to possessing the majesty, the adoration or the longevity of the Universal rendition. It’s perhaps because, knowingly or not, these renditions tapped into something primal, and yet repressed, in viewers both past and present, something beyond just a desire to be scared.
Just who were this sinners draped in silver celluloid who beguiled audiences? Count Dracula, whose foreign charms and melodic voice can make slaves of adoration, not just out of pretty Helen Chandler’s Mina Seward but Dwight Frye’s (initially) dashing Renfield. The virile Larry Talbot, Bogart-esque in stature and demeanor, vigorously struggling to suppress the sinful urge he’s cursed with after he tangled with a gypsy’s son in the woods. And of course, Frankenstein’s monster, feared, hated and ultimately destroyed for being different, for being an outsider, marked for death at his very first breath, made victim less by his actions than by what he was imbued with by his maker.
By far, the best of all the Universal Monster films, the most artfully done, verging on the auteur, were James Whale’s Frankenstein and its heartbreaking sequel The Bride of Frankenstein, each anchored by the King of Classic Monster Movies, Boris Karloff (some could argue for his Black Cat co-star Bela Legosi, but while Karloff capped off his career with a movingly meta performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets and a Grammy for The Grinch, Legosi’s legacy came down to Glen or Glenda and an Oscar for Martin Landau). Of course, while there was a level of sexuality within the original novel (and don’t even try and argue that there wasn’t an abundance of kink in the mind of a woman who, at 17, fell in love with a 22 year old married man and said “Hey, let’s fuck on top of my mom’s grave a lot, then ditch your pregnant wife and hang out with a bunch of other romantic and sensual writer dudes”), but the masterful directing of Whale, himself an extreme outsider being an openly gay man in the 1930’s, brings just as much if not more of an erotic undercurrent and indeed tragedy to the bolt-necked monster without any of the expositional, fluttery dialogue Shelley had first envisioned the creature expressing (something which would merely weigh down a cinematic adaptation, as we saw most evidently in the painful Van Helsing).
Sure, we can even brush aside such an analysis of the initial film, where we watch handsome (and also gay) actor Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, a man who can’t truly give himself over to the white picket fence marriage he has arranged with Elizabeth Lavenza, as he’s driven to create life, to create a man, his man. Though he has the opportunity to create life, the way any of us can, he can’t help but swim against the stream, fight the natural order. People can cast that aside as “over-thinking it” (though I’d like to counter that this whole idea of the sexual undercurrent of horror films relates more to audience interpretation and connection than authorial intent), but then you get to The Bride of Frankenstein.
Now, The Bride of Frankenstein was a film I came to appreciate later in life. As a child, I avoided it. I would watch Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein ad nauseam. But The Bride, though iconic, always repelled me. I’d seen it only once, and refused to ever again. You see, all the others were fun, they were spooky. The gloomiest they got was Frankenstein, and even that was melancholy in its denouement, akin to how one feels sorry for a put-down rabid dog or the titular titan in King Kong; its a shame, but it had to be done. The Bride of Frankenstein, however, is just tragic. It’s a bleak story, and perhaps the only great horror film in history to earn the adjective “heartbreaking”. This isn’t just an outcast story anymore, but the tale of the eternal outcast, for whom every glimmer of hope is followed by dejection or despair.
Now, before I mentioned casting aside assertions of a gay subtext in the original Frankenstein, and you’re welcome to. But by the film’s sequel, there’s almost nothing sub about the text, so much so that one would have to try hard in a modern context not to focus on the homoerotic nature of the film, from a scholarly standpoint or…well, otherwise. Hell, besides Boris Karloff, both lead male actors were openly gay, and its female lead, Elsa Lanchester (who was never more gorgeous than in this film. Seriously, look at her) was married to actor Charles Laughton, while fully aware of his homosexual lifestyle, making her perhaps Hollywood’s first open beard.
And let’s take a moment and address the aforementioned other male lead. Created for the film, the impetus behind the titular mate is Dr. Septimus Pretorious, played with a brilliant sense of theatricality by Ernest Thesinger. Now, though it would take until the film’s novelization to be more explicit about Pretorious’ homosexuality (“‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ Let us obey the Biblical injunction: you of course, have the choice of natural means; but as for me, I am afraid that there is no course open to me but the scientific way”), you could scour the complete works of Tolkien, Shakespeare and George R.R. Martin and never find a queen quite like Thesinger’s mad doctor.
