Lessons From Gay Horror Filmmakers

If you don’t believe representation in horror cinema matters, go watch Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror. Despite countless walks of life stamping this vibrant earth with their signature footprints, movies – especially mainstream studio products – are largely populated by the same faces, genders, you name it. More importantly, when themes or characters step outside “normality,” creatives in charge generally aren’t living what they’re shooting. None of this is to suggest such situations are automatic failures – they aren’t – but authenticity and representation matters. Seeing your likeness on screen is one thing, but seeing yourself depicted in a connective way is a freedom everyone should be granted.

Enter Into The Dark’s Midnight Kiss, an enthusiastic gay slasher focusing on a homosexually-centered New Year’s nightmare. Written by Erlingur Thoroddsen, a proudly gay Hollywood writer, and directed by Carter Smith, an equally in-touch gay Hollywood director. While this shouldn’t be groundbreaking or noteworthy, one has to respect Hulu and Blumhouse for buying into an exclusively gay horror feature without restriction. This showing of commitment means something to so many viewers, which is why I wanted to ask both Smith and Thoroddsen about navigating Hollywood from a queer perspective. Here are some lessons they’ve learned while making death sexy and horror fabulous.

Lesson 1: Hollywood Loves Female Nudity, Not So Much Male Nudity

When chatting about Smith’s earlier filmmaking experiences compared to Midnight Kiss, the artist faced roadblocks when he’d attempt to balance actress “nudity” with male equivalents. “There’s a double standard in horror when it comes to nudity,” he remarked. In situations like The Ruins (Smith’s 2008 debut), there’s always plenty of female sexiness (possibly contractual based on conversations) whether it’s girls glamming themselves up, steamy shower scenes, changing outfits – but Carter’s wishes to insert some beefcake teases were shot down. “I wasn’t going to win a fight to keep one butt shot in. It was so frustrating. I said, ‘There are just as many people who want to see his butt as want to see her boobs.’”

The challenge? “They kept saying, ‘You have to remember, in a movie theater that butt’s going to be really big.’ I’m like, ‘I know, it looks good…how is that a problem?’”

Midnight Kiss is a middle-finger to years of male buttox repression, going even further to explore gay male sex scenes in the middle of nightclub settings. It’s the kind of inclusion that takes you aback not because of repulsion or distaste, but the realization that these acts are so rarely worked into cinema (mainstream or independent). Expect *plenty* of glitter-kissed buttcheek as men contemplate their latest dramas or paranoias while washing themselves before a night of lustful inhibition. This was Smith’s design, who dropped a bonus sub-lesson: “When in doubt, always shoot another shower scene. You can never have too many shower scenes.”

“They make good transitions. We’re really clean!” Let’s just say when the pendulum swings, boy does it pick up momentum. Trivial and innocuous details to some, but for others, a fleshy glimpse that’s been fought against for years.

Lesson 2: Write What You Know

When I think about how the Child’s Play franchise became my most beloved horror property, Bride Of Chucky stands out as Chucky’s monumental turning point. A stunning achievement in diverting franchise staleness into reinvention and innovation. Don Mancini has remarked how his Bride Of Chucky screenplay came more from his heart, channeling his true self, led by the introduction of a queer character into Chucky’s world. Mancini found confidence and reinvigoration in his work as an openly gay Hollywood screenwriter, and that’s exactly the same kind of mentality Thoroddsen echoes.

“It’s okay to write what you know. The more you can take from your own experiences, the more authentic everything you write will be. I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as a gay writer or director, but it just feels much better when you unleash those feelings. Trust that those emotions are right – good things will come.”

It’s this authenticity that I write about in my Midnight Kiss review, as these are characters I’ve interacted with coast to coast. Met at bars, sat through brunches alongside, and understood their every quirk. That’s not always a constant when straight writers outline their interpretation of queer attributes. As Smith confirms, “[Gay horror characters] have existed on coded references and thinly veiled representation.” Even further, and truthfully, “It’s been a long time coming seeing characters who talk like we talk and walk like we walk and have the relationships that we have.”

It’s more than representation for equality’s sake. Making films like Midnight Kiss empowers stifled voices to share their stories. Encourages viewers to be themselves, and values individuality because on-screen normalities aren’t about one dominant appearance. One of Thoroddsen’s lessons is simple: “Embrace your uniqueness within and turn it into a strength.” No civilian should be forced to live a lie in the name of business. “Stick to your guns when studios or producers or whoever says that a queer film won’t sell or won’t find an audience. I think that’s demonstrated really not true.”

