Universal Horror: Queer Identities in the Classic Monsters

The Universal horror classics 'Bride of Frankenstein' & 'Dracula's Daughter' give an early glance into the development of queer identities in horror film.

This October marked the 80th Halloween season that Bride of Frankenstein has been a part of our collective spooky consciousness, and the 79th for companion picture Dracula’s Daughter. While it’s staggering to think how close these classic films are getting to their centennial, I don’t think it’s time yet to call for general critical re-evaluation, mostly because I don’t think the general public at all undervalues them. Thanks in large part to the iconic status of the performances of actors Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, and Elsa Lanchester in Bride combined with Jack Pierce’s flat-headed, bolt-necked, stripe-haired monster makeups, classic horror from Universal studios has endured in popular culture far longer than even the most respected films from the same period. In my opinion, it’s not the consumers of culture at large, but rather a very specific subset — consumers of queer-interest culture — that owe these films a closer second look. I’m honestly never quite sure how much recognition these films particularly get from fans of queer-interest cinema — even in persons in whom the queer-interest and monster fandoms intersect. But I think they deserve it because both films, to varying degrees, mark the most notable (if not the very first) attempts at recognizably sympathetic queer undertones in silver screen horror fiction.

During the first half of the 1930s, Universal Studios, under the creative direction of studio founder Carl Laemmle and his son, head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr., put out a series of successful horror productions, including Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Mummy (1932), and The Black Cat (1934). It wasn’t until the middle of the decade, however, that production moved forward on sequels to the two films that had not only ignited Universal’s near-monopoly on monster pictures, but had also been the studio’s biggest box office draws. Initially announced together under the titles Dracula’s Daughter and The Return of Frankenstein, the production of these two films marks a tumultuous time in the history of Universal — a period where the Laemmles’ spook shows reached their artistic peak even as the family lost control of their studio.  

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Much of the success of the early Universal horror films can be attributed to the talented, consistent group of creatives behind the scenes. Carl Laemmle, Jr. was actively involved throughout development and production, offering vital input on atmosphere and theme; writers John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort had hands in many of the scripts; but no one had so profound an impact on any picture’s creative success than English director James Whale. Coming to Hollywood in the late 1920s, Whale brought with him an extensive background in theater. While he’d had some early successes, nothing compared to his heavily Gothic, German expressionism-inspired adaptation of Frankenstein in 1931. When it came to the subject of the horror sequels, Laemmle, Jr. wanted Whale to direct both. Whale, however, was much more interested in musical comedy at the time, eager to direct an adaptation of Broadway’s Show Boat, and after much wrangling could only be persuaded to do one, the film that was eventually released as Bride of Frankenstein. It is, however, probably the greatest horror film of all time, and marks a sharp switch in style from the straight horror of the first Universal Frankenstein film to a more audacious, offbeat, and seamless melding of horror and comedy that would not again be seen for decades.

The plot of Bride of Frankenstein goes a little something like this: despite the windmill fire that closed out the end of the first film and seemingly destroyed him, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff) is alive and well, though severely injured, and escapes to the wilderness to find a safe haven (and perhaps a friend) while still pursued by mobs of frightened villagers. Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is visited by an old colleague, the menacing Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who gives the spiritually wrecked doctor a choice: Frankenstein can either watch his wife Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) die, or he can join Pretorius in another experiment, this time to create a woman (Elsa Lanchester).

Stills-bride-of-frankenstein-19762048-1604-2000James Whale was an openly gay man in Hollywood at a time when such a thing simply was not done, resulting in much speculation in film circles over the years about how much his sexuality influenced his art. Some, such as Whale’s long-time partner David Lewis, have stated that it was not a factor. Other have guessed that if it was, it was unintentional (the most likely of the two, in my opinion). Whatever Whale intended or not, what matters is a recognizable queerness to Bride of Frankenstein, both in the film’s comically exaggerated, theatrical tone — an aesthetic known as “camp” that has an indelible bond to LGBTQIA+ subcultures — as well as its subtext and explorations of “otherness.”

Of course, horror and queerness had long been associated before James Whale. Horror, as much as it may make a show of pushing the boundaries of society, could really be seen as a genre for squares given the way it generally reinforces those boundaries by using the supernatural and the obscene the same way a preacher might use stories about hellfire and damnation: to clearly draw for the audience a line between right and wrong. The oppression that befell fair maidens in the Gothics — characters like Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, the princess Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, Antonia and Agnes in The Monk, and even Jane Eyre — always involved a threat to their virtue, an imbalance of the equilibrium that could only be restored through a nearly inevitable ending of marriage, husband, and family. Ghost stories reaffirm mainstream beliefs about the survival of a soul after death while supernatural fiction reaffirms the struggle between personified good and evil. I don’t point this out to accuse horror fiction of being moralizing — far from it. From a creative standpoint, if your end goal is to cause fear in a wide audience, you have to threaten the values and lifestyles of the broadest segment of the population. And let’s face it: the broadest segment of the population is not only not people of LGBTQIA+ identities, but is also historically responsible for maintaining LGBTQIA+ persons as an outright threat to social stability. If horror is about upholding societal norms through the introduction (and perhaps eventual defeat) of an “other,” the metaphor of the monster as queer basically writes itself.

