Before I begin, a confession: I like finding hidden subtext in movies. I keep an eye out for it and am thrilled when it’s there. But even I wasn’t prepared for the coded messages in Werewolf of London (1935) to up and smack me in the face. Want to see classic Production Code-era semiotic displacement at work? This fun little werewolf movie has a prime example.
To set the scene: Workaholic botanist Wilfred Glendon recently went on a sample-gathering expedition in Tibet. While plucking a mystical, moon-powered flower, he was attacked by a werewolf, who scratched up his arm. Now in England again, he obsesses over the flower in his laboratory, but his wife drags him upstairs to attend a cozily aristocratic soirée. There, he meets the eccentric Dr. Yogami (played by yellowface veteran Warner Oland) and their instant rapport spurs Glendon to ask, “Have I met you before, sir?” Yogami coyly replies,
In Tibet, once, but only for a moment… in the dark.
Was this a werewolf attack or a hook-up? This isn’t the film’s only queer hint, either. Consider the following: Glendon’s “werewolfery” drives him away from his wife, who finds solace in the arms of another man; in desperation, he gets a very private apartment in a scummy part of town, where a drunken hag observes that “he seems to have a secret sorrow.” Remind me again, is this Werewolf of London or Far from Heaven?
Even in 1935, the monster-as-sexual-metaphor was nothing new. Hell, you could easily interpret the opening act of Dracula ’31 in this exact same fashion; just look at how Bela lusts after Renfield and his tasty blood. Werewolf of London’s great surprise lies in how obvious the metaphor is. This isn’t just the first Hollywood werewolf movie—it’s also the first gay Hollywood werewolf movie.
Probably the most homoerotic sequence in any Hawks film is the musical number “Is There Anyone Here for Love?” [sic] that Jane Russell performs in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Russell is surrounded by muscular men in briefs who seem to be oblivious to her charms (“Doesn’t anyone here want to play?”) but are very interested in showing off their bodies to the choreography of Jack Cole. —Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is a cultural magpie, incorporating everything from sci-fi B-movies to Renaissance art into its DNA. It should be no surprise, then, that it steals liberally from the seminal ’50s musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Through some campy alchemy, Rocky Horror transmutes Jane Russell’s showgirl Dorothy Shaw into its sweet transvestite and mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter, as played by the inimitable Tim Curry.
The most obvious resemblance between Russell’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” and Curry’s “I Can Make You a Man” is their shared obsession with muscular, scantily clad men. Both numbers casually objectify these men with their giddily horny lyrics, and Dorothy and Frank-N-Furter both have near-identical cocksure, lusty attitudes. You could easily see her line “I like a beautiful hunk o’ man!” coming out of his mouth with the exact same enunciation.
Granted, the numbers diverge aesthetically: “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” has a rigid pink/black color scheme and is mostly in medium shot to show off Jane Russell’s dancing, while “I Can Make You a Man” is much more stylistically haphazard, freely mixing colors and angles. But there’s one utterly damning similarity that sealed the connection for me, and that’s the strut. Both Russell and Curry strut and swagger in exactly the same manic, show-offy, ultra-confident way. They invite the viewer and other characters straight to their genitalia.
So all in all, it’s not surprising that “the most homoerotic sequence in any Hawks film” would influence one of the most homoerotic horror films of all time. (Give or take Bruce LaBruce or Clive Barker.) Tim Curry appropriated Russell’s musical/sexual aggression, then exaggerated it with his own tics and lascivious gestures, like those fuck-me eyebrows. Whether we’re talking about Russell’s slinky outfit or Curry’s glittery lingerie, though, there’s no question: they’re both seriously hot.
Judging from the films of Pedro Almodóvar, 1980s Spain was a festering hotbed of sexual obsession, high-pitched melodrama, and Catholic guilt. But oh, is it ever stylish! This week, The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series delves into two of Almodóvar’s seediest, most suspenseful thrillers, Matador and Law of Desire. Since I’ve already written about the sensual Matador vis-à-vis Duel in the Sun, I went with Law of Desire (1987), which was new to me. My oh my, did I make a good choice.
Matador’s detective Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo, a lovelorn, coke-snorting film director, while star-in-the-making Antonio Banderas plays the attractive young man who lusts after and fixates on him. Pablo tries to get Antonio off his back, but no amount of cold water can douse his pathological passions. I mean, honestly: just consider how intensely Antonio ogles him on the morning after their supposed one-night stand.
