Horror hasn’t always been too kind to us queers. If we peer back into the anals… annals... sorry… the annals of horror, we find a veritable minefield of stereotypes, demonizing representations or, worse, total invisibility. Staying up past my bedtime, watching a costumed misfit present to me thrilling hours of terror and nightmares was certainly fun, but finding anything akin to queer ol’ me in the movies I watched was damn near impossible. When I did manage to find something, it was usually a homophobic joke, or a side character whose sexuality was treated like a perversion.
The history of horror is chock-a-block with pillow biters and vagetarians, which makes the lack of quality representation in earlier horror particularly disappointing. From the gay-before-it-was-cool James Whale, arguably the grandfather of horror cinema, to queer wordsmith Clive Barker, who brought us such terror as Hellraiser and Candyman, to sexually fluid Sarah Paulson, acting up a storm for five seasons of American Horror Story, the LGBT community has been integral to the horror legacy.
Thankfully, queer representation in horror is increasing. The aforementioned American Horror Story has featured a character for every letter of the LGBTQQIA…LMNOP population. The Walking Dead, the most watched show on a cable network and its comic-book source material, has featured their fair share of queer characters with engaging storylines. Long gone are the days of Anne Rice’s vaguely-coded and homoerotic vampires. Now we have countless literary options overflowing with full on homo-undead.
While LGBT characters in horror are increasingly visible, I want go back and explore the history of queerness in the nooks and crannies of the macabre. From the blatant to the coded, problematic to progressive, from summer camp to retro-camp, the horror genre is as bursting with queerness as John Hurt’s chest aboard the Nostromo. (Don’t get the reference? Don’t worry… I’ll try to get there)
For part one of my eighty-seven part series (give or take 87 parts), I wanted to focus on one of my favorite 80s horror cheese-fests: Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps. Dekker, also known for The Monster Squad and RoboCop 3, pulled double duty as both writer and director of this 1986 gem. The story revolves around college student Chris Romero, played by Jason Lively (Rusty Griswold from National Lampoon’s European Vacation), discovering that his campus is danger of being overtaken by zombies. What caused the zombies you ask? Nothing special, just your run-of-the-mill alien brain parasites that enter your body through your open mouth and then use your insides as an incubator to replicate and wreak more havoc.
This is a kitchen-sink horror movie. And by kitchen-sink I mean: aliens, spaceships, vaguely penis-like parasitic slugs, hard-boiled detectives, zombie cats, college hormones, zombie dogs, a badass chick with a FUCKING FLAMETHROWER, mullets, mustaches and Bubba from Mama’s Family. It sounds like a mess, but under Fred Dekker’s deft hand it blends seamlessly into one bitchin’ ode to body-horror (a genre that queerness already fits into nicely). From the very first moments of this bloody masterpiece, when that beautifully majestic Tri-Star Pegasus graces your screen until the end credits, you are in for a real treat.
(Minor Spoilers Ahead)
Standing above all of the awesomeness in this film (I repeat: A FUCKING FLAMETHROWER!) is James Carpenter “JC” Hooper. While he’s introduced as Chris’s plucky best friend, JC quickly becomes the heart and hysterical soul of this madcap romp.
Also, JC is totally queer! (At least he is when I watch the film.)
JC Hooper, brilliantly portrayed by the utterly adorkable Steve Marshall, is a wise-cracking, fun-loving misfit who deftly navigates beyond the social hierarchy of campus politics and fraternity life. He’s also a great representation of a disabled character — something rarely seen in 80s films and horror in general. While we don’t know what JC’s exact disability is, it does require him to walk using forearm braces. It’s to Dekker’s credit that JC’s disability is never used to portray him as weak or incapable. Instead, the viewer is treated to a person whose physical limitations are portrayed realistically and serve to make him a richer and more complex character.
It’s JC’s relationship to the lead character Chris Romero, a wet-mop misfit in his own right, that adds a queer element to the movie. JC is Chris’s best friend, his wingman, and his personal cheerleader. It becomes clear very early on that JC has a genuine attraction and deep affection for Chris. It’s an unrequited crush that isn’t played for laughs. JC isn’t some creeper, awash with horrible stereotypes who lusts after a straight guy in a predatory way. It’s awkward and realistic... and a little bit (actually a whole lot of bits) heartbreaking.
One scene in particular manages to capture that painful and poignant moment that far too many queers have experienced with straight crushes who happen to be dear friends. We find out that Chris has fallen for a lovely young student named Cynthia, a bright and beautifully perfect woman who, initially, smacks of male wish fulfillment, but, thankfully emerges as a badass female character (See Above: FUCKING FLAMETHROWER!) Chris feels he’s out of Cynthia’s league, and comes up with the not-so-brilliant idea of joining a fraternity to increase his chances of landing on Cynthia’s radar. JC, being the dear friend that he is, agrees to help Chris with his plan.
After a disastrous attempt at an initiation prank (which incidentally releases the creepy parasites that plague the rest of the film), Chris and JC run back to their dorms and Chris begins to sulk. When JC cracks wise and Chris chides him for not taking things seriously, JC launches into a blistering monologue that simultaneously puts Chris in his place while encouraging him to stay hopeful. It also reveals JC’s true feelings. While I won’t spoil the entire brilliant moment, there is one piece of dialogue that resonates loudly:
“...and I push and I push and I don’t give up, and why? Why? You don’t even know. You don’t even care, because it’s important to me that you’re happy. Is that so crazy?”
JC, a bigger outcast than Chris by almost any measure, cares more about Chris finding love than finding love himself. Pretty heavy stuff for an 80s gore-fest, no?
But it isn’t just this heart-felt moment that reveals JC’s queerness. His humor runs the gamut from wise-ass quips to flat-out queeny shade. In one guffaw-worthy moment, JC spits out a “That bitch!” with such delicious snark, you’d think he was having brunch with Dorothy Parker. There are several longing glances at Chris that show the affection JC has for him. He calls other guys “Tiger” and comments on their attractiveness. He and Chris even engage in some coy sexual banter that is delivered all in good fun, without an ounce of homophobia. Most importantly, on two separate occasions in this movie, JC tells Chris that he loves him. While it isn’t explicitly queer, it’s certainly easy to interpret those moments that way. Not to mention, JC Hooper is, without a doubt, the most stylish and snappily dressed character in the whole movie!
Writer-director Fred Dekker has mentioned that it wasn’t his intention for the character of JC to be queer, but that he welcomes that interpretation. The actors, through interviews and DVD / Blu-Ray commentary, echo similar sentiments.
Still, I think back to when I first saw this movie. There I was, a young man wrestling with my own sexuality, glued to a late-night horror show, watching a character that I understood and empathized with. In a time when most gay men on television had HIV (depicted as a kind of punishment), lesbians in film were murderous misandrists, and trans women were ghastly freakshows, I found someone queer like me, fighting the aliens and being a hero. Night of The Creeps is a great example of queer done right in the horror genre. Something that was sadly a far too rare occurrence in our queer geek history. Great representation from that period is out there, it's just a shame that we have to search so hard to find it.
Night of the Creeps is available to stream on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube Movies, and Google Play.
Quality: 5/5 (This is The Bicycle Thief of 80s Horror)
Queerness: 5/6 Kinseys