And perhaps that is why horror is so popular within queer communities. To many of us, horror outright bucks a hegemony that we’ve never felt a part of. We’ve felt like the outcasts, we’ve felt unaccepted, and in many cases the monster understands and expresses that pain. Of course, this might cause some readers who don’t “get” the genre to question what kind of person could find common ground with characters as monstrous (re: physically and psychologically violent) as those in horror. But such a question assumes a direct one-to-one correlation between the horror audience and the people on the screen, and that’s simply not the case. Horror fans generally come to the genre in adolescence, and I know that for myself and probably for the vast majority of people, when you are young, and lack the wisdom that comes with age, you tend to experience emotion in a very heightened, exaggerated way, especially feelings of loneliness, isolation, or anxiety. For people who love horror — even the young ones — it’s not about being violent or even wanting to be violent, it’s about finding an external outlet for experiencing those emotions in a similarly heightened, if entirely metaphorical, way.

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I believe James Whale’s work in Bride of Frankenstein works that way. Outside of the decidedly queer subject matter that lies at the heart of the film — that being reproduction without sexual (or even asexual) activity — much has been made of the way Karloff’s monster views relationships. For him, there is no hierarchy with a wife/romantic partner at the top and the non-sexual companionship of other persons underneath. He uses one word to summarize his every relationship, whether it be the companionship of the blind hermit, or Dr. Pretorius, or even the bride herself: “friend.” On one hand, this can be viewed as non-sexual in a very innocent, child-like way. On the other, it can be viewed as evening the playing field between genders, creating a monster that is either a romantic bisexual, or even an aromantic asexual. But certainly not straight.

To me, there’s also a noticeable theme about the interaction between culture and subculture running through the film. Subculture typically subverts or rejects the values of the dominant culture — usually based upon their own rejection — and attempts to create spaces safe from intrusion. Karloff’s monster is pursued by angry mobs despite his attempts to retreat from society. He saves a young shepherd girl from drowning out of the kindness of his heart, but is greeted with screams of terror when she beholds his appearance. He finally befriends an unnamed blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) who cannot reject him based on the way he looks. In the scenes exploring this relationship, the monster becomes a lighter character, a funny character. He entreats his friend to play the violin, and enjoys a good cigar. The two men develop a deep bond through their desire to end their loneliness, and establish a highly functional domestic partnership. But this all comes to an end when two men from the local village stumble upon the hermit’s hut, recognize the monster, and try to burn him alive inside it, despite the hermit’s desperate pleas to leave his friend alone.

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This drives the monster further to the edges of society, and into the clutches of Dr. Pretorius. Pretorius (played to vicious, campy extremes by Thesiger) already feels quite at home in this new “Frankenstein underground,” gleefully tempting Dr. Frankenstein away from his lovely young bride in order to break the laws of nature in pursuit of a “new world of gods and monsters.” What does Pretorius offer the monster? Further security and companionship in his new society currently in progress.

The creation of this counterculture nearly works, too, until the very end where the Bride — unprepared, it seems, to let go of the shackles of her oppressors, though she was only about ten minutes old, so can you blame her confusion? — rejects Karloff’s creature in favor of the far more traditionally handsome Dr. Frankenstein. But because of this, the counterculture itself crumbles, and Karloff’s creature takes it all out — the laboratory of ungodly experiments, the Bride, himself, and the fey Dr. Pretorius — in an explosion, inexplicably choosing to spare Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps in some cynical, self-defeatist commentary about how a counterculture can only ever be a perverse parody subservient to the dominant one (though some reports claim that the original cut of Bride had Henry Frankenstein dying along with everyone else in the lab explosion and that it was only in reshoots he was allowed to live, so maybe this wasn’t always the case).

