Sexual anxiety is a common theme in horror. There have been many, many great horror films over the ages to tackle humanity’s ongoing relationship with our own libidinous urges, and every nation has had a chance to weigh in on whatever sexual hysteria exists in their own culture. [Check out this earlier feature for a few great examples.]
Made in 1996 in Germany, and released in the U.S. in 1998 by the puckish pranksters over at Troma, KILLER CONDOM (a.k.a. KONDOM DES GRAUENS) seemed immediately readable as a spoof. Not only is it possessed of a satirical title, but it was handled by an infamously jokey studio that often rides the line between horror and comedy (this is the studio that distributed CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL, RABID GRANNIES, TEENAGE CATGIRLS IN HEAT, and THE CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH). Hence, upon its release, it was dismissed by many critics as a jejune prank flick, no better than its goofy title and prurient promises of severed male extremities.
Martin Walz’s KILLER CONDOM, however — and for however goofy that title may be — is actually something of an important commentary on sexual freedom, hysteria about disease, and sexuality itself. It may be one of the better queer horror films in the world (not that there are many), and it certainly transcends its silly exploitation roots a great deal. Although the prurient content is still in there.
KILLER CONDOM, based on a comic book by Ralf König, is set in the seedy pre-Giuliani New York of sex-soaked filth and depravity. The protagonist is a gay police detective named [sigh] Luigi Mackaroni (the very good Udo Samel) who is called to the scene of a seedy hook-up motel where several men have had an intimate part of their bodies bitten off.
Part of his investigation leads Mackaroni to hire the services of a call boy named Billy (Marc Richter) to perhaps lure the killer into the open. He finds that, when he reaches for a prophylactic, the condom itself is alive, and has been biting off male members to sustain itself. The killer condom makes off with one of Mackaroni’s testicles, causing the detective to get revenge on the creature.
I know, I know. It sounds awfully silly. And it is. The notion is a silly one. And the condom itself looks pretty silly. Constructed by the immortal Jörg Buttgereit [NEKROMANTIK] the condom looks like a children’s drawing of a piranha fused with a windsock. KILLER CONDOM is clearly one of those ideas that was conceived of as a catchy title first, and the story came second. But, given the tone of the film, it’s clear the director had more on his mind than just monster mayhem and dick jokes. Like TEETH, this is a wacky premise that is used in service of a very real notion of cultural sexual neurosis.
The sexual landscape of 1996 was, if recalled correctly from my own youth, a time of caution optimism. Throughout the late 1980s, the appearance of AIDS turned the free-wheeling sexual atmosphere of the 1970s into one of fear and suspicion, and there was a lot of free-floating neurosis about sex and sexuality. As the ’90s began, however, and condoms started to become less embarrassing (they were even being handed out in high school), sex became part of the culture again. There was even a time when the U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders encouraged kids to masturbate more. True, Bill Clinton fired her for the comment, but she was living in an atmosphere when it was o.k. to suggest it.
What’s more, gay characters started to appear in popular media in unprecedented levels. Queer films exploded along with the ’90s indie movie scene, and gay protagonists were a regular sight in local art houses. It wouldn’t be long before gay supporting characters started showing up in popular TV shows (ROSEANNE, MY SO-CALLED LIFE, etc.).
Part of the conversation, of course, was the notion of safe sex. One would see ads for practicing safe sex on bus stops (“No glove, no love” and several other fun phrases were introduced into the vernacular). Condoms were now no longer something to be feared or be embarrassed of, and teenagers the world over began traveling with them. Having a condom on your person reflected a powerful sense of sexual optimism. Not just that you might get some action, but that — should it happen — you’d be in a place where it was safe and responsible.
Leave it, then, to a film like KILLER CONDOM to apply a chilling horror premise to that very up-to-date notion. You have a condom. You can have the hookup and be safe. But the condom itself is now the object of danger. Indeed, when looked at in a certain light, a condom can represent a barrier between your body and disease. A dam to death. There may still be fear and desiccation lingering over every opened condom wrapper. These are some very real fears that still lingered in the sexual consciousness in 1996, and KILLER CONDOM was wise enough to tap into them.
What’s more, KILLER CONDOM’s view of gay men is robust, healthy, and non-exploitative in the least. Despite his unnecessarily comic name, Mackaroni is a well-rounded gay protagonist that lives up to exactly no stereotypes. He’s not a tortured young man just coming to terms with coming out. He’s not a slutty studlette. And he’s certainly not an effeminate aesthete with a penchant for showtunes. He’s a thick, balding, middle-aged man whose sexuality is something he’s long since gotten over being “tortured” about. Mackaroni is a cop. He is a man. He loves other men. Period. You got a problem with that? He’s not trying to confront or hide anything. He simply is. That he is openly gay — simply by incident — makes him a notable queer character in the canon of ’90s cinema.
Mackaroni even gives a rambling speech partway through the movie that skews theological, declaring that God is not judging anyone, and is not seeking to punish men for wearing dresses. In a weird bout of Christian philosophy, Mackaroni declares that God is love, and lovers are His agents. We’re merely humans that are responsible for our own actions. Hefty stuff for a film about a rubber monster that bites off male organs.
True, KILLER CONDOM goes on to explain the origin of the killer condom, and it certainly delights in all of the genital-mutilating mayhem that it initially promises from its silly title; it is, after all, a Troma-distributed exploitation film. But, in many ways, its views of sexuality are warmer and more intelligent than many films to come before and even of some of its contemporaries. It may be, perhaps, one of the more notable horror films of the 1990s.