I’m a bad gay. Not the sort of bad gay that the podcast of the same name discusses, at least I hope not… I’m a different type of bad gay. The type Billy Eichner decried for not going to see Bros. The person who doesn’t watch those Netflix gay Christmas movies that are all positive and fluffy. I’m a bad gay because for all the queer art being made now, for all the films and the television shows and the webseries, I never feel as loved as I feel watching some micro-budget Italian horror film from 1975.
I’m not really ashamed of this. It’s personal taste, it doesn’t have to be such a point of contention. Despite that, I can’t help but feel a little guilty for my own consumption. I could be watching queer art, but instead I watch a film made by some dead Italian pervert. Wonderful choice, Alison. You have such a large and impressive brain, and your taste in cinema is entirely correct and good.
I do in fact try to prioritise queer films when it comes to new releases. I’m not so far gone down this hole that I’ll refuse to watch anything not featuring three minutes of uncensored tit shots. Frequently, I love them and find them very emotionally affecting. But if I am given the choice on what to watch on any given Friday to myself, invariably my choice of Blu Ray is something gross from the 70s, probably an Arrow or a Shameless release. The other night, my girlfriend was on a date and rather than going on a date myself, or going out drinking with friends, I chose to watch Lucio Fulci’s 1972 film Don’t Torture a Duckling. There’s a scene, just over halfway through, where a group of men beat the village witch to death with chains. She was under suspicion of child murder but was found by the detectives to be innocent. It doesn’t matter to the locals, though. She’s an outsider, a rromani woman who lives on the outskirts. So they kill her. It made me cry.
My girlfriend was out on a date, and I was at home watching a film by a misogynist who died in 1996. If you’re going to make a jab about open relationships, I’ve set up the goal perfectly for you. Go ahead so I can move on and talk about something else.
In that scene, as the witch is beaten, I saw myself. I felt so much more kinship with her than I ever had with a trans character, even one played by a trans actor. If we seek representation in art, are we seeking literal representation — people who look, talk and feel like us — or are we seeking something more difficult to define? I can’t speak for anyone else, and I know I’d adore it if there were more transgender roles on screen, but when I actually feel represented it is often by the female leads of particular horror films. Laura Palmer and Laura Dern in Inland Empire, women in trouble. Susie Bannon (either iteration), girls in a homosocial environment who find that their bodies have become in-demand by forces they cannot comprehend. Laurie Strode, particularly and controversially in Rob Zombie’s Halloween films. Adelaide in Us, a person bifurcated between what she should be and what she really is.
It’s hard to explain why I find these performances of complicated, scared cis women so deeply relatable. I’m sure TERFs would have an answer and their answer would likely align with my own intrusive and internalised self-hate: You only like them because you like to see women in distress, or other, similarly facile thoughts. I don’t like to see women in distress. I am a woman in distress, at least a good portion of the time. I’m not easily scared by film, but I am very easily scared by the everyday. I went through phases where I was scared of myself and the fractured possibilities of my own personality. The experience of that is very much like the experience of a woman in a psychological horror film. That’s a very simplistic way of describing it. A more complex way would be that in the fracturing of the cis female identity, there appears the reflection of the trans feminine self.
Symptoms, directed by the Spanish director José Ramón Larraz, came out in 1974. In a lot of ways its much like countless other films I’ve seen and imprinted myself upon, but it is the particularities of it which have made it stick with me. It was a departure for its director: his previous films, such as Whirlpool and Vampyres, were more typical 70s exploitation films. Both feature a fair amount of nudity and sexualised violence. Vampyres is a lesbian vampire film in the Carmilla mode, but it’s striking for the quality of its design and its uncharacteristic explicitness. Anton Bitel describes Larraz as “a purveyor of Eurosleaze.wp_postsIn his estimation, “the presence of (one of) his name(s) on a film’s poster was practically a guarantee of nudity or sadism or both.”
Both Vampyres and Whirlpool were made in the UK, as was Symptoms. However, Symptoms is a departure in many ways — where it crosses over in thematic content with Larraz’s other work, or even with other Eurosleaze classics, it departs in terms of presentation, explicitness and, for want of a potentially better word, classiness. Classy, despite the fact its alternative title was Blood Virgin (does that fit the film at all? No… But does it sound cool as hell? Yeah!) It features lesbianism, but unlike other films from the time period the lesbian content seems explicitly designed to undercut the desires of a horny cinema audience. There’s no sex, not really. There’s kissing and female masturbation; the idea of sex between the two leads is implied through their interactions but never shown. The film is set on a lush, green country estate. There is a village near, but not near enough that the estate doesn’t feel almost entirely remote. An environment such as that allows for Helen, the estate’s resident, to explore sexuality away from the prying eyes of society. But with that freedom comes isolation — if you’ve spent any amount of time away from human contact, you know that isolation such as that can have very detrimental effects on the sense of self.
Helen, newly single, invites her gal pal Anne over for the weekend. The two do normal gal pal things; they have dinner, light a fire, listen to the storm, and talk about what happens after death.
