Welcome to Queerly Digital, a regular column about LGBT cinema available for home viewing. This time we celebrate Halloween with a few scary titles available for your viewing pleasure.
"The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935)
In 1931, film 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 auteur 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--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 persona to present on screen. Whale and Thesiger pulled it off beautifully.
"The Bride of Frankenstein" is available as part of "Frankenstein: The Complete Legacy Collection," newly out on Blu Ray. The collection also includes Whale's original 1931 film--both films are also available on other DVD and Blu-Ray Discs.
"Voodoo Island" (1958)
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--though the L-word was never said, the dialogue makes it clear who Claire is. She claims membership in a "private and exclusive club" where men aren't welcome.
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 during the ultra-conservative 1950s, we remember and salute Jean Engstrom.
"Voodoo Island" is available on DVD and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.
"The Haunting" 1963
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."
"No one comes to Hill House during the night, in the dark," says Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) the creepy housekeeper.
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 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 makes Theo possibly the first out-and-proud character in a major studio film.
"The Haunting" is available on DVD and Blu Ray. There are several other films with this same title--be sure you are getting Robert Wise's 1963 masterpiece!