It’s been 50 years since the historic Stonewall riots helped catalyse the gay rights movement, and while we’ve still got a way to go, we’ve certainly come far. That became especially clear to me while catching up on some essential queer horror cinema over the course of Pride Month.
Horror has always had a nervous infatuation with LGBTQ+ themes, and it’s easy to see why. Queer people are the “Other,” and anything that is Other poses a potential threat to the status quo. Sometimes that threat comes in the form of a sexy lesbian vampire, sure, but it’s a threat nonetheless that needs be safely neutralised before the credits roll.
At least, that’s how it used to play out.
Something interesting has started happening in recent years, though. Suddenly, the outsider has taken control of the lens, and rather than reaffirming the status quo, it seeks to question and challenge it. There’s still a distinct aura of discomfort and anxiety that hovers around many of these films, but it’s starting to dissipate. Soon, perhaps, the queer horror film will be nothing to write home about, because it will be so commonplace that we’ll almost forget it was once considered deviant.
To bookend Pride Month for another year and ensure we’ve all got plenty to watch until it rolls around again, I’ve put together a list of 50 horror films from the past 50 years with distinct LGBTQ+ characters or themes (with a few TV shows and shorts thrown in for good measure). They’re not all shining examples of representation, but hey, we’re getting there. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
1. The Karnstein Trilogy (1970 – 1971)
Okay, this is technically three films—but considering how quickly Hammer pumped them out, it seems fitting to give them a single slot. An adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla, The Vampire Lovers saved Hammer from the brink of bankruptcy with the power of explicit lesbianism and tasteful nudity. The hastily made sequel, Lust for a Vampire, continued this trend, but it wasn’t until the third entry, Twins of Evil, that the series really hit its stride. While the lesbianism is largely dialled back, a breast-biting scene and the ever-delightful Peter Cushing are the cures to what ails you.
2. Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
The 70s are in full swing and vampiric lesbian sexsploitation is all the rage. One of the best-known entries in the genre, Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos lapsed in relative obscurity for about decade upon its initial release. Stylish and psychedelic, what it lacks in plot it more than makes up for in titillation.
3. Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)
One of the weirdest and most wonderful entries in Hammer’s vault of horrors, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde added a fascinating gender-bending element to Stevenson’s classic novella. Rather than freeing his inner beast, Jekyll’s potion turns him into a beautiful woman with a penchant for buying sexy dresses and lingerie and standing in front of the mirror fondling her own breasts. At its core, it’s a film about a woman trapped inside a man’s body and struggling to get out. And considering that Hyde seems much more interested in the brother of his female love interest, there’s plenty of gay subtext to go around.
4. The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)
Another Carmilla-inspired lesbian vampire flick, the power of female love and sensuality shatters repressive heteronormativity in Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride. The prevalence of an empathetic queer gaze elevates this Spanish film against much of the similar fare made during this time period, which often served little purpose but to titillate a straight male audience.
5. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
A loving pastiche of horror and science-fiction B-movies and one of the first films to feature an openly gender-nonconforming character, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has taken heat in recent years for some of the less-than-progressive stereotypes and language it perpetuates. But while it’s far from unproblematic, the film was a milestone of queer cinema and helped many LGBTQ+ youths (myself included) wrangle with their identity.
6. Alucarda (1977)
With shades of Ken Russell’s The Devils and all the Satanic orgies you can shake a stick at, this controversial film comes from Mexican filmmaker Juan López Moctezuma. Blood, nudity, and lesbianism abound in this tale of obsessive friendship and demonic possession at a Catholic convent.
7. Desperate Living (1977)
It’s hard to put together a list of queer anything without John Waters making an appearance. Bizarre, deviant, and filthy (aka a John Waters film), Desperate Living sees a woman murdering her husband and running off with her maid. The rest has to be seen to be believed.
8. Fear No Evil (1981)
It’s a new decade and a flamboyant teenage Lucifer is here to herald it with a swish of his cape and a hot, wet man-on-man shower make-out session. The directorial debut of Frank LaLoggia, Fear No Evil’s not-so-subtle gay subtext and sublime punk soundtrack make for a massively enjoyable (if somewhat shaky) outsider flick.
9. The Fourth Man (1983)
The last film Showgirl’s director Paul Verhoeven’s made in the Netherlands before coming to Hollywood, The Fourth Man is a surreal descent into insanity centering around a bisexual man. That in and of itself is a rarity that makes this psychological horror-thriller worthy of a second glance.
10. The Hunger (1983)
Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandan are vampires and they’re in love. David Bowie is there. Need I say more? Well okay, maybe a little. The spiritual successor to the lesbian sexsploitation vampire flicks of the 70s, The Hunger still largely caters to a male gaze while delving deeper into the more emotional and complex dynamics of female relationships.
11. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
The jury’s still out on whether this slasher film is transphobic or progressive. For my money, it’s a little of column A, little of column B. While the iconic twist is certainly played for sheer shock value, there’s something deeply satisfying upon rewatch of seeing a sympathetic trans character helm a franchise and exact revenge on her oppressors, including one who attempted to sexually assault her. Go get ‘em, Angela.
12. Fright Night (1985)
A vampire and his boyfriend go undercover in the suburbs only for said vampire to become fixated on his dorky teenage neighbour, Charlie. Can the definitely queer-coded vampire hunter hunt save him? Will Charlie’s best friend Ed (played by a future gay porn star) and his tomboyish girlfriend (played by a lesbian) survive? Fright Night is homoerotic horror at its finest and a delight from start to finish.
13. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (1985)
“Something is trying to get inside my body,” Jessie Walsh (Mark Patton), the rare final boy, explains after running away from his girlfriend to spend the night with another man. Writer David Chaskin spent years denying that this leather-bar-featuring film had intentional queer subtext, which ultimately led the then-closeted Patton abandoning his Hollywood dreams. Both a beloved queer text and a testament to the struggles LGBTQ+ actors have faced over the year, NoES2 is bolstered by a captivating and haunting lead performance by Patton. Look forward to his documentary Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street, which hit the festival circuit earlier this year.
14. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs holds a complicated place in the hearts of many queer horror fans. On the one hand, it’s a fantastically made film filled with exceptional performances. On the other hand, it has two queer coded villains—Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb—and while we’re invited to like and even cheer for the former, the latter is portrayed with an unavoidable air of transphobia and squeamishness. Yes, Gumb’s actions are obviously abhorrent, but Lecter’s judgemental diagnosis that Gumb is “not a real transsexuals” doesn’t feel wholly reasonable, either. Intentionally or otherwise, Lecter becomes a symbol of the medical community’s gatekeeping around transgender care… So perhaps it’s fitting that he himself is wrapped up tightly in a straitjacket.
15. Interview with a Vampire (1994)
There’s a reason why so many vampire films have made this list—between the penetration, the sharing of bodily fluids, and the frilly shirts, vampire movies tend to be pretty gay. But few of those films are as decadently homoerotic as Interview with a Vampire. While some of the gayer parts of Anne Rice’s novel are omitted (like Lestat conveniently forgetting to get Louis his own coffin so they have to snuggle down together), this sumptuous adaptation is still a treat for the shippers.
16. Safe (1995)
Julianne Moore’s Carol develops a mysterious illness, but the doctors can’t see anything wrong with her. Both a metaphor for the panic and confusion that surrounded the AIDs epidemic during the 1980s and a criticism of the way certain self-help groups encouraged AIDs victims to accept the blame for having weaker immune systems, Todd Haynes’ disturbing psychological horror film Safe was deeply misunderstood in its own time but deserves another look.
17. Ravenous (1999)
As you’ll see later in the list, cannibalism and homoeroticism often go hand in hand, and Antonia Bird’s frontier horror Ravenous is a perfect example. A deliciously dark and oozing vein of black comedy runs through this flick in which Robert Carlye’s Colonel Ives tried to convince Guy Pearce’s Captain Boyd that it would be awesome if they were gay wendigos together. Okay, he doesn’t explicitly say they’ll be lovers—but considering that they wind up lying on top of one another talking about who will eat who, the subtext is most definitely there.
18. Psycho Beach Party (2000)
Written by drag legend Charles Busch, Psycho Beach Party is the kind of movie that can only truly be appreciated by a queer audience. A camp horror-comedy romp, the film spoofs 60s beach party movie, the film is chock full of deviants and double entendres. Who do you have to fuck to get a hot dog in this dump?
19. May (2002)
The directorial debut of Lucky McKee, May is a film about loneliness and alienation. Following a brief affair with her lesbian co-worker Polly (Anna Farris), May (Angela Bettis) discovers that both Polly and her boyfriend are no longer interested in her, leading to a murderous rampage in which she attempts to build herself a friend.
20. Make a Wish (2002)
Not a particularly good film by any stretch of the imagination, Make a Wish is notable for being the rare lesbian slasher film. A group of queer women head to the woods for a camping weekend—and if you’ve seen a slasher movie before, you know the rest.
21. Haute Tension (2003)
A notorious contribution to the New French Extremity cinematic moment from director Alexandre Aja, Haute Tension reaffirms the problematic trope of female friendship developing into lesbian psychosis. As a queer woman, I still enjoy it, but I can certainly understand why some do not.