Lesson 3: There’s An Audience For Gay Horror, And Studios are Finally Recognizing That

Studied genre fans know there’s a history of queer subtext throughout so many horror eras, taking the most obvious example of Mark Patton’s performance in A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge – yet it’s so often been just that. Subtext. Discussions have often been muted and intentions kept in the closet. Countless queer horror fans are now benefitting from podcasts like Bloody Disgusting’s Horror Queers or devoted sites like Terry Mesnard’s Gayly Dreadful. “There are a lot of gay horror fans and before I made a ‘gay horror’ movie, I don’t think I realized how many poor souls have been waiting for a very long time to see themselves on screen.” Smith’s reaction carries weight.

“A lot of people, who’ve been waiting a long time, are excited about this kind of movement – one that feels like it’s starting to gain momentum.”

The question now becomes, how will studios approach LGBT filmmaking moving forward? As Jordan Peele finds himself leading black representation across genre cinema, who will do so for the queer community? According to Smith, studios are clamoring to find that answer. “Half of the meetings that I take now, people say, ‘We want the gay Get Out.’”

Could there be a queer version of Peele’s backlash against specific tokenization in horror cinema? Thoroddsen seems to think so. “You saw what happened when Get Out released. An underrepresented audience made that film explode.” Treating these themes right is just as important, though. “I don’t know if [producers] would recognize the gay Get Out if they saw it. People say those descriptions but they’re not quite sure what they’re looking for.”

Audiences can sniff out forced representation, and especially in today’s Twitter outrage culture, studios have to be extremely careful but equally thoughtful. “It has to come from a queer filmmaker, that genuine place, and the studios have to put faith into us knowing what we’re doing.” Thoroddsen’s hunger for representation is parallel with his wishes that representation is correctly addressed, going on to comment about his time spent creating Midnight Kiss with Blumhouse and Hulu. “There was a lot of trust from Blumhouse and Hulu for what we were doing and trying to accomplish, no real pushback.”

“I guess there would have been more full-frontal nudity if given our way,” joked Smith. 

Current objectives are about getting to a point where Midnight Kiss’s landscape isn’t shocking material. “This is a step in the right direction and hopefully in a few years, there will be more.” Thoroddsen beams optimism while acknowledging we haven’t quite seen the “explosion” of queer horror that’s hopeful to come. “It’s very exciting because there have been explicitly gay horror movies made before. We’re not the first, but with this platform?” What faster way to reach mass audiences, and more importantly, what better way for Hulu and Blumhouse to reward the exact demographics who’ve been craving a fabulous slasher like Midnight Kiss. Credit where credit is due.

Lesson 4: Y’all Know Horror Is Super Queer, Right?

As Thoroddsen reminds, “The horror genre is super queer in general, so it’s no big stretch to draw those elements out.” While dissenters whine about keeping politics and representation out of their entertainment, I (and others) laugh knowing their favorite films harbor (blatant) queer undertones. “Whether it’s the villain or tomboy final girl, we see the inherent queerness of the genre – gender is represented in a lot of horror films with much fluidity.” A recent resurgence in queer horror with titles like Knife + Heart and Midnight Kiss are pushing gay characters to the forefront, but such representations aren’t newfound.

Says Thoroddsen, with Smith’s agreement, “We’ve had to make do, for a long time, with these small things. Subtextual things. I think it’s about time for us to bring those things to the forefront.” Referencing back to Freddy’s Revenge, “How can you say that [queerness] is not part of the genre – it’s literally been part of the genre for years and years. It’s that weird thing of admitting such makes people scared.” Of course, what some might fear is another’s awakening. Smith’s own Freddy’s Revenge memory is much sweeter: “I think that was probably the very first time that I ever saw a gay character on screen. Not only in a horror movie.”

Why is this important? “I recognized myself. I saw me in [Jesse] and that’s something invaluable. Representation matters, especially in the genre that you love.”

“If you look at the horror genre, these elements have been in there this whole time. Go back to the more coded films like Psycho, where you literally have a cross-dressing man who impersonates his mother and murderers. Look at Dressed To Kill, something possibly problematic but we’re OK with because it is so over-the-top and ridiculous. These elements have been there this whole time.” Thoroddsen’s correct.

Lesson 5: More Gay Cast And Crew, Please!