The film continues in this manner: Anne begins to suspect that Helen is very ill, but her attempts to help Helen are rejected completely. Anne leaves for a short time, and Helen completely freaks out. When she returns, she kisses her. This is about as explicit as things get between the two in the film, which is part of what makes it unusual; as I previously said, I adore exploitation cinema, so please don’t think I am usually in any way scandalised by the explicit nature of these things or even the male gaze, (whatever that is). But I can’t deny that I am fascinated by the restraint shown here, in a place where restraint is generally not a term in the creative playbook. When presented with the opportunity to have two women get it on, exploitation auteurs of the 70s were generally all too happy to push things as far as they could, a fact connoisseurs of the work of filmmakers such as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin will be only too happy to attest to. And yet here, Larraz steps back: his camera prefers the peculiar dappled visual of light through foliage reflected on the surface of water to the nude form. It’s a motif the camera shows us again and again: Helen’s face swimming with light and shadow across it as she gazes off into the middle distance of her own private Eden. Helen, played by Angela Pleasance (daughter of my beloved Donald Pleasance!), gives an astonishing performance that rivals and, I would argue, outdoes Catherine Deneuve in the overrated Repulsion. Her face is so frequently hard to read and yet so subtle; for a while, I made an image of her my Twitter profile picture because I felt so deeply akin with her (now its Lili Taylor in The Addiction, I guess you could say I’ve a type). I suppose you could argue that when I look at her, I am experiencing something like the Kuleshov effect and am just projecting all my own internal turmoil onto her. I probably am! That’s the joy of watching films like this.
A few years ago, I experienced a paranoid delusion that I was being poisoned with gas. I lived in a shared house at the time, but all of my housemates were away. Carbon monoxide poisoning seemed to me the only logical explanation for why I felt the way I did: light-headed, nauseous, paranoid, and unable to sleep. If somebody else had been around, perhaps I might have been able to ground myself more. Or perhaps I would end up where Helen is in Symptoms, trying and failing completely to get someone to understand a problem I barely understood myself. It turned out I did not have carbon monoxide poisoning, obviously. After sending 50 or so emails to my letting agents, they eventually sent someone to check, and he found nothing wrong at all. In the hour after that, I sat inside, looking at the backs of my hands. What was wrong with me? Why did I feel exactly as I had done before? If it wasn’t an outside influence, that meant it was something within me… It’s an unsettling thing to realise.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to feel more comfortable with the fact that sometimes my brain panics and struggles to recognise reality from an invented narrative. Part of the thing that has helped me is watching and feeling myself in films like Symptoms, which draw a direct parallel between femininity, lesbianism and mental distress — an admittedly very problematic matrix, but I can’t help but find myself there as a lesbian who goes, in a genteel British vernacular, a bit sideways every now and then. More mainstream attempts at representation often end up making me feel othered. Cis lesbian characters in current films have a tendency to be uncomplicated, trans characters in current films a very particular kind of trans person. But consider Symptoms, or a giallo: in this, the lesbian character is sweating and in pain, othered from the other women around her. Sometimes that’s what being a trans lesbian feels like! It’s not particularly glamorous, neat, nice, good, but it is what it is; it is delightfully me to sit staring into the middle distance as reflected light glimmers over my cheeks, it is delightfully meee to hear unsettling things moving around in the attic and masturbate to the sounds they make, it is sooooo meeeee to kill every man who comes into the house (not really).
There’s limits to this, of course. The film is, for all its artistry and restraint, a horror film about a jealous lesbian who kills the girls she is in love with when she realises they don’t love her back — it turns out that Helen killed her old love and two-thirds through the film she kills Anne as well. I am not entirely sold on the idea that this film is, like Repulsion, about repression. Helen knows what she is. What drives her is less a repressed urge and more a fear of loneliness or maybe more accurately aloneness. I’ve been lonely before, I’ve been alone before. I’ve never killed anyone, shockingly. I have had partners whose misplaced jealousy has bubbled over into screaming, who have made me feel unsafe, but I can accept that the film’s narrative plays into societal lesbophobia and ideas about predatory, violent lesbians that have pervaded culture for some time, from newspapers to school changing rooms. Perhaps me finding representation there is genuinely bad! I’m sure if it is, someone will hop into my message requests to tell me. Especially being a trans woman, appreciation of films like this can feel even thornier. When I watched The Living Dead Girl and teared up at the tender, sad love depicted, I could envisage an interior TERF pushing her face through my ceiling like Freddy Krueger, decrying me loving a film featuring so many naked breasts.
But I suppose that’s what exploitation cinema is, and that’s the fun of loving it. You feel a little dirty now and again, even when you see yourself. As a trans woman, that’s a feeling I’m already familiar with. I greet it as an old friend. I’d rather know it when watching a film than when looking in the mirror like I used to. I can wave the flag, I suck, I love bad representation, whatever that means. So what. Like you’re so perfect? Half the cast of The L Word are jealous dykes. Let me live!
Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.