Crash Analysis Support Team: Gays in Horror (Part II) – Guest Post from David McDonald

monstercloset7Well, after a couple of false starts, I finally got off to an auspicious beginning. Not the one I’d hoped for, but it turned out well just the same, sending me fast-forward into a more recent past (the 80s) where I stumbled first upon one of those throwing-caution-to-the-wind projects Troma Entertainment likes to toss out:

Monster in the Closet from 1986.

At first I was at a loss to figure out what possibly possessed Wiki to put this on a gays-in-horror list in the first place, unless it was a tribute to style: it was campy enough for eight movies, to be sure. And quite appropriately, Monster in the Closet had no intention of taking itself seriously, including a veteran cast that fits right in with the hyperbole. With the film’s relaxed pace, it looks like everyone had a blast making this goofball enterprise, practically cheering on writer/director Bob Dahlin as he co-opted one classic after another, from Superman to War of the Worlds (the 1953 version) to (yet again) Alien. No matter, though. It’s quite watchable, and is guaranteed to leave you chuckling.

The plot is terminally juicy and stalwart in the face of brazen clunkiness: An evil creature makes its lair in the clothes closets of its victims’ homes, snatching them at opportune moments. The dialog is extraordinary; pearls of unabashed cliché drop with unflinching regularity. Bespectacled Richard Clark, a cub reporter, played by handsome Donald Grant, wrangles his way into investigating the murders and teams up with Sheriff Ketchem (Claude Akins), who spits his chaw into any handy receptacle. Ketchem has already given the brushoff to biology professor and love interest Diane Bennett (Denise DuBarry). Eventually, the Eccentric Scientist Dr. Pennyworth (Henry Gibson) gets involved, determined to communicate with the creature, with Army General Turnbull (Donald Moffat) nipping at his heels, determined to destroy the menace. Several unsuccessful attempts are made to vanquish the beast, until—

What did you say? … What’s this have to do with gay people? I thought you’d never ask!

Turns out the Monster (Kevin Peter Hall), on closer inspection of its victims, gets the hots for Clark — who promptly goes unconscious — and carries him off to find the nearest closet where presumably they both can live in domestic bliss. Meanwhile, Diane’s 10-year-old son and Imperiled Tyke, “Professor” Bennett, figures out the only way to kill the creature is to destroy every closet in the kingdom — Sorry, in the country — and so they do…except one! And so, off trudges the Monster, carrying his oft-catatonic beau (he riles briefly from time to time) to the top of the Transamerica Building. In deference to those who want to screen this film for themselves, I won’t reveal the ending, but as in every tragic love story (which is pretty much what this film turned into plot-wise) suffice it to say that it’s bittersweet.

So, okay. Why did Wiki decide to put this on the “gay” list? According to the article, the decision was based on two assumptions, one pivotal and another incidental. First: Is the Monster male or female? Hard to say, because there’s a contradiction: It had the musculature of a male, but not the plumbing. Had I watched without being forewarned, I’m not sure I would have jumped to the same conclusion Wiki did. Second: The part was played by a male, presumably to make the beast larger and more intimidating – or… was it a sly statement on the part of the filmmakers? In the long run, no one really knows for sure.

Also, as part of the title, the now-iconic phrase, “In the closet,” could make a case for a gay theme. But not necessarily. Those three words represent only half a hint, and it depends largely on the prefix. For example, a “skeleton” in the closet is a generic phrase coined in the 19th Century, which refers to any secret that would damage the reputation or credibility of a person or persons — including homosexuality. Conversely, “coming out” of the closet doesn’t necessarily denote hiding or shame.

But there is one correlation that I believe deserves some mention. In 1986, the full horror of AIDS and its impact on society in general and the gay population in particular was in full swing. At this point many of the misconceptions and much of the panic surrounding AIDS was still going strong. A nasty fight still raged between NIH Director Dr. Robert Gallo with the original French researchers, vying for the prestigious claim of isolating HIV; attorney Geoffrey Bowers was suing the Philadelphia law firm who employed him, which later inspired the 1993 film, Philadelphia; and speaking of Philly, beautiful lesbian model and veteran druggie Gia dies of AIDS from an infected needle, followed by the eponymous film with then-newcomer Angelina Jolie in the title role.

Not that I believe the Monster in the Closet represents AIDS or those with the disease per se; instead, I interpret it as representing the fear engendered by it. And noteworthy is that the “Monster” killed indiscriminately, just as AIDS did (and does): the beautiful co-ed, the blind elderly man, the little girl, the cavalier authorities (cops, military) out to destroy it, and the scientist seeking to understand it.

In the end, the evidently invincible Monster was destroyed by preventing its retreat back into the closet — or put another way, the fear was eliminated by forcing it out into the open once and for all to be dealt with.

In terms of form, however, it’s still a low-brow, silly romp, and quite enjoyable on its own flaky terms. Or as my editor would say, “Check your brain at the door.” Just remember: pick your brain back up on your way out. Just sayin’.

