Looking at “The History of Queer Horror”

Kevin Williamson, writer of “Scream” and “Scream 2.”

The ambitious documentary series, “Queer for Fear: The History of Queer Horror” on Shudder showcases notable cinematic works by LGBTQ talent that illustrate how stories about those who live outside of society — or those who society tries to eradicate — resonate with queer viewers. It is not just the coding of “difference,” but also transgressive behaviors, such as resurrecting the dead, or body transformations that make horror films queer.

A large cast of out talking heads, including Lea DeLaria, Bruce Vilanch, Leslye Headland, Tommy Pico, Jewelle Gomez, and Philadelphia resident Carmen Maria Machado, comment on the films and characters that have been influential to LGBTQ viewers. The hour-long episodes feature interviews, film clips, animation, and more to illustrate the stories being told. 

Episode One celebrates Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who “invented science fiction and horror” with her novel, “Frankenstein,” about two men who “create life” without a woman — and how that backfires. Shelley’s sexuality is addressed as well, as is “Dracula” creator Bram Stoker’s. He was a man who spoke out against homosexuality, perhaps as a way of concealing or deflecting his own same-sex desires. 

“Dracula,” according to filmmaker Karyn Kusama, could be read as an “expression of the fear of queerness,” with examples of Count Orlok visiting Jonathan Hutter (Harker) in his bedroom in gay filmmaker F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (1922), or discussions of the camp character of Renfield (Dwight Frye) in the 1931 screen version of “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi. The series is best when it provides such food for thought. Alas, there is no discussion of the very queer Andy Warhol films, “Flesh for Frankenstein” and “Blood for Dracula,” a real missed opportunity.

There are also interesting considerations of gay director James Whale’s films. His “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” are queer masterpieces. The series dissects the queer Dr. Pretorius (gay actor Ernest Thesiger) in “The Bride of Frankenstein” and shows why Whale’s film “The Old Dark House” is “spectacularly queer” with several gay actors camping it up. Whale’s screen version of “The Invisible Man” can also be read as a queer story about having to hide, or not being seen. 

Episode Two focuses on Hitchcock’s films and how “sex is connected to morals, ethics, and identity,” as one interviewee observes. Hitchcock often employed gay actors, starting with Ivor Novello in “The Lodger” (1927), and used source materials from queer authors such as Daphne Du Maurier (“Jamaica Inn,” “Rebecca” and “The Birds”) and Patricia Highsmith (“Strangers on a Train”). Out gay screenwriter Arthur Laurents penned the film “Rope” for his partner, Farley Granger. Though the series perhaps overreaches when it puts a queer spin on “Shadow of a Doubt,” even if screenwriter Thornton Wilder was gay. 

“Queer for Fear” does have fun with interviewees discussing the lesbian Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca,” but it also gets serious when Oz Perkins, Anthony Perkins’ son, talks about his closeted father’s indelible role in “Psycho.”

Episode Three looks at horror films featuring transformations, and how identity hidden “inside us” comes out, be it in a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” duality, or in werewolf-like narratives. These horror stories provide allegories for the “fear of the other” and the guilt and shame of same-sex desires. “Cat People” from 1942 is examined at length for its coded messages of lesbianism and the emphasis on female sexuality. Likewise, teenage monster movies play to ideas of science and how it was being used to “cure” homosexuality. 

“Queer for Fear” also shows how “Body Snatcher” movies were prominent in the 1950s, an era when homosexuals as well as communists were hunted. A dissection of the “pod people” films including the 1956 and 1978 versions of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” along with a 1993 remake, show the perils of conformity and being changed into something one is not. Likewise, the 1958 film, “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” shows the dangers of heterosexual marriage as the “alien” husband, played by closeted gay actor Tom Tryon, is stiff with his bride but comfortable with his male buddies — especially when they gather at night in Griffith Park. 

The third episode also looks at a few of the 1980s horror films, including the 1982 remake of “Cat People” as well as “The Howling” and its queer sequel “Howling II,” to show how body horror films have been updated, and ends with a consideration of the 2000 werewolf film, “Ginger Snaps” that has lesbian and trans identification points.

Episode Four concentrates exclusively on predatory lesbian vampires and bisexual female killers, with clips from and analyses of “Dracula’s Daughter,” “The Uninvited,” “The Haunting,” “Daughters of Darkness” as well as the previously covered “Rebecca.” These films are derived from the 19th-century gothic novella, “Carmilla,” about a lesbian vampire as well as Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noblewoman accused of killing young women. The series further explore these themes with discussions of the lesbian and bisexual villains in films like “Bound,” “Single White Female,” “Basic Instinct,” “Heavenly Creatures,” and “Vamp.” 

Ultimately, however, “Queer for Fear” is disappointing because it fails to examine films one might expect in a series about gay horror, such as the queer favorite, “Carrie,” or the explicitly gay-tinged “Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.” Gay horror writer and filmmaker Clive Barker’s (“Hellraiser”) contributions to the genre are also ignored. 

While it is difficult to be comprehensive, the episodes feel constrained, which makes this series more frustrating than illuminating.