A few years ago, Britain’s Pulp Press commissioned me to write a short book for their imprint after I’d sent them a sample of writing. The nasty concoction I delivered three months later was a Russ Meyer-esque exploitation novella (or rather, transploitation), with more than a few shades of Doris Wishman’s pulpy and derivative LET ME DIE A WOMAN.
Now bear with me, because this is leading somewhere: the novella concerned a transgender heroine called Bunny Flask, who is booted out of her editrix-in-chief position at BLOOD RAG magazine by a misogynist serial killer and replaced by Alice Fiend, an alien queen hell-bent on harvesting humanity and repopulating the globe with glam and degenerate alien Amazons.
So… asides, er, aside, let me tell you something else: a small contingent of readers assumed (even though they’d read the book) that it was autobiographical. Despite the army of killer scarecrows, the reanimated “Corpse Bitch” Grim Myra and the intergalactic Psyche and her Sisters, a few legitimately believed it was a biopic. Even though there was no corroborating evidence (how could there be?) to support their belief, they still completely misinterpreted the text on a fundamental (crazy) level. So, regardless of an artist’s intentions, they can’t be held entirely responsible for how an audience member might interpret their work.
Across media platforms, transgender identity has been historically the subject of ridicule and misrepresentation — sensationalized on television talk shows (Jerry Springer, I’m looking at you), compartmentalized as cozy or demonic in soap operas, and monstrously “othered” by the mainstream press.
Now, things are starting to shift towards a more accurate understanding of what it means to be Trans or gender variant. International activists like writer Kate Bornstein (101 ALTERNATIVES TO SUICIDE) has penned vital non-fiction books that have saved lives (including mine); Amazon Prime’s web series TRANSPARENT is a family saga whose main character just happens to be Trans; and I’ve referenced ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK’s Laverne Cox multiple times in this column as a powerful Trans woman of color. In the horror genre, we have short-film auteur and glorious troublemaker Lola Rockanrolla, and Bailey Jay, a spokesperson in sex-positive pornography, the horror genre and transgender rights.
Full disclosure: I don’t do censorship. I’m a firm believer the arts should never be boycotted, however offensive the material might be. I’m all for cultural change, and I’m aware of the lack of LGBTQ representation in studio-released movies or fully-human realizations of LGBTQ characters on screen. GLAAD reported in their annual survey that, in most of the studio films covered, there was little-to-no representation of transgender identity. Yes, filmmakers need to address that there is a lack of visibility and virtually no representation at all.. but writers and directors also need to give themselves free reign on the page and behind the camera, and allow themselves absolute creative freedom.
Like I wrote above: nothing is more insidious than censorship, so writing about culture politics and transgender identity in horror cinema could prove to be a veritable minefield. On one hand, I’m Devil’s Advocate if I wax lyrical on some of my favorite films; on the other, I understand there are elements of these movies which are guilty of reinforcing a negative stereotype — for example, equating a transgender identity with an impotent woman-hating sadist who cross-dresses and murders cisgender women in films like PSYCHO and DRESSED TO KILL. My fellow Blumhouse writer David Ian McKendry alluded to both PSYCHO and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in his article on real-life reclusive murderer Ed Gein, and how that case study influenced both the direction of the film and book.
Most of our readers know there exists no correlation between transgender identity and sexual psychopathy or serial murder… but that doesn’t mean these accusations leveled towards certain films don’t hold weight — of course they do. Nevertheless, bear in mind that horror is a genre that exaggerates the human condition. It makes monsters of us all…
[Attention: Spoilers Aplenty!]
GLEN OR GLENDA? (1953) Directed by Ed Wood
The “Worst Director of All Time” created this meta-biopic-meets–satire tackling public opinion on “transsexuality” (per the terminology of the time). Wood was a cross-dresser who didn’t live full-time as a woman, but had no qualms about leading a relatively open life as a transvestite during the hostile 1950s. GLEN OR GLENDA was a personal homage/love letter from Wood to Christine Jorgensen, the first person in the United States to have gender-reassignment surgery. By writing a screenplay based on her, Wood could insert himself into a larger narrative, with a platform that might get the voice of a certain cross-dressing B movie director heard… and indeed, it created a brief dialogue at the time.