22. Seed of Chucky (2004)
The Child’s Play franchise has taken many sudden left turns over the years, but perhaps none more unexpected than the choice to give Chucky and Tiffany a non-binary child. Named Glen/Glenda, a reference to the infamous 1953 Ed Wood film, the child’s exploration of its gender identity was surprisingly progressive and not at all the sort of thing you expect to see from a killer doll movie. Throw in an appearance from John Waters and Seed of Chucky is an undeniable queer classic.
23. Hellbent (2005)
Another not especially good but still important gay slasher movie, Hellbent follows four queer men in the crosshairs of a sickle-wielding serial killer. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it also doesn’t descend into the realm of exploitative trash. And at a breezy 85 minutes, there are worse ways to spend an evening.
24. The Covenant (2006)
Where to start. The Covenant is one of those films that’s so aggressively straight it doesn’t know it’s gay. Essentially The Craft but with dudes (and a less coherent plot), The Covenant centres around a bunch of “edgy” male witches in tiny speedos who ostensibly have girlfriends but we all know what’s up.
25. Cthulhu (2007)
Confusingly, Cthulhu isn’t based on The Call of Cthulhu. It’s actually a loose interpretation of another Lovecraft story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, exploring the novella’s central theme: how it feels to be an outsider. The plot follows a gay college professor returns to his homophobic home town for his mother’s funeral. There, he’s subjected to abuse and even criminal allegations on the basis of his sexuality. While it has plenty of flaws, it’s also a fascinating and uncomfortable watch that has been largely misunderstood by mainstream audiences (seriously, don’t read the Amazon reviews before watching).
26. Let the Right One In (2008)
Achingly beautiful and disturbing in equal measure, Let the Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In) revolves around the strange relationship that develops between a somewhat androgynous vampire, Eli, and an alienated little boy, Oskar. While Eli’s gender is more ambiguous in film than in the book, there’s still a rich queer element: when Oskar asks Eli if they will be his girlfriend, Eli replies “I’m not a girl.” Oskar doesn’t care either way. He just wants them to be together.
27. Otto; or Up with Dead People (2008)
From queercore pioneer Bruce LaBruce, Otto; or Up with Dead Ground is a gay zombie movie about an undead man who is discovered by a lesbian documentarian and zomb-porn filmmaker. Cue queer zombie orgies and wound-fucking.
28. Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009)
One of the last gasps of the titillating lesbian vampire genre that we all thought we’d left behind in the 70s, Lesbian Vampire Killers fails to live up to the charm of its predecessors. If you can stand James Corden, there are one or two decent laughs to be found in this otherwise woeful film which has all the charm of a crass lads’ mag.
29. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Confession: I hated Jennifer’s Body when it first came out. I can’t really remember why. Rewatching it a decade later with a better grasp of my own sexuality, I’ve grown to love it. Outed as “totally lesbigay” early in the film by their classmates, Jennifer and Needy’s relationship is what we all need and deserve—and seeing silly straight boys being devoured is pretty alright, too.
30. Red State (2011)
While homosexuality is often punished in horror films, few explicitly portray the kind of violence and hatred that the LGBTQ+ community is all too often subjected to by extremist religious groups. There’s probably a reason for that—some topics are just too painful, even for a genre with no boundaries. Still, I reckon we’ll see more of these films emerging over time, and Kevin Smith’s unlikely film Red State—centring around a crazed congregation murdering gays in the name of God—will be remembered as one of the first.
31. The Skin I Live In (2011)
A brilliant plastic surgeon tests out his new damage-withstanding artificial skin on a captive young woman, Vera. The twist? Vera is actually Vicente, a young man subjected to non-consensual gender reassignment surgery because the surgeon suspected him of raping his daughter, who later committed suicide. Add to that the fact that the surgeon is fucking Vera and there are plenty of queer layers to unpack in this compelling film from gay filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar.
32. American Horror Story (2011 – Present)
One of two TV shows to make this list for their important contributions to queer viewing, American Horror Story has presented us with a broad spectrum of LGBTQ+ characters over the years, from Murder House’s Chad and Patrick to Freakshow’s Amazon Eve and Hotel’s Countess and Liz. Plus, the eternal question: who is junglejim4322?
33. All Cheerleaders Die (2013)
Another entry from Lucky McKee, All Cheerleaders Die is a rape-revenge flick filled with queer ladies. There are ladies in love, witches, and zombie cheerleaders dispatching of football players. Sounds like a dream I once had.
34. Hannibal (2013 – 2015)
Subtext became text in one of my all-time favourite TV shows, and I for one couldn’t be happier. While queer themes were certainly present in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (at one point, Hannibal Lecter explicitly associates Will Graham with the smell of semen), queer auteur Bryan Fuller treats us to an intimate examination of male friendship, told through an increasingly queer lens. “Is Hannibal in love with me?” Will finally asks in the third season, leading the audience to scream, “Yes—now kiss him, you fool!” He doesn’t quite get that far, but he does plunge from a cliff in his boyfriend’s arms after a lot of erotic panting. Keep your fingers crossed for a fourth season because I’ve got a feeling it’ll be really gay.