Dracula's Daughter

In the hands of Whale’s humor and visual wit, Bride of Frankenstein is the apex of Universal’s horror cycle. We can speculate about the quality of Dracula’s Daughter had he been the one to ultimately helm it, but this seems like a wasted effort. A script written by R. C Sherriff under Whale’s supervision was purposefully made so outrageous the censors would have no choice but to reject it. This anecdote paints a clear picture: Whale never had any intention of directing Dracula’s Daughter. During the same period, the Laemmles lost control of Universal Studios and horror was falling out of favor with censors and audiences. The Dracula’s Daughter that ended up on screen from director Lambert Hillyer is incredibly toned down from the initial versions proposed in a still-extant treatment by John L. Balderston and Sherriff’s script. Balderston’s version is notable for three things: its earnest attempt at doing a more faithful adaptation of Stoker’s original novel, recreating exact scenes only with the Countess Zaleska in place of Dracula, and the male lead in place of Mina Harker; its heavy inclusion of BDSM imagery (Zaleska tortures her victims — all male — with whips and chains); and the interesting gender reversal of having a male be the tortured victim, caught beneath the unbreakable thrall of the vampire. Sherriff’s version of course has Whale’s campy excess (a scene where a wizard turns a banquet hall of 14th century noblemen into various animals, for instance) and apparently makes a subtle implication that the two male leads are actually lovers. Compared to all of this, the final film is something of a snore — its romantic leads are dull and forgettable, the retrograde misogyny is groan-worthy, and it completely wastes the return of Edward Van Sloan to the iconic role of Professor Von Helsing (for some inexplicable reason, this film turns the classic “Van” to a “Von”). However, it does have one advantage: the complicated, sympathetic portrayal of Countess Zaleska, perhaps the world’s first tortured, reluctant vampire.

Gloria Holden cuts a striking, dark, enigmatic figure as Countess Zaleska, who arrives in England immediately after the end of the first film to burn her father’s body, an act which she believes will purify herself of the curse of vampirism. “The spell is broken!” she declares to her manservant Sandor. “I can live a normal life now, think normal things, even play normal music again!”  

draculas_daughter_94Sandor, who looks like a grumpy, middle-aged Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is quick to rain on her ex-vampire pride parade, telling her that ending the curse isn’t as easy as all that. This is apparently all it takes to get the Countess to hit the London streets again in search of new victims. She does not stop looking for redemption, however, and seeks out the help of Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), believing her cure to lie in the realm of psychiatry.

Critical discussion likes to dwell on the sexual aspects of vampire fiction, the idea that being attacked by a vampire — both the level of intimacy required, despite the violence, and the act of being penetrated by teeth — evokes associations with other kinds of physical congress. Discussion tends to intensify when the vampire and their victim are both the same gender. In the classic novella Carmilla, it’s especially easy to read homosexuality into the situation because the language describing the relationship between the two women so resembles the intensity of lovers. In Dracula’s Daughter, though, such romantic intensity is reserved for the male objects of Countess Zaleska’s affections. In Balderston’s and Sherriff’s proposed versions, Zaleska’s victims were only ever to be men. In the finished film, there is only one woman who falls victim to Zaleska, but it occurs in the most racy and explicit scene in the film, in which Zaleska invites the poor girl in under the belief that she’s going to pose for a painting. The girl removes her shirt and bares her neck and shoulders, which proves too much for the (blood)lusty Countess to resist.

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While Dracula’s Daughter is undoubtedly important in the history of developing the lesbian vampire archetype on The_Rocky_Horror_Show_Broadwayscreen, its greatest point of interest (at least to me) lies not in any overt lesbian imagery, but how Zaleska’s vampirism can be seen as a metaphor for individuals who steadfastly refuse to come to terms with their innate identity. Consider the way Zaleska talks about her new-found, non-existent freedom after she burns Dracula’s body: she treats the whole thing like she’s just graduated from conversion therapy. Rather than simply being the monster her father was, she’s the one character in the film who gets a complete arc, morphing from optimistic-if-self-hating, to being beaten down by so many dashed hopes that she has no choice but to accept her loathsome existence. Sure, it’s definitely not a positive portrayal. Remember, horror is not about embracing what’s outside the norm — not even in the superior Bride of Frankenstein. But both Dracula’s Daughter and Bride provide sympathetic portrayals — an important role to play in the development of horror on the silver screen. And clearly Dracula’s Daughter has had some tangible lasting effect of queer culture — the original poster for The Rocky Horror Show was apparently heavily inspired by the poster announcing production on Dracula’s Daughter

The Halloween season may be over, but if you live someplace like where I live, the weather’s still getting crisper and the days are still growing darker. It’s time to remind ourselves what gives people the chills, and check out the stories of lonely monster and a beautiful, tortured Countess, and think, well, maybe we’re not so alone after all.

Categories
Film
Luke Dorian Blackwood

Luke Dorian Blackwood lives and writes in and around Ithaca, NY. In his youth, he was obsessed with silent cinema, Leo Tolstoy, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. These days he by far prefers superhero comics and movies with ‘splosions, leading some to speculate that he’s a psychological Benjamin Button. Which is fine. He’s much happier now.

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