Frameline 32: The Horror, the horror

Pub date June 17, 2008
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Will queers ever get the horror movie they deserve? Granted, with the recent coast-to-coast ratifications of same-sex marriage, LGBT folk have more pressing issues than debates over genre cinema on their mind. Besides, that intransitive verb — deserve — provides an extra soupçon of tastelessness to an already loaded question: wasn’t the golden age of the celluloid closet defined by giving onscreen queers "what they deserved," doling out silent suicides and grisly homicides as the price of representation? And aren’t we faced with enough real-life horrors? Homophobia and AIDS are still killers on the loose. So why appeal for terror?

To put it simply, there is pleasure in being scared. And to put it more complicatedly, there can be empowerment in that pleasure. Two of New Queer Cinema’s most lauded films — Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991), and its "Horror" section in particular, and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) — critically queered horror’s generic conventions and Hollywood’s coded positioning of gay men as monstrous. A few years later, queer critic Paul Burston and feminist critic Amy Taubin separately penned defenses of Cruising (1980) — arguably the first gay slasher film — and Basic Instinct (1992), based on then-contrarian grounds of personal enjoyment.

Since then we have entered a post-Scream world where everyone knows horror’s hanky codes. Rewiring them for LGBT audiences doesn’t always yield a film the caliber of Poison, just as enjoying "bad" images of gays and lesbians doesn’t necessitate a printed confession. While casual homophobia is still permitted in mainstream releases such as Hostel, the price of representation, at least for most of the handful of horror films that tour the LGBT festival circuit, seems to be mediocrity. I know I wasn’t the only one woefully disappointed with the West Hollywood bloodbath HellBent (2004). And let’s not even get into Scab (2005).

Luckily for all the rainbow-colored Fangoria fans still bloodthirsty after catching local director Flynn Witmeyer’s Imp of Satan earlier this year at Another Hole in the Head, late June is bearing an unexpected slasher crop of queer horror films. It includes Dead Channels’ one-off presentation of Sean Abley’s Socket (2007) and some scary fare at Frameline’s SF International LGBT Film Festival. (Full disclosure: I was on the staff of last year’s festival.)

A sexy sci-fi tinged thriller whose ideas are sometimes brighter than its execution, Socket puts a queer twist on Cronenberg-ian body horror. After surviving a freak electrocution, Dr. Bill Matthews (butch thing Derek Long) strikes up a relationship with his hunky caretaker, hospital intern Craig Murphy (Matthew Montgomery), and sparks literally begin to fly. Craig reveals that he is a fellow survivor and introduces Bill to a covert group of energy junkies who juice up together via a portable generator. Talk about a circuit party! Now insatiable, Bill surgically enhances his and Craig’s socket fetish — and adds an extra jolt to their sex life — but his increasingly manic behavior leads to the kind of shock he never could have anticipated.

It is perhaps too easy to read Bill’s degenerative energy dependency as an allegory for meth addiction, and the film certainly invites such comparisons. More interesting is Socket‘s rewiring of gay sex, with Bill and Craig’s retractable, fang-like wrist plugs and dorsal wrist sockets multiplying the permutations of top and bottom as orienting poles of identity and desire. It’s something I wish the film spent more time on.

Abley also produced and has a supporting role in Jaymes Thompson’s The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror, one of three horror features screening at this year’s Frameline fest. What Socket has in brains, the sophomoric and arch Bed makes up for in buckets of blood. A Showtime original series’ worth of gay and lesbian stereotypes roll up to the remote Sahara Salvation Inn, only to find out too late that the B ‘n’ B is a front for the Bible-thumping proprietresses to do "God’s work." There is a certain glee in watching the asshole Mr. Leather or naive lesbian folksinger characters get violently disposed of — if only because they’re so obnoxious — but Thompson’s film wheezes through its final 20 minutes with all the faux-hilarity and dull-edged political commentary of a Mad TV sketch.

Dan Gildark’s ambitious Cthulhu more successfully mobilizes horror’s ability to reflect the zeitgeist back at us as something uncanny and unsettling. Screen adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s writings usually don’t work out well (perhaps because of "the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents," as the author wrote at the opening of 1926’s Call of Cthulhu), but Gildark is smart enough to stop short of showing the full-tentacled monty. Instead, he cultivates an atmosphere of mounting dread and unstoppable evil that is extremely faithful to Lovecraft’s bitter misanthropy — and applicable to the last dark days of the Bush régime. Did I mention Tori Spelling appears as a Dagon-worshipping baby mama?

Another Frameline fest brings another hot mess of a Bruce LaBruce movie, Otto; or Up With Dead People! This one can be summed up in three words: gay zombie sex. Really, the gash-fucking scene is both the film’s highlight and LaBruce’s lasting contribution to porn and horror. There’s a loose story here about the titular incredibly strange gay twink who stopped living and became a heartbroken zombie (and the ridiculous goth auteur who makes him an underground film star), but as with all LaBruce films, that narrative thread mainly stitches together a series of amateurish sex scenes. Still, I would take LaBruce’s messiest effort over another Hellbent any day.

Coda: it’s worth pointing out that some of the most radical LGBT reinterpretations of horror in recent memory have occurred off screen. Kevin Killian’s Argento Series (2001) and Daphne Gottlieb’s Final Girl (2003) both energize horror cinema to create a queer poetics of loss. Killian finds a way of writing about the AIDS crisis through Dario Argento’s bloody and supernatural gialli, while Gottlieb ventriloquizes a dozen slasher film heroines who got away — along with a Greek chorus of academics — to reframe "what it feels like for a girl" as a matter of posttraumatic survival. Read them and be frightened, and inspired.


Sat/21, 11:15 p.m., Castro


Fri/20 11:45 p.m., Castro


June 27, 11 p.m., Castro


Wed/18, 7 and 9:15 p.m., $5

Hypnodrome Theatre

575 10th St., SF