by Bob Freville
Maybe you’re looking for a scary movie that’s not some cis-gender fantasy. Or, perhaps, you just want something that’s a bit different than your grandfather’s scary movie. After all, the world is changing, the culture is changing…so why shouldn’t the horror genre change?
The truth is, horror has been heading in a progressive direction long before society as a whole was. The 1975 sci-fi horror musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show played with gender neutrality before that was even a prevalent term. Written by “third sex” playwright Richard O’ Brien, who has long identified as being gender fluid, the flick may have been the mainstream’s first taste of pansexuality.
In the film, Dr. Frankenfurter (Tim Curry), the self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania” beds men and women alike and struts around confidently in studded heels and fishnet stockings. The flick introduced the world to a new kind of anti-hero, a post-gender figure who could be every bit as sexy as a biological woman and every bit as dangerous as a hulking slasher villain.
In the ensuing years, many other movies have come along that shake up traditional concepts of gender dynamics. Today, we’ll take a look at the five best horror movies for the gender fluid generation.
1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Yeah, I know, I know. We already covered this one in the intro. Why beat a dead horse, right?
Except this one is far from a dead horse. On the contrary, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one horror movie with more longevity than just about any other picture in the genre.
Not only do revivals of the Rocky Horror stage play continue to this day but midnight screenings of the film are staged across America and beyond, each of them attended by passionate proponents who come dressed like their favorite characters and armed with rice and other ephemera to throw at the screen at key moments.
The celebration that people avail them of at Rocky Horror screenings speaks volumes about the role this film has played in influencing people’s perceptions of gender roles and sexuality. I mean, dammit, Janet! When a movie’s lead character can captivate generation after generation of audiences with lines like “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure. Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh,” you know that movie is doing something right.
2. Psycho (1960)
Some have cited Hitchcock’s classic adaptation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho as an example of Hollywood demonizing the trans community, but when taken in context, the film actually illustrates a certain form of female empowerment.
Consider this: Norman Bates (played by homosexual actor Anthony Perkins) is portrayed as a timid, jumpy little man who, in his “mother”’s own words “couldn’t hurt a fly.” The final line by the maternal voice in his head is fitting because it explains everything that occurred beforehand.
To wit: Throughout the film, all of the murders committed by Norman are committed only when he assumes the identity of his mother. Dressed in a gray wig and a simple house dress, Norman transforms from an impotent manchild into an empowered and scorned woman capable of kicking some ass.
When read in this light, it becomes clear that Psycho can be viewed today as one of the earliest examples of gender-bending horror. Don’t believe me? Consider the fact that Bloch’s novel was inspired by the real-life case of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein who had a penchant for cross-dressing and may have worn the severed vaginas of his victims.
3. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
This early-80s slasher has been the subject of some controversy in recent years. In 2015, a journal of film and feminism published an article that accused the movie of Transmisogyny.
In the piece, the author writes, “When it is eventually revealed that Angela (Felissa Rose) is responsible for the rising body count, what could have been a Carrie White-esque narrative twist contorts into something altogether more sinister. Angela shifts from martyr to monster with a second reveal that she is not in fact Angela, but Peter.”
The author is, of course, referencing the third act reveal…of Angela’s penis. In Sleepaway Camp, the Frankenstein-like villain turns out to be a shy, awkward girl who has been mocked and nearly molested throughout the bulk of the film’s running time.
I believe there is an argument to be made here that Angela/Peter isn’t so much a villain as she is a victim who is bullied to her breaking point. Taken in context, the film actually serves as a commentary on what happens when a person’s assumed gender identity is used to make them fair game for cruel teenage pranksters and sexual predators.
4. Splice (2009)
This French-Canadian sci-fi shocker from Cube director Vincenzo Natali deftly explores gender politics within the framework of a genetic thriller. The sharply written and beautifully rendered film tells the story of a pair of young geneticists (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody, respectively) who are trying to harness cell and DNA technology for the purpose of finding a way to treat diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
They also happen to be in a relationship, sharing an apartment together and arguing over whether or not to have children. In their attempts to create a new animal hybrid gene, they end up breaking protocol by splicing together animal DNA with human DNA.
This gives birth to a bizarre and fast-evolving creature they call Dren. At one point, they discover that Dren is a sequential hermaphrodite. At another point, Brody’s Clive Nicoli cheats on Polley’s Elsa with the now-teenage Dren.
The scene in question explores a number of hot button issues, from the age of consent to the Lolita complex to scientific ethics and, of course, human sexuality. Since Dren is a hermaphrodite, is Clive engaged in carnal knowledge of the third sex?
It is an interesting and ponderous sequence, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the film’s overarching exploration of gender roles in general. In the film, the traditional genre trope of the woman in peril is swapped out as we discover that Clive is the weaker of the two, both mentally and emotionally.
In the end, Polley’s Elsa is revealed to be the strong, determined female, breaking from the stereotypes common of the horror genre. Some could argue that she emerges as the villain, but when one considers that her man’s been getting some strange from a creature that came to represent their child, she can be forgiven for her actions.
The movie’s got a lot on its mind and is even more interesting today than when it was first released back in 2009. It is a perfect choice for a double-feature if paired with the following flick.
5. Little Evil (2017)
Don’t write this Netflix film off as just another goofy horror-comedy without checking it out at least once if not twice. This Adam Scott vehicle is not Bad Seed or The Omen, although it plays with the tropes of such“spawn of Satan” staples.
A lot of Hollywood comedies—and horror films, for that matter—rely on gay panic and trans panic jokes to elicit laughs, but Little Evil subverts this by casting rising comic Bridget Everett of Trainwreck fame in the role of Al, a woman who never explicitly identifies as a man but who drives a monster truck, belongs to a support group for stepfathers and coaches little league.
While all of this could simply be seen as zany eccentricity, it is never treated as such, either by the film’s other characters or the people behind the film’s creation.
In recent years, the horror genre has been accused of stigmatizing the LGBTQ community because of films like Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
From the 2004 film, Hellbent, which gave us drag queens and a gay male lead going toe to toe with a scythe-wielding maniac to television’s American Horror Story: Hotel, which portrayed a trans character as one of series’ few redemptive characters, the horror realm is becoming a more and more diverse landscape.