Titillation And Trepidation: Revisiting Hammer’s Queer Outings

From Frankenstein to Hyde, viewing the classic horror house’s output through a queer lens.

By Samantha McLaren · @themeatispeople · June 21, 2021, 1:12 PM PDT
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David Peel in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

“You’ll love this one,” I promised my friend Kayt a few years ago as we headed into the theater to watch 1960’s The Brides of Dracula. “It’s super queer.”

Kayt does not consider herself a horror fan, being of a particularly jumpy disposition. But she adores the old Universal Monster flicks and the Roger Corman Poe Cycle, so I had an inkling she would appreciate my beloved Hammer. Considering that she’s a fellow queer woman, Brides felt like the perfect entry point. It had been for me back when I first saw it in high school as an awkward Scottish teenager who had yet to figure out she was a lesbian.

A local critic stepped up to introduce the film. To this day, I wonder if he’d overheard our conversation as we were coming in.

“Some people say this is a ‘gay movie,’” he began. “They’re wrong.”

My face fell. I turned to Kayt, concerned she’d feel misled, only to find her cackling quietly, thoroughly amused. A little older than me and far wiser, she had long since had the realization that I would stumble upon that night: when queer people see themselves in a movie, regardless of what the filmmakers (or anyone else for that matter) think, then it is a queer movie. End of story.

Some of you will no doubt disagree with me on this. But in a medium that villainized us for decades and a genre that hasn’t always been kind to us, we queers have learned to find comfort and representation in unlikely places. You might not see it, because you aren’t looking through the same lens that we are – a lens that’s often informed by years of questioning, self-hatred, secrecy and abuse (themes that aren’t exactly absent in Gothic horror, which was Hammer’s bread and butter). Overtly queer characters and themes are certainly nice, but they’re not the only squares on the queer horror bingo card.

The Brides of Dracula is a good example of this. Actor David Peel, who portrayed the film’s antagonist, the vampire Baron Meinster, was widely believed to be gay (or a “confirmed bachelor,” as the saying went at the time). This, the critic argued, is the only reason that people read queer subtext into the film.

Peel’s blond, boyishly handsome Baron is certainly a different flavor of bloodsucker than the tall, dark, and intimidating vision of Count Dracula that Christopher Lee had introduced audiences to in Horror of Dracula just two years prior to Brides’ release. But the actor’s personal life is far from the only rainbow brush stroke on the sequel’s canvas. Putting aside the fact that lavender – the color of the Baron’s distinctive cloak – has been linked with queerness since the 19th century, the film ends with Meinster getting the best of Peter Cushing’s dashing Doctor Van Helsing only to try and turn him, not kill him. As the vampire hunter lies unconscious, Meinster folds himself seductively over the man’s prone form, his blond head moving to the doctor’s throat. All the while, his vampire brides look on in anticipation, a stark reminder of the film’s title. In this intimate act of penetration, the Baron is effectively adding Van Helsing to his harem.

But that’s not the real reason The Brides of Dracula strikes me as especially queer. It’s the Baron’s initial predicament that’s likely to hit close to home for many queer people. His mother is ashamed of him, and would rather let the villagers think he’s dead than have his true nature be known. “It hurt me too much not to be able to present my only child to my friends,” she laments, going on to ask bitterly, “Are madmen happy?” At the time of the film’s release, male homosexuality was not only illegal in the UK, but was considered a mental disorder. The baron’s room has become his jail cell, and the gold chain that keeps him there might as well be attached to the closet.

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All that is to say that Brides is an even queerer movie than I remembered. And rediscovering its sublime queerness made me curious to revisit the hallowed halls of Hammer and see which other films would take on new meaning now that I’ve more or less escaped my own closet, starting with the most overtly queer film the studio ever made: 1970’s The Vampire Lovers.

A loose adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla – one of the earliest vampire texts and also the first instance of the literary lesbian bloodsucker – The Vampire Lovers is clearly made with a male audience in mind, complete with a scene of the bare-breasted Carmilla (Ingrid Pitt), still damp from the bath, convincing the virginal Emma (Madeline Smith) to undress before chasing her around the room and falling on top of her on the bed. Yet there’s something about Carmilla’s powerful, controlled wielding of her sexuality that continues to draw me to the movie. “Don’t you wish some handsome young man would come into your life?” Emma asks with wide-eyed sincerity. Carmilla gives that little laugh that we all give when someone doesn’t pick up on the strong lesbian vibes we’re putting out and replies, “No – neither do you, I hope.”

Hammer followed The Vampire Lovers with two sequels, the first being 1971’s equally titillating Lust for a Vampire, in which the beautiful lesbian vampires at a finishing school for young ladies just want to kiss each other and frolic with their breasts out but keep getting interrupted by the machinations of several creepy men (some of whom are technically the heroes, I suppose). The same year, the studio released the wonderful Twins of Evil, which features only the faintest whiff of lesbianism – a little girl-on-girl breast biting – but makes up for it with the deliciously flamboyant Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), who seems even more fabulous in contrast to Peter Cushing’s severe and puritanical witch hunter Gustav Weil.

