Saturday, October 24, 2009

Screen Queens: Hammer Horror

Hi, Matt here with your weekly dose of Queer Cinema. With Halloween coming up, we turn our focus to horror.

Hammer Horror films are not truly part of the gay canon, and as a body of films they are conservative in their narrative arcs and messages. However, I've always been a huge fan. They are undeniably camp and always feature either subtle homoeroticism or full on Lesbian Vampires. For those unfamiliar with this horror subgenre, it is a collection of films produced by Hammer Film Studios from the late 50s to early 70s that mixed Gothic melodrama with exploitation horror. The studio was most famous for their vampire, mummy, Frankenstein, and cave girl pictures.

The vampire films stand head and shoulders above the rest. Hammer's Vampires went through two major cycles, the gothic Dracula films with Christopher Lee and the later sexploitation-y lesbian vampire films. The early Hammer films are the most respectable. The closer you get to the seventies, the trashier and campier the films become. Obviously the later ones are my favorites! Two representative films from each cycle are the Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968) and the girls boarding school set Lust for A Vampire (1971).

Dracula Has Risen From The Grave
has Dracula being resurrected accidentally by a cowardly, wayward priest who becomes the dark prince's slave. Dracula returns to his castle only to find it has been exorcised by the Monsignor. He goes off in search of the Monsignor's virginal niece to corrupt and bring her over to the dark side.

The film's camp is off the charts, with heaving bosoms, fake blood, and Dracula's potent sexual allure entrapping men, women, and......virgins. Dracula's blood shot eyes are supposed to signify his evil, but they really just look like he's smoked alot of weed before going out cruising.

Lee's relationship with his slave priest has elements of S&M, while the virginal Maria is only too happy to trade in her virtue for some dark and steamy vampire sex. The film might end reaffirming the superiority of heterosexual monogamy, but it has too much fun showing all the transgressive sexuality embodied by Dracula to be effective. The overacting, melodramatic plots, kitchy sets, and costumes all add to the fun, making the film as campy as Mommie Dearest. The director uses endless coloured filters, making sections seem like a Gothic acid trip. While it has an overlong prologue, the film is really fun and has a lot to offer the gay spectator, not the least of which is Christopher Lee's dominant Dracula.

Lust for A Vampire is loosely based on Sheridan le Fanu's archetypal lesbian vampire novella Carmilla (1872). The film has the Karnstein family resurrect the buxom Carmilla Karnstein in order to enroll her in an all-girls boarding school for the sole purpose of allowing her maximum access to dishy young virgins. This film's camp is exponentially higher than the Lee films, because the whole point of this film is seeing a minxy vampire seduce anyone who makes eye contact with her (literally).

There are plenty of girl-on-girl massages, blood soaked breasts, and over dramatic declarations of love and lust to keep even the most jaded cult fan interested. The acting is dreadful, the dialogue is worse, but the look (sets, costumes, cast, and again use of filters) is beautiful, in that iconic Hammer Horror style. There are so many incredible moments. Richard's dream sequence is amazingly kaleidoscopic in its use of fade-outs, dayglo filters, psychedelic music, and sex-and-gore images.

Another key scene is the resurrection of Carmilla where a virgin's blood makes her materialise naked and blood soaked. Any of the lesbian sequences or spontaneous declarations of love (my count: 4) are worth the price of a rental. It's possibly the trashiest and most enjoyable of the entire Hammer oeuvre and not to be missed.

These films have so much to offer a spectator who relishes camp, and their explorations of non-normative sexualities (regardless of their ultimate affirmations of heterosexual monogamy) make them important and enjoyable members of the Queer Horror cannon. Other late greats are Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), and the mummy film Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971).

Kate Bush pays tribute in the amazing song Hammer Horror

Does anyone have any other favourite gay or gay-ish horror films for us to enjoy over Halloween?



after the vampire blog a thon a few years ago i told myself i was going to really settle in and watch some Hammer Horror but i have yet to do so. Shame on me.

you make me want to see both pictures though.

i wonder if the True Blood team watches any of these old risque vampire flicks for inspiration?

pomme said...

"interview with a vampire"? a different Cruise/whining Pitt in the same movie?
i have no real idea because i dislike vampire movies usually.
I prefer Zombies movies even the most sh*tty zombie movie

Uma thurman said...

nat do you think helen mirren could win best actress oscar for the last station???

Zahir Blue said...

I felt the best of the "Carmilla" trilogy was the first--The Vampire Lovers, which was also the closest to the original novella.

Me, I so want Carmilla to get the same big-budget, top-star treatment that Dracula has received at least twice.

Interview has got to be the most overtly gay vampire movie of quality I can think of.


uma i don't... and sorry about Motherhood

pomme you don't like vampire movies? blasphemer!

zahir oh but Interview hedged its bets so much with the homo-content. wasted opportunity, especially in the realm of Pitt/Banderas . I know a lot of people thought Cruise was a good choice at the time but his casting is still a problem for me. I just could never buy him as Lestat.

I guess i should read this Carnilla book.

Robert said...

Sick Girl is a perfect hour of hot, hilarious horror action. Angela Bettis playing a role written for a man, which means she's dating Erin "Misty Mundane" Brown and lusting after her the whole film.

pomme said...

i'm a Zombie girl! LOL

Christine said...

I love old-school Hammer! They made even decent zombie movie - actually, more than decent - and most zombie films are garbage. I love Karnstein trilogy. Lust is great silly fun, with beautiful colours and costumes and gorgeous atmospheric sets. Effective score, too. Their Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is also much much better than most Hyde as women films.