PSYCHO (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock’s terrifying seminal masterpiece receives the most flak of all films listed here, but it has inarguably shaped our genre more than any other film (Blumhouse.com Senior Editor Rob Galuzzo is an expert on the PSYCHO franchise). For clarity’s sake: we, as in the audience, learn at the movie’s conclusion that Norman Bates does not have any kind of gender dysphoria-variant at all, but a personality-severance wherein his identity is hijacked by the more dominant personality of Mother. I’m not saying this lets Robert Bloch (who wrote the source novel) and Hitchcock completely off the hook. PSYCHO is also the first mainstream motion picture to use the image of a knife-wielding cross-dresser.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) Directed by Jim Sharman
ROCKY HORROR has always played to an existing audience — and by this I mean the LGBTQI, misfits, musical lovers and outsiders who were instantaneously drawn to the tale of wholesome couple Brad and Janet, corrupted by the aggressive and gender-fluid alien sex fiend & mad scientist Doctor Frank N. Further (Tim Curry). The depiction in Jim Sharman’s musical opus is more aligned with drag performance art, and not transgender identity.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) Directed by Sydney Lumet
Though not horror, the late, great Lumet’s punishing crime story does feature FRIGHT NIGHT’S Chris Sarandon delivering a sympathetic performance as pre-op transsexual Leon. Sonny (Al Pacino) plays the thuggish lover of Leon, who finds himself in a hostage situation in his attempt to raise cash for Leon’s gender-reassignment surgery.
LET ME DIE A WOMAN (1978) Directed by Doris Wishman
When tracing the lineage of transgender identity in cinema, it’s inevitable you will stumble onto sexploitation legend Doris Wishman’s infamous docu-soap LET ME DIE A WOMAN. Another title which has come under fire for sensationalizing trans-identity, it did provide an accurate (for its time) insight into the lives of transgender people and the medical process of transitioning, and remains one of the most famous documentaries on gender issues.
DRESSED TO KILL (1980) Directed by Brian De Palma
De Palma’s Hitchcockian murder-mystery was one of the first movies that actually identified the killer as a transsexual whose homicidal tendencies were triggered by female sexuality. Oh Dear! I still love it though. De Palma is indeed guilty of perpetuating the myth that the correlation I mentioned above is somehow valid.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) Directed by Robert Hiltzik
Preteen psychotic Angela (Felissa Rose) is a product of her environment: her gender-identity issues stem from an abusive guardian who forcefully raised her as a girl, when she was biological male. When threatened, she scalded a would-be-rapist, sliced up a bitchy roommate and locked a boy in a room full of bees… not exactly actions that might inspire sympathy. The implication here is that if you dress a boy as a girl, those homicidal impulses might come rushing to the surface.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) Directed by Jonathan Demme
In Demme’s Oscar-winning classic, it is established near the midway point in an exchange between FBI-agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) that the killer Starling is hunting, Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) is not transgender. Gumb, known to the press as “Buffalo Bill,” is a psychopath with a bizarre chrysalis-complex: he believes that by butchering women and removing their skin, he’ll transcend the constraints of a frustrated and violent identity and be reborn. Bryan Fuller revived HANNIBAL for a three-year run on television, and purposely cast Katherine Isabelle as a cis, implicitly bisexual Margot Verger. In Thomas Harris’s novel HANNIBAL, Margot was a body-building Trans man, and Fuller felt it would be more appropriate — in a show that traded in gruesome visuals — to cast somebody with a more conventional appearance, in order to avoid audiences attaching negative visual connotations to the character.
THE CRYING GAME (1992)/BREAKFAST ON PLUTO (2005)
Though both films are non-genre, they’re written and directed by genre filmmaker Neil Jordan, who helmed genre epics INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE and BYZANTIUM. In 1992, Jordan tackled the IRA and gender-fluidity in Irish/British production THE CRYING GAME which revolved around Stephen Rea’s redemption-seeking Fergus, who relocates to the UK to make amends by tracking down the former lover of Jody (Forest Whittaker), a man whose death Fergus is responsible for. His search leads him to the enigmatic and beautiful (and secretly transgender) lounge singer Dil (Jaye Davidson).
BREAKFAST ON PLUTO (based on the Patrick McCabe novel of the same name) is Jordan’s second attempt at tackling a transgender character amidst The Troubles. Played by Cillian Murphy (28 DAYS LATER), the cinematic incarnation of “Kitten” (Pussy Braden in the novel) underwent a considerably more market-friendly re-write; as a result, the multi-layered and sociopathic glamour-puss from the novel is gone, and we’re offered a dreamy and whimsical character in her place.
THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011) Directed by Pedro Almodovar
This weird captivity psychodrama about gender, sex and Stockholm syndrome comes from a director I’ve loved for years; my personal favorites from Almodovar are ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and BAD EDUCATION, and all his films are Trans-inclusive and beautifully made. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is a bizarre, revenge-fueled science-gone-awry gem that echoes the visuals of EYES WITHOUT A FACE and has a sterile color palette. It left me cold… which, I suppose, was the point.