LGBT people are truly everywhere—you just never know where we might turn up next. We are your teachers, your grocers, your vampires, and your mad scientists. Yes, we even turn up in horror movies! Here are a few classic horror titles, all available on DVD, that are waiting to be unearthed for your Halloween viewing.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
In 1931, director James Whale (1889–1957) terrified the world with his take on Mary Shelley’s classic tale Frankenstein. The film was actually a bit of a collaboration between the filmmaker and a then-unknown actor named Boris Karloff, who played Dr. Frankenstein’s tragic creation. Together they created a character who was a sympathetic man-child trapped in a monster’s body. The poor creature never understood why people were so afraid of him, and some film historians have speculated that the monster was a metaphor for Whale’s life as a closeted gay man.
In Bride of Frankenstein, Whale stepped out of the closet a bit. Audiences were introduced to Dr. Praetorius (Ernest Thesiger), with whom Dr. Frankenstein creates the Bride, a female monster. Dr. Praetorius was a screaming, effeminate queen who stared lovingly at his much younger pupil, and the stage-trained Thesiger played the role in all its giddy, limp-wristed, lisping glory.
Though the “word” was never said, it’s clear that Dr. Praetorius was a gay man. Though he’d now be seen as a negative stereotype, the character was, in 1935, a very daring thing to present on screen. Whale and Thesiger pulled it off beautifully.
Another of horror-icon Boris Karloff’s many films. This low-budget romp is the type of B movie that was enormously popular during the 1950s and ’60s. Karloff plays Philip Knight, a best-selling author who’s investigating voodoo myths on a desolate tropical island in hopes of debunking those myths as foolish superstitions.
His merry band includes Claire, played by a little-known actress named Jean Engstrom (1920–1997). Claire is a lesbian. She flirts openly with Knight’s female secretary and expresses her disdain for men. Her lesbianism is so obvious that one of the male characters refers to it—without actually saying the L-word, of course (it was the 1950s, after all).
Jean Engstrom’s acting career consisted primarily of guest roles on TV series. Voodoo Island was one of her very few theatrical releases. For having the courage to play a lesbian so long ago, we remember and salute Jean Engstrom.
This terrifying mood piece is a ghost story like no other. Robert Wise, an admitted fan of horror and science fiction, directed it in between his Oscar-winning musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music.
Depressed and sexually repressed Eleanor (Julie Harris) is part of a small scientific research team investigating the alleged haunting of Hill House, a spooky old mansion. Theo (Claire Bloom), another member of the group, is a lesbian who’s clearly attracted to Eleanor. Eleanor has another suitor: the ghost of old Mr. Crane, who built Hill House 90 years earlier.
The always-unloved, unhappy Eleanor suddenly finds herself at the center of a bizarre love triangle in this most satisfyingly scary old-fashioned chiller.
Bloom plays Theo with delightfully over-the-top panache. Unlike the independently produced, low-budget Voodoo Island, The Haunting is a big-budget, A-list studio production—which means that Theo is possibly the first out-and-proud character in a Hollywood studio film.
The Vampire Lovers (1970)
The Vampire Lovers is the most famous film version of Carmilla, Sheridan LeFanu’s 19th-century novel about lesbian vampires. Considered shocking in its day, the book was banned in the U.K. for many years. It’s currently in print in both the U.S. and the U.K.
Polish-born Holocaust survivor Ingrid Pitt had a brief brush with movie stardom after playing Countess Carmilla Karnstein in the wildly successful The Vampire Lovers. Carmilla goes to great pains to hide her vampirism, but she flirts openly with women throughout the film, leaving her telltale “vampire’s kiss” upon the breasts of young ladies.
Produced by England’s Hammer Films, which specialized in old-fashioned Gothic horror, the film offers all the trappings that genre aficionados love: drafty old castles and fog-shrouded graveyards are seen in abundance. Carmilla’s lesbianism puts a fresh new spin on a formulaic tale that makes the film great fun.
Perhaps the kinkiest vampire film ever produced.
John Karlen (Dark Shadows) and Danielle Ouimet play a pair of swinging bisexual newlyweds honeymooning in a largely deserted yet elegant hotel in Belgium. The hotel’s only other guests are a lesbian couple (Delphine Seyrig, Andrea Rau), both of whom are vampires. A bizarre game of cat-and-mouse seduction ensues, which becomes all the more fascinating when it’s revealed that Seyrig’s character is actually Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a real-life 16th-century noblewoman who bathed in the blood of virgins, hoping to maintain her youth.
Visually stunning, erotic, and hypnotic, Daughters of Darkness is a most unusual and unforgettable entry in the canon of horror cinema.
David Elijah-Nahmod is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.