The blame for my indoctrination into the human despair, psychological violence and sadistic glee of European Queer Cinema lies entirely with French writer, filmmaker and rape-survivor Virginie Despentes.
In my boyhood I went along to a screening in Dublin’s IFI (Irish Film Institute) of her vengeance-themed and violently pornographic BAISE-MOI. The tagline piqued my morbid curiosity, promising (and I’m paraphrasing) the most extreme thing I would see legally. (It didn’t exactly deliver on that promise.) This hyperkinetic tale focused on two women: one motivated by her rape and brutality, the other an inherently bad trigger-happy harpy who disembowels a pig-bottom during the movie with a Beretta, during a whore-house massacre. It had all the signifiers of feminist revolution in punk-rock/grindhouse cinema: sex, gunplay and homicide… and I was smitten!
European cinema is an exhaustive litany of taboo-breaking movies, and to cover every film would require a larger word-count and less psychological-scarring… so I’ll restrict myself to the inclusivity of queer characters and their place within the sphere of European horror filmmaking. Let’s take a brief look back at LGBTQI characters in some famous directors’ controversial flicks:
Jess (NECRONOMICON) Franco regularly included themes of queerdom and alt-sexuality in his work, uncanny and strange films that tackled social mores and moral fiber; while Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS was a polyamorous pastiche of blood-sucking harlotry with a comedic edge, a retro redefinition of monster classicism much-loved by genre fans.
Though not horror, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s German film FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (1975) explored carny culture, class, suicide and self-loathing; 1984’s cult-themed Naziploitation fable HORROR VACUI sent shock-waves through the film industry; and Liliana Cavani’s cult favorite THE NIGHT PORTER was universally panned upon its release because it explicitly touched on themes of post-Holocaust sadomasochism.
In the last few years there has been more of an emphasis on queer horror films with the release of GHOSTED, GRIMM LOVE and CANNIBAL. The only prerequisite when watching any of the following films is a strong stomach…
[WARNING: Spoilers and NSFW subject matter ahead]
STRANGER BY THE LAKE
A solid script, atmospheric cinematography and R-rated Hitchcockian voyeurism make this dreamy murder-mystery by openly gay French filmmaker, Alain Guiraudie, a must-see for fans of sleazy European cinema. The one-location film takes place at an idyllic “cottaging” (i.e. cruising) spot by a lake surrounded by a dense forest, where men congregate for anonymous sexual liaisons.
A too-curious twink-with-a-daddy-complex named Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is new to the area, and spends most of his time with his eye on Michel (Christophe Paou), an attractive older man with a sinister secret. When Franck witnesses a murder and suspects Michel, instead of reporting it to the police, he continues his lusty pursuit. STRANGER is an interesting study of the psychology of collective sexual subcultures… and it looks beautiful, with lots of full-frontal nudity, cum shots and sodomy. So a good time is guaranteed for viewers everywhere.
Is it possible to do something good, to verify a state of transcendence and ascertain that a spiritual dimension exists — if it is achieved by evil means? This is the central theme and the narrative crux of Pascal Laugier’s divisive 2008 French New Wave nightmare. It revolves around two young women who formed a bond during their time spent at an orphanage — opening with Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) mercilessly massacring an entire family (for reasons that become sadistically clear as the film progresses), and calling on Anna (Morjani Alaoui) for help. Lucie is plagued by visions of an apparition — a creeping and horrifically mutilated woman — which pushes her past her breaking point. The action quickly switches to the distraught Anna, who quickly learns that Lucie’s claims weren’t as far-fetched as she suspected… and the organization who abducted Lucie as a girl now set their sights on Anna. Harrowing.
SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM
It might be best to watch this through the woolly veneer of a tranquilizer. Shortly before SALO’S release, Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered, and the film was banned in a number of countries (in some cases, this ban still holds). Pasolini’s retooling of the Marquis de Sade story is a tough one to sit through, and works both as a meditation on cruelty and power and as a horror film that would even offend the likes of Ruggero Deodato (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST). There are copious amounts of sex, torture and degradation, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend it to the casual horror fan. The loose plot involves a group of despicable wannabe despots who abduct a group of young men and women and subject them to unimaginable cruelty — including eye-gouging, rape, murder and coprophagia (shit-eating). This film makes HUMAN CENTIPEDE creator Tom Six’s collective efforts look like SESAME STREET.
CEMETERY MAN (a.k.a. DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE)
Helmed by Michele Soavi (THE CHURCH), DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE is the tale of grave-watcher Francesco (essayed here by sex-god Rupert Everett) exiled to a WAITING FOR GODOT-like existence and residing in a shack at the center of an old overgrown and gloriously gothic graveyard. Francesco has been tasked to dispose of the cemetery’s recently buried, who have an annoying tendency to return to life. CEMETERY MAN is an offbeat and strangely poignant film that might have descended into B-grade zombie slapstick territory had it not been for Soavi’s gorgeous direction. The FX work is also hugely impressive — a portentous, swirling dust-and-bones Grim Reaper manifestation is particularly fantastic. I’d also like to applaud Rupert Everett: that lean physique, the gruffly handsome insolence, those penetrating eyes, all the qualities of an excellent performer… and don’t get me started on his sublime acting skills.
THE ORDEAL (a.k.a. CALVAIRE)
European cinema has always emphasized human-on-human horror, and for the most part stayed outside the realms of the supernatural, and Fabrice Du Welz’s CALVAIRE is a prime example. Cruelty is too small a word for what befalls the sniffy and condescending low-rent performer, Marc, in this horrific tale, which unfolds like a post-modern I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE with a gender-reversal of The Final Girl trope. Marc finds himself at the mercy of Mr Bartel — a deranged guest-house proprietor with a penchant for forcing pretty young men to be his bitch. What follows makes for traumatic viewing, and placing a man in a role that is traditionally filled by women is just as distressing. Group hysteria, insular cults, pigs-on-leashes… this flick has one Hell of a bloody payoff.
FUNNY GAMES (1997)
As is the aim of most of his work, Michael Haneke’s main purpose with FUNNY GAMES was to provoke audiences by presenting them with a dialogue of violence between those watching and the characters carrying out the horrors onscreen. My reading of FUNNY GAMES is of two queer outcasts (there is an undercurrent of homoeroticism) violently dismantling the upper-middle-class family unit via torture, humiliation and murder. These softly-spoken, dandy-mannered, white-gloved sociopaths defy the traditional brutal and hyper-masculine home invaders of horror cinema’s blood-spattered past. When the central characters aren’t meta-speaking directly to the viewer or tormenting the inhabitants of the house they’re pillaging, they are being catty towards each other in a way that is highly suggestive… and a bit more intimate than brotherly love. Haneke himself returned to this scenario decade later with an equally unsettling English-language remake.