no. 6: James Whale, Queerness, and Horror

in which Sydney discusses why gay people love horror and Kati recommends what might be 2021's best book release of the year

no. 6: James Whale, Queerness, and Horror

Okay, so this is late, but that means you get two matinees in one week! One on Tuesday and one on Thursday! October is a busy, busy month on our end, so we’re doing our best to stay on schedule.

Enjoy last week’s edition of Thursday Matinee today and stay tuned for a very special witchy issue coming up this Thursday!

October is not only a month-long celebration, it’s also LGBT+ History Month. In many ways, horror has always been queer with the threads of it going back to the early days of filmmaking. In all four of our issues this month, we’ll be discussing queerness in horror to celebrate both the season of scares and the history of LGBT+ folks in filmmaking. There have been so many queer directors and queer stories told on screen, each contributing something different to the legacy of film. I’m so excited to bring you this double-themed month of newsletter and hope you enjoy it too.

That said, our first Thursday (or second Tuesday) of October—during horror classics week—has to touch on James Whale’s legacy in horror. Whale was an early filmmaker who was honest and open about his sexuality, even during the 1920s and 1930s, which was unusual. His films use horror to explore queerness, especially during a time when queer people were often not supposed to have a public voice about the sexualities and identities. As a forerunner in the horror genre, Whale also set the precedent for many films to come, defining how horror films access the deep truths of humanity.

My first James Whale film was Frankenstein (1931). My professor assigned it as one of the first films for a class called “Film as Literature: Cyborgs.” Twice a week my fellow English majors (and a few Film Studies minors) gathered in a classroom to discuss cyborg movies and the themes that connect them. Of course, we started with Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karlfoff) is not half-metal and half-man, but he does have all the hallmarks of a cyborg, including confronting his creator, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), by the end of the film. Drawing from and expanding upon Mary Shelley’s landmark novel, Whale’s version of the story leans into the already present homoeroticism from the book.

While watching the film, my friends and I looked at each other at least a few times as if to say, are you getting the gay vibes? Despite the film’s “straight” characters, there’s an undeniable queer tension between Frankenstein and his creation. Even more has been said about queerness in Whale’s follow-up to this film Bride of Frankenstein.

No matter the context, monsters must resist their “monstrous” urges to kill, hurt, and maim. Many monsters, including Frankenstein’s monster, are created to be destructive and are unable to repress their true nature even with effort—or, also in the case of Frankenstein’s monster, do not understand their own strength or power. When the monster throws Maria (Marilyn Harris) into the lake, it’s not out of malice. He simply does not understand that what he does is harmful.

Many queer people, myself included, have at one point felt that we must hide our queerness—our monstrosity—from others. When it leaked through our lives anyway, it was evil, ugly, and malicious. In this way, horror movies give queer people refuge. The monsters are always at fault for their malicious actions; the influence of those forcing the monster to abide by rules of human society (even when that assimilation is impossible for a monster) are never seen at fault. Again and again this story has played out on screen,

Why not reclaim the genre for ourselves? As a father of the genre, Whale set the groundwork for queer filmmakers and queer stories in horror. His extraordinary Frankenstein laid the groundwork for now cult favorite Rocky Horror Picture Show (more on that in a couple of weeks). Horror has been reclaimed by the queers many times—from Sleepaway Camp to Jennifer’s Body. Even Halloween itself has been reclaimed by queer people who find solace and comfort in the monthlong celebration of camp, costumes, and candy.

So, this month celebrate what James Whale and other seminal horror directors (like Nosferatu’s F.W. Murnau have done to lay the groundwork for our favorite genre.

Thursday Matinee is looking forward to celebrating with you all month long.

Screen Break: The Final Girl Support Group

by Kati Bowden

Cover of The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

When I think about classic horror movies, I think about tropes, and to me, there's no trope quite as thrilling as that of the Final Girl. We all know a Final Girl when we see one: she's the last character left fighting the killer, the survivor of everyone's worst nightmare. And in this week's Screen Break recommendation, the Final Girl keeps fighting.

In Grady Hendrix's The Final Girl Support Group, Lynette Tarkington has lived every day of the last twenty-two years haunted by the massacre that she alone survived. But she doesn't have to carry the guilt of survival on her own: Lynette is a part of a support group for other survivors, all women, who walked away from some grotesque tragedy without their friends. Along with their group therapist, these real-life Final Girls have been working through their trauma and learning to see each day as a gift.

Until one girl misses a meeting. Suddenly, the Final Girls start disappearing, and Lynette's worst fears become realized. Someone is picking off the survivors, one at a time, just when they've begun to heal.

But here's the thing about Final Girls: They do whatever they have to in order to survive. And this time around, none of them are alone. No matter how bad the odds, how dark the night, how sharp the knife, Lynette and her new sisters are coming out of this nightmare together.

With characters inspired by some of our horror faves and a plot to die for, Grady Hendrix asks what happens after the credits roll and the heroines we've rooted for have to go back to some form of normal life. I love this subversion of the expected and known, and hope to see similar fresh takes on horror staples in the future.

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