Pride month is upon us and, with the release of Shudder’s rather brilliant, yet still devastating new documentary, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, comes the desire to immerse ourselves in the best queer horror has to offer. Horror and queerness have always gone hand in hand, dealing as our beloved genre does with the essential otherness of being alive, all the way back to Universal’s iconic Monsters. And yet, there hasn’t been a definitive queer horror movie to latch onto in the past few years, even as issues surrounding LGBT people continue to gain prominence.
Search for lists of queer horror movies and you’ll find writers helplessly arguing that a movie like Raw qualifies, purely because it contains a gay character. Raw is a clever, radically feminist movie about a young woman discovering her body and her sexuality that’s charged with potent desire but it’s not a queer movie. The protagonist sleeps with a man and only expresses interest in men throughout. Likewise, Jennifer’s Body is frequently trotted out as a queer horror movie in spite of the fact it deals with the concept of bisexuality in a crass, dehumanizing manner (I say this as a proud bisexual woman exhausted with having to explain how I don’t kiss chicks for male pleasure).
Funnily enough, All Cheerleaders Die, which has a similarly caustic wit but a smarter script and stronger performances across the board, presents a romantic relationship between two teenage girls with little fanfare and zero leering from the camera. Lucky McKee’s film, then, could arguably be considered more of a queer horror movie than Jennifer’s Body. At least it doesn’t boast a sequence angling for an MTV Best Kiss award. The Neon Demon has a similar issue. Nicolas Winding Refn’s woozy, sexy, and jet-black satire of the fashion world includes shots of women showering seductively together and certainly suggests, however unintentionally, that desire often manifests in an urge to completely devour one’s partner (or, in this case, rival). It doesn’t have queer energy though, just the female equivalent of BDE.
This year’s Midnight Kiss, released as part of Hulu’s imaginative but uneven Into the Dark anthology series, was the opposite — an endeavor so gay it sparkled. The movie is far from perfect, and there’s an argument to be made that it even pushes dodgy, and oft-criticized, stereotypes about slutty gay dudes, but at the very least it was a production packed with queer people both behind and in front of the cameras that, as a slasher, wasn’t too shabby at all either. Knife + Heart also utilized the slasher format to tell a queer story, albeit one set predominantly within the world of gay pornography. It’s completely loopy, but relentlessly entertaining and refreshingly doesn’t shy away from the particulars of the industry in which it’s set.
Fellow French movie Stranger By the Lake goes even further, showing graphic gay sex onscreen (a warning displays before the film kicks off, causing gasps in the small screening I attended at the time of its release). Its tale of cruising gone violently wrong is underdeveloped, but it looks very pretty and, once again, it’s an impressively unvarnished take on a side of gay culture many either won’t be aware of or turn their noses up at, if they do know about it. There’s a sense that LGBT culture is often reduced to the experiences of only white men onscreen and, although both of these movies could certainly be accused of doing so, they’re both impressive in their own ways too. They’re proudly queer, arguably even too proud to the extent it renders both slightly messy and unfocused.
On the teenage side of things, Jennifer Reeder’s ambitious arthouse horror Knives and Skin features a burgeoning lesbian relationship while Joachim Trier’s Thelma connects a young woman’s growing feelings for a female student with her burgeoning telekinetic abilities. Both stories are captured from a respectful distance, neither taking the Jennifer’s Body route of shooting hot chicks kissing in their underpants, instead focusing on the depth of the relationships in question. A same-sex pairing isn’t at the heart of Knives and Skin, but Reeder still gives it plenty of scope to develop naturally, devoting precious screentime to establishing its particulars in a sweet, romantic way. Thelma is more explicit in its treatment of the central almost-couple but Trier employs just as steady and considerate of a hand. When his titular protagonist is horrified to be orally penetrated by a snake, the implication is clear.
Funnily enough, two of the most impressive queer horror movies to come out in the past few years both involve Colin Minihan who, if you’ve been paying attention, should fast be becoming one of your favorite horror directors. Spiral, which stars Unreal‘s Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman as a happily married gay man trying to keep to himself in the suburbs while a murderous cult lurks just below the surface, was co-written by Minihan. The film is a tightly-wound, remarkably well-told exercise in precise dramatic tension and boasts the most emotionally scarring, horrifyingly realistic, and intelligently conceived take on queer horror I’ve seen to date. It’s arguably the only queer horror movie worthy of being considered definitive for modern audiences. It’s sublime, and if you can track it down to stream online, don’t hesitate. It’s a tough watch at times but Bowyer-Chapman, who’s gay IRL, is revelatory, his performance infused with the innate hurt only a queer person could accurately communicate.
What Keeps You Alive, directed and written by Minihan, puts a lesbian relationship front and centre as Brittany Allen’s Jules fights for her life against the maniacal Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) at a remote cabin in the woods. The story was originally envisioned with a straight couple in mind, but Allen, Minihan’s real-life partner and frequent collaborator, encouraged him to change it. By treating a queer couple just like a regular couple, the movie side-steps any accusations of virtue signalling in favor of telling a compelling and frequently frightening story of romantic obsession and survival. Allen and Anderson are both terrific, imbuing the smart script with tons of suggestions about the lives they previously lived before being unlucky enough to fall in love with each other.
Horror is at its best when reflecting society’s ills back at audiences, teaching us something about the world we live in or even simply bringing to light issues we didn’t consider relevant to our experience before. Queer horror has the potential to turn the genre on its head completely, by providing a hitherto underseen perspective already packed with keenly-felt real-life horrors. There’s a richness to the queer experience that cannot be replicated in stories told entirely from the same straight, and typically, male perspective we’ve seen a million times over. It feels as though things are finally changing for the better, with more voices increasingly coming to the fore, so hopefully the next few years will see an influx in queer horror movies from every side of the proverbial coin.