This isn’t to say a straight actor can’t play a gay part or vice versa. It’s more about allowing LGBT cast and crew the chance to embrace characters they’ve been waiting to tackle, from within. It’s about comfort, community, and not feeling constantly outnumbered. “It’s so nice to not be the only gay in the village,” confirms Smith. “In front of and behind the camera, actors to editors, it makes the story that much more legitimate and the filmmaking process more fun.” Blumhouse and Hulu were adamant about wanting to work with queer actors for the roles, which is something that was never about “queer can only be queer” – which was an initial passing thought, but eventually led to Smith’s embracing of a fully gay ensemble.

“When actors connected with the words on the page, they connected with the vibe on the set and characters.” It goes hand-in-hand with “write what you know.” Who better, for example, to adapt a queer activist’s lifelong story than a queer writer whose emotional response would squash a straight writer’s distanced handling of the topic? “A straight man’s writing of the gay role is a little different than, you know, a gay man’s actual writing of it.” It’s undeniable. “I can only imagine being a queer actor and having to read all of these straight takes on their lives and then finally getting something they can actually connect with.”

Gay actors haven’t always had the pleasure of seeing themselves in the arcs written for them. Conversations on the set of Midnight Kiss brought out experiences from the actors’ pasts. “So often in gay roles, the breakdown actors get is slightly feminine or passes as straight.” Smith went on to recall how it’s typically “surface stuff” that was written as the defining point of the character. As opposed to what, you ask? “A character whose function in the story has nothing to do, necessarily, with their sexuality – which is refreshing.”

“It’s rare. If there’s a gay person in a film, they’re usually the only ones and a side character. The assistant, or comic relief.” This is why change matters. Thoroddsen’s analysis is on the money, adding attributes like “flamboyant” or “flouncy.”  These are the jester arcs many gay actors have been typecast into, so to feel as comfortable in their fake skins as they do in reality is a wonderful thought.

Lesson 6: Gay Horror Stories Are Universal Horror Stories

Telling a gay horror story isn’t charting misunderstood waters that’ll leave eighty percent of audiences scratching their heads. Human stories can be understood with universal regard because, no matter how you identify, we are all that: human. “As someone who’s loved horror films for as long as he can remember, reading about a straight character never gets in the way of me experiencing or enjoying a story.” Smith has long found himself in hetero characters out of necessity, but without disdain. “Heartbreak is heartbreak or jealousy is jealousy, whether it’s between two men, two women, or a man and a woman,” Thoroddsen chimes in. Imagine having the privilege of seeing your likeness on screen for decades, and then projecting outrage when marginalized and mistreated audiences win even a fraction of that due justice?

“Everyone can relate to what it feels like to have weird, fucked up relationships with your exes, or how great it is to find that best friend who’s always going to be there for you.” Gay, straight, trans, no matter what these are experiences in all our lives. “It has nothing to do with who you sleep with. It’s not about sex or agendas or anything about age or whatever people complain about.” Well, to be fair, Thoroddsen jokingly reminds Smith about the movie they made together. “There is a lot of sex.” To which Smith snappily and playfully shoots back the most natural response. “I guess if male nudity makes you uncomfortable, get over it.”

Midnight Kiss is a slasher movie, but I really wanted these characters to feel real, and that their problems aside from running away from the killer – their interpersonal problems – came from a real place.” An easy success for Thoroddsen, given how the above is true. “Hopefully it will also be for the people who aren’t familiar with gay culture or have no idea what a gay group of friends is like, it’ll just be very exciting.” As a straight white cis man who’s seen himself on camera since birth, I’m tired of viewing the same old takes over and over again. Movies are supposed to be escapes into realms unknown, and Thoroddsen’s hopes are exactly what representation is about.

We need to stop these preconceived “fears” of gay horror being “different” or “strange.” There’s plenty of room for everyone at the horror table; all the opportunities for unseen conceptualization from voices yet to breakout. Leave the “fears” on-screen, for characters to fight against. Let’s end on Thoroddsen’s words:

“What I see a lot is ‘Why does it have to be gay? Why can’t it just be a normal story?’ To that? Midnight Kiss is a normal story. You’re just not used to seeing these characters on screen, but the way that they interact with each other, it shouldn’t change your experience. It’s a new twist on something, especially in a slasher movie. It’s a new twist on a recognizable formula. You shouldn’t be afraid of that. You should be excited. You can always go back to your Friday the 13th movies, the stuff you grew up with, but why not allow this kind of new version of events to maybe surprise you? If viewers actually watched a movie instead of imagining what it’s going to be, I’d reckon they would surprise themselves by how much they enjoy said title or how much they’re into new perspectives.” Couldn’t have professed it better.

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