35. Lyle (2014)
A short, harrowing little film reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, Lyle follows a paranoid pregnant woman who grows to believe she’s unsafe in her own home. The fact that she’s married to a woman is incidental, which is what makes it so refreshing. You know, sometimes lesbians just deal with spooky stuff, too.
36. PYOTR495 (2014)
A horror short set in Russia shortly after the country’s “gay propaganda” law took effect, PYOTR495 sees a young man baited by a violent nationalist group. It’s a deeply uncomfortable watch but the end will leave you cheering.
37. The Babadook (2014)
If you somehow missed The Babadook’s rise to queer stardom, let me fill you in: the meme started when a few Tumblr users declared the creature to be openly gay and incredibly extra (I mean come on, he creates a popup book of himself), culminating in the film supposedly being mistakenly categorised on Netflix as an LGBTQ+ movie. On one level, the creature is portrayed as a dangerous invader of heterosexual domestic spaces, and since a sizeable chunk of society views the LGBTQ+ community much the same way, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the film resonates with queer audiences.
38. The Neon Demon (2016)
Like Haute Tension before it, The Neon Demon’s portrayal of the psychotic lesbian will leave some viewers frustrated. Putting the problematic elements aside for a moment, the film is visually stunning with a killer score. But if you can make it as far as the necrophilia scene (not to mention the cannibalistic conclusion), you’ll understand why screenings were frequently plagued with walkouts.
39. Raw (2017)
Julia Ducournau’s French coming-of-age cannibal horror Raw explores something we don’t often see: the predatory way in which straight women often objectify and consume gay men. In this case, our lead literally cannibalises her gay roommate after getting what she wants from him—sex. This is not the central plot element, but it’s an interesting aside in a film that is equal parts gorgeous and gross.
40. B&B (2017)
A gay couple returns to a B&B that they recently sued after being turned away the previous year. If you can get past the fact that they probably shouldn’t have gone back somewhere where they might well be in danger, this stylish British horror-thriller delivers some decent Hitchcockian tension and strong performances all round.
41. What Keeps You Alive (2018)
Putting a lesbian spin on the black widow trope, a couple head to a cabin in the woods to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. As that setup would suggest, they have a less than idyllic trip. The script could have used another edit or seven, but it’s the tension that What Keeps You Alive builds that will keep you in your seat until the final frame.
42. The Ranger (2018)
A sign of how far we’ve come, the casualness with which it’s revealed that two of our main characters are gay is genuinely quite heartwarming to watch in Jenn Wexler’s punk slasher gem. Yes, gays exist, get over it. Sure, they’re brutally murdered, but this is a less a case of burying your gays than it is being slasher-killer fodder.
43. Knife + Heart (2018)
Set against the backdrop of the gay porn industry in 70s Paris, Knife + Heart (aka Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur) is a deliciously stylish queer slasher from Yann Gonzalez. Shot on 35mm for an authentic feel, the film delves into deeper themes like desire and sexual repression without losing its appetite for campiness and dark humour.
44. The Sermon (2018)
In the quiet English countryside, the daughter of a hate-spewing preacher falls in love with an older woman. What follows is a surprisingly touching tale of revenge in this folk horror short from Dean Puckett.
45. Killer Unicorn (2018)
Yet another queer slasher, this time set in Brooklyn’s gay nightclub scene, Killer Unicorn brings together local LGBTQ+ talent like BibleGirl and tells the tale of a young gay man being stalked by a mysterious hunk in a unicorn mask and speedo.
46. Lizzie (2018)
Telling the story of Lizzie Borden (she of 40-whacks fame) through an explicitly queer lens, this restrained and brooding psychological thriller falls a little flat but is worthy of a watch.
47. The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel is notable for many reasons. But by portraying Theodora Crain as the bad-ass lesbian she was always meant to be, the series honoured the implicit queer undertones that fans of the book have been pointing out since the 50s.
48. Instinct (2018)
Lonely painter and gallery owner Isabelle is seduced by a beautiful but dangerous performance artist named Camila in Maria Alice Arida’s bloody psycho-sexual short.
49. Disposition (2018)
A lesbian struggles with intrusive suicidal thoughts after switching medications in this tightly executed short by Eric Thirteen. If you’ve ever dealt with similar issues, this one will strike a nerve.
50. The Perfection (2019)
Musical prodigies Lizzie and Charlotte embark on a wildly unpredictable relationship in this imperfect but interesting Netflix Original. To say more would be to spoil the whole movie.
Did I miss something essential? Probably. Let me know your favourites on Twitter while we look forward to what the next 50 years will bring.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)