A very queer looking old gentleman, indeed. Dr. Pretorious was Henry’s mentor in college, an older man who guided Henry to follow his sinful urge…you know, to create life. That sinful urge. What did you think I meant? Henry, just married, is never able to consummate his marriage due to the interruption and insistence of Pretorious that the two combine their skills to create a mate for the Monster (who Henry presumed was killed, but is actually still alive and lurking beneath the surface of the city, which isn’t symbolic of anything). When Henry is hesitant, especially after seeing the previous experiments in miniature life Pretorious has done (shockingly, he created a queen first, followed by a subservient king, a mermaid, a ballerina and a devil, in the form of a handsome man in a suit, whom he created in his own image), but Pretorious eventually convinces him by blackmailing him with his past transgressions in order to get him to sin once again.
Ultimately, they do craft a Bride for the beleaguered beast, but as is the case for the eternal outsider, it fails. In the greatest tearjerker of any horror film, and honestly one of the greatest in all film, Karloff’s creature looks hopefully on the stunning visage his creator has crafted, only for her to look on Henry with adoration and ultimately rebuke the monster, screaming at the sight of him. Tragically, feeling he will forever be alone, unable to satisfy his urges, he takes his own life, and kills Pretorious with him (which, again, can’t possibly be a metaphor for anything).
Of course, I could spend days talking about the sexual undertones of the Golden Age of Horror (trust me, there’s enough sapphic tension in Dracula’s Daughter alone to power 50 seasons of Orange is the New Black), but we’re here to talk about me, and like Dr. Pretorious, I relish in the opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
A VCR and a Blockbuster membership were dangerous things for a young man with a fascination for the macabre and the camp. I was never one for the slasher films of the era. Jason Vorhees and Michael Meyers, while I appreciated them from a historic standpoint, never engaged me the way those old movie monsters did. There was a fire in me (ignited some time ago by a film we’ll get to in a bit) that outside of the Universal films was insatiable, until I stumbled upon the grandfather of all the slashers and stalkers who haunted the cinema screens of my youth. He was unassuming, unnatural without being supernatural (like the monsters I had come to love before had been), and it turns out he had a really interesting sense of style.
The sixties brought with it the sexual revolution, and while that expressed itself in a positive(-ish) light in films like Barbarella and the sex comedies of Buck Henry (Candy and the satirical masterpiece The Graduate), the deviant side was used to jar John and Jane Q. Public, arousing fear and evoking blood-pumping chills in the psychosexual works of the predator of fictional blondes Alfred Hitchcock in films like Psycho and The Birds and in the two finest horror films about female sexuality, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, by actual predator Roman Polanski (these two, alongside his “after the incident” Bitter Moon, should just be referred to as the “Red Flag Trilogy”). Of course, while the sexuality is on the surface of the Polish auteur’s horror entires (with his sadistic misogyny just barely below the surface), Hitchcock’s sexual fixations run a bit deeper. Of course, I could expound upon them myself, but any analysis I write on either The Birds or Psycho, no matter how personally I feel drawn to them, would simply shrivel in the shadow of the masterful work done by renowned philosopher and film theorist Slavoj Zizek, so better, I feel, to ask you to spare some minutes and click play below.
I know, this piece already looks like shit in comparison. Trust me, Zizek is like my Ebert, and I highly recommend The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, where he extrapolates the sexual undertones not just of Hitchcock but David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and even Alien: Resurrection and Revenge of the Sith (the latter of which I myself will be reviewing for (De)Constructing the Ion Canon, but without the psychosexual analysis). Regardless, these films transfixed me, just when I was starting to recognize the sexual elements (it was hard for a teetering on pubescent boy not to notice this poster, which, while tame today, is still pretty porn-looking). Of course, in practically every one of the above-mentioned films, the queer character isn’t just the outsider, but more often than not, the villain. Even today, in mainstream horror, the closest we’ve ever gotten to a gay hero is that one kid who gets killed in Scream 4. Well, except for one time, and that was a happy accident.