The Marx Brothers’ masterpiece Duck Soup has many moments of utter, off-the-wall, WTF-inspiring surrealism, but this one tops them all. How could any other visual gag, no matter how inspired, ever compete with the sublime madness of a real-live dog poking its head out of Harpo’s chest? Yes, the scene where Harpo hides fully dressed in a bathtub underneath an unsuspecting, naked Edgar Kennedy is pretty weird, and so is Harpo callously hacking up Kennedy’s clothes with a pair of scissors. (Noticing a trend here?)
But come on: it’s a dog emerging from a tattoo in the middle of Harpo’s chest and barking in Groucho’s face. That’s an absolutely baffling non sequitur on the order of the “Large Marge” scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the kind that leaves you reeling for a couple minutes afterward. The kind that lets you know that the rules are no longer in effect—that you are not watching a “normal” movie. In both these examples, it’s because inventive camera techniques have been used to subvert “reality,” letting us know that we’re entering a realm where literally anything is possible. If they can dream it, they can film it.
This scene has another very strange, unexpected dimension: it’s slightly homoerotic (and therefore incestuous). After all, we get a few solid minutes of Harpo showing off his body to an inquisitive Groucho, starting with his tattooed arms and his hip (see above), which bears a phone number. Harpo eagerly bares his chest while maintaining that maniacal grin, then Groucho puts his mouth right next to the tattoo and meows. “Weird” doesn’t really begin to cover it. The barking dog is really just the icing on the cake—and while most movies would showcase the dog’s appearance as audaciously avant-garde, in Duck Soup it’s just one more punchline, delivered with little fanfare.
In fact, we get one more bizarre, quasi-sexual joke as Groucho declares, “I’ll betcha haven’t got a picture of my grandfather,” and Harpo leaps to take off his pants and expose his ass before Groucho stops him. This scene’s ambiguous sexual tension is very understated, but unmistakable: Harpo is communicating through a surreal, bit-by-bit striptease while his brother marvels at his strange body, getting closer and closer. So both the formal and sexual aspects of this scene are further proof that in the world of Duck Soup, all bets are off. Nothing is off the table. If you didn’t learn that during the film’s first half-hour, you have now!
Here’s a fun fact: I sometimes watch movies, but don’t write about them online. Right now, however, I’d like to correct that discrepancy. As October inches closer and closer to its official end (although really, October is just a state of mind), here are a few horror movies I saw during the past month that have yet to be discussed on Pussy Goes Grrr.
- The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006): I’m a sucker for giant monster movies, having suckled at the teat of Godzilla, so I was naturally inclined to like this skewed take on the subgenre. It gets a little saccharine and manipulative every once in a while, but that’s more than made up for by the film’s warmth, humor, and political satire.
- Psychomania (Don Sharp, 1971): I previously knew it only as George Sanders’ last movie. Turns out it’s also totally ridiculous, almost impossible to follow, and batshit insane. Sanders plays a butler; for convoluted reasons, his employer’s son commits suicide and comes back the same… only invulnerable. WTF! It’s amusing, but also really bad.
- Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005): This is less of a horror movie and more a standard psychological thriller. Assassin Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) plays mind games with a hotel manager (Rachel McAdams), his seatmate on a Dallas-Miami flight. Much of the screenplay is laughable – especially as the film approaches its finale – but Murphy and McAdams are professionals, and their back-and-forth achieves Hitchcockian levels of suspense.
- Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985): Chris Sarandon is a sleazy vampire who moves to the suburbs with his lover?/henchman; William Ragsdale is the teenage neighbor who pledges to defeat him; Roddy McDowall is the over-the-hill TV vampire hunter who helps him. It’s such a good-natured, fun-loving movie that I couldn’t help but love it. Kind of like John Hughes meets Goosebumps, but so much better than both.
- Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009): Raimi finally returned to Evil Dead territory with fantastic results. Alison Lohman is a banker suffering from a gypsy curse who does a lot of bad, bad things in her effort to get rid of it. Unsurprisingly, it’s comically gory and self-consciously pokes fun at EC Comics-style morality tales; a very worthwhile return to form from an old master.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985): Like entries 2 and 3 on this list, its storyline makes virtually no sense. Still, the underlying teen angst (and repressed but white-hot homoeroticism) make this sequel stand out, as does the Cronenbergian scenes of extreme body horror.
- Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987): Holy shit, Clive Barker! What the fuck is your problem?! But seriously, this is a very different, very kinky kind of horror movie, maybe like a mix of Little Shop of Horrors, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Salò. Yeah, let’s go with that. It has a slasher plot about an undead sociopath manipulating his brother’s wife, but it’s all wrapped up in a bizarre, ultra-violent mythology about a race of hellbound beings who clean the doors of perception for their human clients. The film also has Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who’s a very convincing final girl.
So there’s a taste of the other stuff I watched this month. Exciting! And with that, I say happy October and happy Halloween.