David was born in Baltimore into a military family and moved across the United States throughout most of his childhood. He received a BA in Liberal Studies from Thomas Edison State College and has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. He has written critiques for prose and film for various publications while writing screenplays, four of which have placed in competitions, his last being the psychological thriller, “Little Girl Found,” a Second Rounder at the Austin Film Festival. He has worked as a producer on three films with a fourth in the works, including his own short screenplay “Gambit.” Meanwhile he is finishing the first in a series of male-on-male vampire fiction entitled “Shared Blood,” due to be published early Summer 2015. You can follow him on Twitter: @deepfocusllc and on his website at: http://davidemcdonald.com

(Photo from Rely On Horror.)

Crash Analysis Support Team: Gays in Horror (Part I) – Guest Post from David McDonald

Victim_1961_posterWhen I was offered the opportunity to write on the topic of LGBT in horror — especially by a true aficionado with a formidable reputation for high standards of the genre, I couldn’t help but jump at the chance. I plan to share my insights, and hope that you’ll do the same, since this will be a new adventure for me as I broaden my horror palate, so to speak.

You see, as fond as I am of horror, I am woefully untutored when it comes to the horror cinema world in general. Oh, sure, I’ve seen some of the “greats,” like Night of the Living Dead, most of the Halloween franchise, not to mention extraordinary hybrids like Alien and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In fact, speaking of hybrids, you may agree that horror finds its way into many other genres, and for good reason: its basic element is fear, one of the most fundamental — if not THE most fundamental — of human experiences. I ask you, good readers, to bear in mind this reference to hybrids for later on.

First, though, please allow me a tribute to someone whom I truly admire. With respect to the broader presentation of gays in cinema (horror included) I defer to the late, great Vito Russo, whose tome “The Celluloid Closet” (and the subsequent film of the same name) remains the unparalleled authority on the subject. If you have not yet read (or seen) it, I highly recommend you do so at once.

So, my first task as a novice in horror in general — and gay horror in particular — was where to begin? Google, naturally, which — naturally — listed two sites prominently: Wikipedia and IMDB; the former had 124 hyperlinks, the latter had 100 entries with dates, which affords some perspective over time, especially as it relates to the impact of gay persons in an evolving society. So from that list of 100 I culled what I believe is a good — meaning fair — sampling of LGBT themes in horror. The first thing I noticed that with scouring for films dating from 1936 to 2014, there were very few until the 1980s: Dracula’s Daughter (1936); Rope (1948); and The Creeper (1977).

Technically, Rope — an adaptation of the 1929 play of the same name — is not so much straight-up horror as suspense, something director Alfred Hitchcock was known for; but it also explores the banality of evil (also a Hitchcock watermark) even among the overbred like the rich-kid antiheroes, Brandon and Phillip, styled after the true-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. As these two were lovers in real life, it’s not surprising that the Hayes Office allowed the hints at the nature of their relationship to underscore queers as cold-blooded villains, a phenomenon that wasn’t honed to perfection until the 1970s, a good example being the two scenes involving LGBT criminals in Freebie and the Bean (1974).

My point is that horror isn’t limited to the supernatural or blood-soaked in chaotic mayhem. Horror is often clean and shiny, all around us, in the shadows of human experience, just as quiet but invaluable acts goodness and charity shine in the daylight yet little regarded.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more expertly explored as in Britain’s 1961 landmark drama/horror hybrid, Victim, in which a gay, highly placed government official decides to expose a blackmail ring against homosexuals (the first time “that word” was used on film) at the risk of destroying not only his own career, but his standing in society. The pursuit and persecution of “Boy Barrett” in the first part of the film is nothing less than terrifying and poignant. And more horrific yet, in its own way, is a subplot (and red herring) that involves a pair of male lover extortionists. Interestingly, the audiences polled at the initial screenings were horrified that the pair of blackmailers (a homophobic, priggish woman and her smug, mercenary male partner) were presented in such a negative light. Despite this, the film is unflinching in presenting a balanced view of attitudes and biases, both on behalf of gays and straights, within the context of that era.

In the final analysis, clearly neither the filmmakers of Victim nor its actors who took on these controversial parts had any intentions of shying away from exposing the  horror that was commonplace in everyday British life. It’s important to bear in mind that in the UK in 1961, sex between consenting adult males was a criminal offense, punishable by two years in prison. Victim is felt to be instrumental in eventually changing the laws for the better: homosexuality “downgraded” to a mental illness in the UK, and finally decriminalized altogether in 1967.

So while Victim is a landmark film in terms of social justice, more to the point it also breaks ground in terms of mundane evil, horror of a very special, folksy variety, full of sunshine, but horror nonetheless.

Now, in future I will discuss the topic of LGBT persons in the more conventional presentations (in film terms) of horror: blood and guts, bumps in the night, werewolves and vampires; there are a plethora of films that include LGBT persons.

See you next time!

David was born in Baltimore into a military family and moved across the United States throughout most of his childhood. He received a BA in Liberal Studies from Thomas Edison State College and has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. He has written critiques for prose and film for various publications while writing screenplays, four of which have placed in competitions, his last being the psychological thriller, “Little Girl Found,” a Second Rounder at the Austin Film Festival. He has worked as a producer on three films with a fourth in the works, including his own short screenplay “Gambit.” Meanwhile he is finishing the first in a series of male-on-male vampire fiction entitled “Shared Blood,” due to be published early Summer 2015. You can follow him on Twitter: @deepfocusllc and on his website at: http://davidemcdonald.com

(Photo from Wikipedia.)