Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and More: A Hammer Horror Primer
The Old Dark House (1932)
It should come as no surprise that a known gay director, James Whale, brought to life some of the most iconic Universal Monsters during their peak in the 1930s. Whale imbued his movies, often about the ultimate outsiders, with a gay sensibility: In Dark House, five people are brought together when they’re forced off the road by a storm and end up taking shelter in the same isolated home. Taboo topics like homosexual behavior, androgyny, and sexual deviance are all hinted at throughout the movie. Whale also cast the famously campy actor Ernest Thesiger to play one of the Femm siblings. This is an Ur–text for haunted-house cinema — and one of the gayest films of its decade.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Whale also directed a sequel to his hit Frankenstein, this time using the scheming Dr. Septimus Pretorius to entice Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) back into his laboratory after the events of the first film. Through Thesiger’s high-camp portrayal, Pretorius plays as one of the most identifiably gay characters in an era where explicitly acknowledging that fact was banned. And ultimately, the monster himself ends up the selfless hero, which became something of a trope in early horror: As Benshoff writes in Monsters in the Closet, “Many eschewed the ‘normal’ couple all together and instead focused solely on their queer protagonists, suggesting, as will the horror films of later decades, that it is the monster queer whom the audience really comes to see and identify with, and not the heterosexual heroes and heroines.”
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Several decades before the lesbian-vampire boom of the 1970s, there was Dracula’s Daughter, centered on a character desperate to shed the disease of vampirism and live freely as a normal woman (meaning: under the thumb of a controlling man). The Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) seduces her victims — of both genders — to drain them of their blood. She battles “horrible impulses” that she tries and fails to repress, and even starts seeing a psychiatrist to analyze the “vampire” out of her (a treatment that was thought to cure homosexuality, as well). Although she was yet another queer villain, she was more sympathetic to 1930s audiences due to her desire to be purged of what made her an Other.
Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier and adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca tells the story of a common-born girl who marries above her station and is forced to live in the larger-than-life shadow of her new man’s dead wife, Rebecca. Enter Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper, whose hatred for the new Mrs. De Winter is only surpassed by her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious Rebecca — and who obsessively picks through the dead woman’s intimates drawer and fondly recalls evenings when she would help the lady of the house undress after parties. Almost 80 years later, Mrs. Danvers remains one of the great coded queer icons of all time.
Cat People (1942)
Legendary producer Val Lewton brought forth Cat People, the story of a Serbian immigrant named Irena who must abstain from intimacy, lest she awaken the curse of her descendants, which doomed the women of her tribe to transform into murderous panthers should their desire be awakened. Irena meets and hastily marries an American man, but she fears giving into him physically; her reluctance is broadly read among critics to be coded, repressed lesbian desire. In addition to being an outsider in America with different customs and traditions, Irena is further alienated by her inability to consummate her heteronormative marriage.