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In fact, 1971 would prove an especially queer year for Hammer. Released in the UK just weeks after Twins hit theaters (Hammer was nothing if not efficient), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde took Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella and added a unique twist. Rather than trying to separate the good and evil parts of his personality, Ralph Bates’ Dr. Henry Jekyll sets out to create an elixir of life using female hormones. Instead, the serum transforms him into a beautiful woman that he pretends is his sister, Mrs. Hyde (Martine Beswick), to avoid suspicion from the neighbors when he transitions.

By the time Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde went into production, transgender healthcare was gradually gaining public attention, if not acceptance. Christine Jorgensen, an American woman and transgender trailblazer, had made headlines after receiving treatment in Denmark, and some doctors were already advocating for hormone therapy and surgery over attempts to “cure” transgender individuals of their dysphoria with psychotherapy. This makes Jekyll’s use of female hormones for his transformation – and I am using he/him pronouns for Jekyll only because he forcefully asserts that he is male in the film’s opening – an interesting milestone in queer horror cinema, and the movie certainly has moments that verge on being progressive, like Hyde’s declaration that “It is I who exist, Dr. Jekyll. Not you.”

Unfortunately, the acts that Jekyll commits to create his serum are like the lurid imaginings of an anti-trans manifesto put to film. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Jekyll is ransacking women’s corpses for the parts he wants, he soon begins killing to replenish his supply, literally becoming Jack the Ripper in the process. He even begins intentionally transforming into Hyde before heading out to commit murders as a way to throw cops off the scent, a decision that also serves to lull victims into a false sense of security. So while Hyde’s breast-fondling and lingerie-buying habits are fun, the film is an uncomfortable watch today in light of recent anti-trans rhetoric and the very real violence against the trans community that it incites.

Suffice to say that Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde wasn’t quite the delightful romp that I remembered it being. But rewatching it got me thinking about another time that Hammer played around with gender: 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman. The fourth entry in the studio’s Frankenstein series, the film centers around Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein having the genius idea of transferring the soul of the wrongfully executed Hans (Robert Morris) into the body of his girlfriend, Christina (Susan Denberg), who committed suicide after watching him meet with the sharp end of a guillotine. What could possibly go wrong?

Frankenstein Created Woman seems like prime fodder for a good queer time. After all, you’ve got a man’s soul trapped inside a woman’s body – surely some form of gender crisis is afoot! But the script seems uninterested in exploring the fascinating premise it has set up, even distancing itself from its inherent queerness by having Christina/Hans digging up Hans’ body and talking to his severed head on their quest for revenge. Hans’ voice and spirit are always presented as something exterior to Christina, so while the film flirts with queerness, it never commits.

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But that’s not to say that Hammer’s Frankenstein films aren’t queer. Far from it, because the series features a string of homoerotic relationships between the Baron and his male assistants, going right back to the very first entry, 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein.

The film opens with Frankenstein in a jail cell, awaiting his own date with the guillotine. As the minutes tick away, he recounts the story of how he made his monster (Christopher Lee), starting with him meeting his tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), when Frankenstein was just 15. “In two years, I’d learned all he had to teach,” Frankenstein recalls. “But we went on together, probing into the unknown, investigating, recording, searching. Always searching.”

Cut to the now forty-something Frankenstein working at Paul’s side, seeming much more interested in spending time with his mentor-turned-partner than with his fiancé (though that could have something to do with the fact that she’s also his cousin). This is not the Frankenstein of Shelley’s book, a man who seems almost totally uninterested in sex; Cushing’s Frankenstein regularly ravishes the maid. Yet it’s Paul he shares small glances with; Paul whose appearances make his face light up. Cushing was a highly physical actor, regularly using his hands to enhance his characterization. If you rewatch Curse, you’ll notice he can’t keep his hands off his scene partner.

“We can’t continue with this experiment,” Paul notes at one point. “‘Not here anyway. She might find out.” He’s talking about hiding the monster from Frankenstein’s fiancé, but a queer audience might well question what other experiments the pair have gotten up to while “probing into the unknown” behind locked doors. It’s easy to see why much of the movie’s imagery made its way into one of the queerest cult films ever made, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, just a few years later, because Curse plays out like a tumultuous queer love affair.

This all culminates in Paul visiting Frankenstein in prison only to call him a liar and condemn him to the guillotine – and if that’s not some catty ex-lover behavior, then I don’t know what is. Of course, there are five more films in the franchise (not counting the sort-of remake The Horror of Frankenstein), so we know that Frankenstein survived and went on to fill the Paul-shaped hole in his life with a series of handsome young men who seem to have little to gain and everything to lose through their association with him. “Why do you stay with me, Hans? You get nothing but misery,” Frankenstein asks one such twink (Sandor Elès) in 1964’s The Evil of Frankenstein (ironically, the film in which Frankenstein is at his least evil and most benevolent). “To tell you the truth,” Hans responds, “I often wonder that myself.”

I’ll admit that by this stage in my rewatches, the pandemic was upon us and I was starting to wonder if I was only seeing queerness because I was lonely and losing my mind. That’s when I heard from my dear friend Kayt again. She’d been reminiscing about the night we saw The Brides of Dracula and wanted to know if I’d show her more Hammer Horror, recognizing how strangely comforting these films can be, especially as a queer viewer. Yet as we pulled up 1974’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell using the co-viewing feature a streaming platform had just added, I found myself apologizing preemptively that this one might not be as queer as Brides. Just in case I was wrong.

“Sam, this is almost too gay to function,” Kayt wrote in the chat halfway through the film.

And it was.