Around the same time Clive Barker was exploring kinky sexuality outright with Hellraiser, torture demons who only arrived when summoned, “punishing” only those who ask for it, those who wish to explore the furthest reaches of pleasure and pain (“Angels to some, demons to others”), Nightmare on Elm Street seemed poised to be another “punishing promiscuous teens” morality relic of the 80’s, albeit one with a more alluring lead in Freddy Krueger. Indeed, the series did go that way, favoring outrageous kills and one-liners over worthwhile story, and while I love the idea of the franchise, I’ve only watched the sequels once (ok, twice for New Nightmare and Dream Warriors), with one exception. One film in the franchise has captured my attention, transfixed me and brought me back again and again, and its objectively the worst entry in the franchise.
To be clear, I don’t love Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge because its camp. This isn’t merely a “so bad it’s good” a la Troll 2 or The Room. I don’t scoff at its ineptitude. Rather, I marvel at it. I embrace and love it in a way I never have with any other slasher film; and this is owed entirely to the fabulous “fuck you” David Chaskin managed to pull on not just the horror industry, but the movie going public. At a time when gay characters in horror were killers, freaks and weirdos if they were featured at all (and this stays true today, when the last prominent gay horror character was Buffalo Bill), the anticipated sequel to the horror smash A Nightmare on Elm Street subversively told a story about the gay identity, at the height of the AIDs crisis, and it made a small fortune doing it. The story itself is garbage, the dialogue cheesy, and its basic premise is utter nonsense (Freddy has no power in the real world, so why would he want to be in it?).
Yet none of that matters. The director wanted to make a straight-forward horror film (he still doesn’t see any gay elements) and failed miserably. Instead, through a subversive script and one fortuitous casting choice, he accidentally stumbled into making something special (that bought the Nightmare franchise a lot of good LGBT will until a certain line about a sweater in Freddy vs. Jason). Openly (and flamboyantly) gay actor Mark Patton takes on the role of Jesse, a young man for whom the only thing less convincing than his love interest in Lisa is his “just a friend” relationship with male friend Grady, going so far as to dive into his bed when trouble strikes. With lines like “He’s trying to get inside me!” and the tagline “The man of your dreams is back”, Freddy’s Revenge is less a good horror film, or even a sensical one, than an underhanded kaleidescope-like vision of homoerotic imagery and themes, like if Jean-Luc Godard decided to ridicule 80’s consumerism and homophobia via something Reaganites would flock to (the same strategy employed by John Carpenter by hiring Roddy Piper to ridicule the meat-head “moral majority” to their faces). Of course, none of the films thereafter had so strong a message, or even broached anything outside the heteronormative, beyond the faintest hints of kink to titillate, and no major horror franchise to date has tackled the theme since (the closest we got was the brilliant ending to ParaNorman); but for one glorious moment, a horror film tackled something meaningful (even if it fumbled along the way), and for a while, its fed the aforementioned flame, answered a call, fed the hunger for the truth I sought buried deep beneath the shallow chills.
A fire lit long, long ago by something so singular and seductive that I, like everyone else who’s been exposed, have never quite been able to look away.
It was like a peek into another world. It was neon and chrome, it was leather and lace, monsters and mascara. It was like glimpsing the future, or, to borrow an image from Lynch, seeing the worms that crawled beneath the perfectly manicured lawn. Of course, it’s astounding, with all the fleeting glimpses of films I’d seen in my formative years, that this would stay with me so obsessively. It’s even more a miracle I saw the clip at all.
In 1998, when I was 7 years old, Sony Wonder released an Alvin and the Chipmunks album entitled A-Files, intended to piggyback on the success of The X-Files, which had debuted five years earlier and ignited a passion for the paranormal in the hearts of the average American. The album was the typical fare, sped-up voices performing pop songs, and my parents purchased the cassette from the local Wal-Mart and proceeded to play it in the car to ensure “kid-friendly” music was on whenever I and my infant sister were aboard. Most of the songs I recognized even in my early youth, things like “Purple People Eater”, “Rocket Man” and “Men in Black”, but one track was new, and caught my attention from the moment it first played. What was this “Time Warp”? When my mother explained to me it came from an old movie, I began what I recall was a ceaseless campaign of harassment to see whatever thing produced this song. Eventually, my parents mildly relented. Down to Blockbuster we went, and I bolted down the aisles until I landed on it, and held the VHS case in my hand. Now mind you, this was not your standard Blockbuster label in a generic case. This was one of the rare original box art deals.So there in my hand I held it, and beheld that immortal image, the red lips, the bottom seductively bitten. We brought it home, and my parents popped it in, and immediately proceeded to fast forward through the entire opening. I could see the disembodied lips mouthing words, with no idea what it was saying. Finally, they stopped, just as the clock began to chime, and Richard O’Brien uttered those by now familiar words “It’s astounding, time is fleeting…”. Easily, my child-mind ascertained the plot: the guy and girl had their car break down, they wound up in a spooky mansion. Standard horror fare, even in my limited experience. But then the chorus kicked in, and everything changed: not just in the scene, but for me as a film fan.
