Bright Lights Film Journal

Queer Horror: Decoding Universal’s Monsters

Monsters and drag queens and dykes — oh my!

After decades of being devalued by lousy prints on video and television, Universal’s classic ’30s horror films have been resurrected, refurbished, and unleashed on the big screen as part of a traveling repertory show opening at San Francisco’s Castro Theater. The first thing sensitive audiences will notice about the series, after the obligatory bow to the superb quality of the new 35mm prints, is the all-pervasive, barely disguised, downright queerness of classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House, The Black Cat, and Dracula’s Daughter. It’s no news that lesbians have long claimed Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter for their own. After all, Gloria Holden in the title role almost singlehandedly redefined the ’20s movie vamp as an impressive Euro-butch dyke bloodsucker. But other key works, particularly those directed by certified homo James Whale, have robust, inescapable gay content. Think of The Bride of Frankenstein‘s literally screaming queens Colin Clive and Ernest Thesiger, with fag hag Elsa Lanchester thrown in for good measure. The Old Dark House’s key relationship is between its two male outsiders; when one is killed, the other goes berserk, in a queer motif that presages a similar event in a much different film, The Road Warrior, decades later. The title character in The Invisible Man makes campy assaults on all the boring normals around him, punctuated by Claude Rains’s uncharacteristic high-pitched cackle that’s filled with wit and menace.

The homo subtext to classic horror is so compelling that you didn’t even have to be gay to let it seep in. Alleged heterosexual director Tod Browning, for example, milks the homo-esque from the admittedly already so inclined Dracula. Lugosi’s Master Drac, rigid in his black cape, happily enslaves the slobbering bottom Renfield (Dwight Frye) in what is clearly a coded gay s&m relationship. And Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat offers a catalog of perversions of the kind society has often attributed to after-hours queers: “unwholesome” sex, incest, devil worship, and — perhaps worst of all — Art, in its Bauhaus setting and fussy, intellectual main character Poelzig, played with mincing menace by a bizarrely coiffed and rouged Boris Karloff.

Of course, these classics are more than just secret homosexual screeds; there’s a world of sheer pleasurable strangeness in Universal’s gorgeously lit nightmare-wonderlands that understandably sent some audience members screaming from theaters in the 1930s. What follows are some thoughts on the queer elements and other worthy aspects of six of the best of the thirteen films in this series.

Dracula (1931)

Hugely popular and vastly influential, this is the magna carta of vampire movies and the first of the great cycle of Universal horror films. Director Tod Browning (Freaks), who apprenticed in silent film, brings some of the staginess and hokey dramatics of silents to the story of an elegant European vampire’s attempts to conquer London neck by neck. Still, Dracula retains an awesome power, thanks largely to Bela Lugosi’s hypnotic performance and Dwight Frye’s energetically insane slavey Renfield. Gay audiences should find much to cheer in the relationship between the two. Drac’s ruined castle, in spite of its vast size, looks every inch the s&m dungeon, lacking only a leather sling and a can of lube. His affair with the supermasochist Renfield begins with bloodsports and proceeds to various kinds of edgeplay, but the Count, a typically fickle top, soon tires of the fun and wants to move on to women and children. But Renfield is a classic pushy bottom who refuses to vanish on cue; he continues to pester his master for attention even after Dracula makes him eat flies and rats. While the Count prefers to be elegantly aloof, only alighting to feed on a victim, Renfield’s nagging forces Drac to drop his dignified pose, strangle his former slave, and throw him unceremoniously down one of the film’s huge stone staircases.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

This project started out as a James Whale film, but the original screenplay was deemed too strange to pass the censors. While we can wish that Whale, a far better director than Lambert Hillyer, had done the job, Dracula’s Daughter has its own dark charms. The glorious Gloria Holden plays Countess Zaleska as what was then, after Lugosi’s enthusiastic evil, a rarity: a vampire desperate to escape the condition. The Countess’s attempts to find a psychiatric cure for her malady — what does that remind us of? — are constantly at war with her “wordless, insistent” bloodlust, which most memorably appears in her slow seduction of a beautiful, suicidal model. Scenes of her cruising the dark streets of London (cruising is the word) play with society’s image of the lesbian as a soulless predator, but modern audiences will respond to Holden’s striking, masklike face and haunting, luminous eyes as the intoxicating essence of transgressive lesbian power.