The bright colors, the mysterious costumed party-goers who are never explained, the stunning girl on the jukebox with the Betty Boop voice (to this day, I will do anything for a girl in sequins and tap shoes), and Blofeld screaming dance instructions at me. I was blown away. The out of sync choreography, the bizarre shot choices that felt at times both keenly rehearsed and simply thrown together on the fly. The whole thing felt like some bizarre party I wasn’t yet invited to, like the funniest joke in the world, but I’d only heard the punchline. The song ended, and I could wait to see what happened next, but just as the ominous elevator lowered, and the caped figure turned around….wait, was that the bell-hop from Home Alone 2?
It was too late, the fast-forwarding had already begun again. It stopped once more, for what would be the final time that night, in order to see Meatloaf perform “Hot Patootie, Bless My Soul”. When I asked what that had to do with the movie, neither parent could recall. But I needed to know. I needed to know all there was to know about this strange new world. Everyone I saw at school I told about the bizarre thing I’d beheld, from classmates to teachers (which led to some very awkward phone calls questioning my parents’ sense of “age-appropriate”). My parents wouldn’t allow me to watch the full film before I’d turned the MPAA recommended age, but I circumvented that as I did so many other classic films, catching snippets on cable, at friends’ houses, however I could, even seeking out the Drew Carrey episode where they performed the song, in the hopes of somewhat understanding the film. Imagine spending your first time alone with one of the first girls you ever thought of sexually, and she offers to show you the Floor Show scene, gleefully pointing out the exposed breasts, cause I’ll tell you, it’s a weird experience.
So just what is The Rocky Horror Picture Show? It’s honestly difficult to describe, since its probably the only linear-plotted film that can’t be classified as “narrative”. It’s an experience, singular and personal, unique to the individual viewer, like an erotic litmus test, a sexual vision quest. Each is different, and no viewer comes out the same at the end. However, I’ll do my best to shed some light on the appeal for someone whose main “philia” is that of the cinematic.
It’s not camp, as many classify it. No, camp is something else, something tacky for the sake of being tacky, and its a very difficult balance to strike (for example, John Waters’ Cry Baby is camp, and fabulously so. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is just a steaming pile of shit defended as camp by people who are awful. Just had to get that out there). It’s honestly more in line with lampoons like Black Dynamite or the Heavy Metal episode of South Park. Indeed, the most apt comparison for what Rocky Horror represents is perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (the original theatrical production, not the god-awful movie. If we all ignore that long enough, it will return back to the hell-fire from whence it came). Both examined a classic, childish medium they clearly love (fairy tales and monster movies) and found the erotic elements that Freudianly toyed with our seemingly innocent young minds, appealing to the carnal forces at play within the subconscious. In Into the Woods, the wolf doesn’t hunt Red Riding Hood, he lures her, seduces her, charms her aggressively, more “Baby its Cold Outside” than animal predator, or maybe we’re meant to see there’s not so vast a chasm between the two. In Rocky, Richard O’Brien makes the adult wonder just why a mad scientist would want to “create a perfect man” anyway.
Granted, for all the monster movies he digested, the biggest influence on the story of Rocky Horror was clearly a comic book; more specifically Fantastic Four #66-67, where three mad scientist endeavor to create a “perfect man” for reasons that are never really clear, and need The Thing’s girlfriend for reasons that make less sense than you can possibly imagine. Hell, just look at the design of the “created man”, known as Him, and its clearly the basis for Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s Rocky, right down to the golden speedo (Ironically, the character of him would see his own reinvention in the 70’s as a messianic character named Adam Warlock, heavily influenced by a different rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar).