Frankenstein (1931)

The great success of Dracula spurred Universal to look for new monsters; Frankenstein, which had appeared in both film and stage versions (the latter as recently as the year before), was a natural choice. Mary Shelley’s story of a man playing god had multiple attractions: gruesome imagery, a novel monster, and a Christian allegory and payback to keep the bluenoses happy. Director James Whale drew much of his inspiration for the look of the film, with its omnipresent shadows and forced perspectives, and for the monster itself, from German Expressionism. Still, Karloff’s portrayal has a poetry that sets it apart. Early scenes showing his confusion about who or what he is, close-ups of his tormented face and outstretched hands, and especially the famous scene with the little girl he inadvertently murders, give him a tragic pathos that none of Universal’s other monsters attained.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

After several years of resisting, Whale agreed to shoot a follow-up to the enormously successful Frankenstein. The result was a film that brilliantly visualizes a dazzling netherworld of “gods and monsters” infused with a queer sensibility. Whale’s camp theatrics saturate the story from the opening scene, where a primping, mascara’d Lord Byron and Percy Shelley beg Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) to terrorize them with more tales of Frankenstein. Bride of Frankenstein can be appreciated from many angles, but one of the most rewarding is as a scathing attack on such hetero institutions as marriage and the family. If the campy hysterics of the two scientists, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Dr. Praetorius (Quentin Crisp lookalike Ernest Thesiger), aren’t enough to convince, how about the loving relationship between the Frankenstein Monster (Boris Karloff) and an old blind hermit (O. P. Heggie), who cry in each other’s arms and try to set up house like a blissful married couple before the inevitable hetero backlash? Whale’s visual triumph, all tilting angles and choker close-ups, is the sequence of the creation of the Bride — Henry and Praetorius’s baby, one might say. The film treats this sardonic event (complete with a mock marriage) with enormous sweep and energy, much more than it devotes to Henry’s attempts to marry a “real woman,” which never quite occurs.

The Black Cat (1934)

This oddity, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer of Detour fame, escapes its pulp magazine origins with one of the most striking settings in 1930s horror. It’s a fabulous Bauhaus-inspired mansion, with deco fixtures, gleaming chrome staircases, and a vast wall of luminous glass block. This is the home of devil-worshipping mass murderer Kalmar Poelzig, an aesthete who built his palace on the mass grave of his victims. As played by Boris Karloff in deco jumpsuits, with a v-shaped haircut and lots of eye makeup, Poelzig is even more stylized than his nemesis, Dr. Verdegast (Bela Lugosi), who’s come to retrieve his long-lost wife and daughter, now under the spell of Poelzig. The Black Cat was released after the Hays Code, but its ethos is strictly pre-Code, featuring all manner of strangenesses from quasi-necrophilia to satanism to a man skinned alive in gruesome silhouette. Remarkable scenes include a Black Mass complete with upside-down cross and a mysterious hallway filled with the beautiful dead women in Poelzig’s life, suspended in glass cages and lit from below.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Whale’s adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel is a camp assault with, like most of his films, serious and even tragic undertones. Dr. Griffin, played by Claude Rains in his screen debut, is a typical delusional Whale outsider whose discovery of the secret of invisibility turns him from a merely arrogant scientist to a violent maniac. This economical film, clocking in at a mere 71 minutes, gives Griffin plenty of room to exercise his evil wit as he laughingly depants a stuffy policeman, thwacks an old man with a broom, and most shocking, does an outré striptease that leaves his astounded audience staring at empty space. Of course, his madness accelerates, and he shows a darker side when he sadistically hunts down and murders a former colleague and derails a train full of screaming people. Still, he’s an endearing fiend and quite egalitarian in enumerating the killings he plans: “murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we don’t discriminate.” The film demands a crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “The whole world’s my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”