O’Brien took what appeared to be an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, filtered it through a libidic knowledge of the fringe of London nightlife, and put on the surface what had always belied the horror film: The straight-laced Brad and Janet are confronted by the bizarre, but not in the form of eccentric monsters and lab-coated cackling men that hinted at the “perverse”. Instead, right up front, the mad scientist was sexually fluid, a rampant hedonist, and his wild pursuit of all the pleasures of the flesh threatened to destroy the white-picket fence world Brad and Janet knew, and the scariest part is they both seem to like it. In the end, isn’t that what really scares us with the charismatic monster? What gives some people chills when they watch Silence of the Lambs or Dexter is that it up front asks the viewer why they like watching the killer kill? For all his witty lines, Freddy Krueger never asked the viewer if they were enjoying the show as one of the killers does in Funny Games, and just the same, nobody ever asked the sci-fi fans why they liked the muscular hero, why they were drawn to the dark temptations, nobody made us wonder what it all meant. What made Dracula so appealing? He was evil, yet people didn’t cheer when he died, or at least they didn’t mean it. They wanted to see more of him, they couldn’t get enough. They were as transfixed as Renfield, they wanted to give themselves over to his dark power, and through this escapist medium, they could indulge their dark urges by proxy, without ever acknowledging what those urges were. Dracula tries to make the women his brides and the men his servants, Frank sees no need to draw a distinction. He seduces Brad and Janet, he unlocks their unspoken desires, awakens new possibilities in their minds. He encourages them to deviate, as all the monsters of old did, except in the end, we finally for once are forced to ask “What’s the harm in deviating?” Brad and Janet may have been a living Rockwell painting at the beginning, but isn’t there something fundamentally American about Frank’s final message, “Don’t dream it, be it”?
Earth is an escape for Frank, a place where he can be himself away from the oppression of his world, just as horror films have been an escape for so many. Frank is both horror cinema incarnate and its greatest student, a man who lets Hollywood glamour and gothic textures envelope him, so much so that when the oppressive representative of his home planet tell him his mission is a failure and his lifestyle’s too extreme, using the same pitchfork O’Brien had held in the beginning as part of an “American Gothic” homage, he’s killed atop the RKO logo, falling from it like the famous ape did from the Empire State Building. Yet, it was his own beauty, and his superior’s inability to understand it, that killed him, making him both King Kong and Fay Wray (whom he sings about in “I’m Going Home”).
Like Henry Frankenstein’s monster and Doctor Pretorious before him, the deviant is dead, the force of “normalcy” delivering the blow, and Brad and Janet are seemingly safe to resume their normal life. But can they? And further more, should they? Didn’t they learn more about themselves, discover more about who they are? Can they ever go back, or was Frank the serpent to their Adam and Eve? And if so, was the gift of knowledge so great a crime, punishable by death?
Horror taps into our darkest desires. Why else would we go back? If people truly didn’t want to be scared, to be titillated and aroused, to question what’s real, what’s true, what’s right, the genre would have fizzled out decades ago. The fact that it still thrives means we’re still searching to feed the hunger in each one of us, still searching for some awakening, for somebody to pull down the switch on our Medusa machines, to feel released, our minds expanded. The fact that the genre attracts the outsider, the pierced and tattooed, the drag queens and the weirdos, the queer and the questioning means it speaks to some universal hunger for freedom, for deviation, for experimentation and experience, and that’s something RHPS addresses dead on, providing a release where other films just teased and toyed.
Horror is perhaps the only genre whose “The End”s more often than not are followed by a “?”. It doesn’t provide us with answers, but merely asks us questions, forces us to ask questions of ourselves. Was the monster really evil, or was it the villagers? What goes on behind the docile eyes of the boy next door? Are my inner demons things to be stopped, or things that are stopping me? We seem to want certainty from our stories, to want endings, to want answers.
The scariest proposition any horror film puts forth is that it won’t give us one. That Leatherface will just spin his chainsaw in the street, that Hannibal will don his hat and walk away, that Freddy’s hand will pierce through a chest and say it was all a dream.
After all, what are we but crawling on the planet’s face, some insects called the human race, lost in time and lost in space…