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Text by Paul Sammut
As a teenager I saw the documentary version of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (1995) while secretly watching late night Channel4 for any gay programs, characters or content. Russo researched The Celluloid Closet while working in the film department of MoMA, and developed a revisionist history of film exposing the story of gay men and lesbians in the movies. For me, as for many before and after me, this exposed new meanings in a myriad of films and gave me people to identify with onscreen. Queer characters were often stereotyped and because of the Hays Code, a set of moral censorship guidelines, from
the 30s onwards there was a ban on ‘any inference of sex perversion’, so queer characters were always shown negatively and, as symbols of deviant desire, were traditionally ostracized or ultimately killed off. Even in 1993 Tom Hanks still died at the end of the sympathetically intended Philadelphia. Seen as a menace, with their sexuality kept just below the surface, gay men and lesbians became monsters, portrayed as murderers and psychopaths. Horror then, is the perfect genre for this subtext because it’s all about
fear, repression and denial. The queer history of horror dates as far back as films like Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936).
Despite the negativity involved in this discovery Russo allowed me another dimension
of enjoyment to the thrill of a horror film by reading a little extra into the stories
I was seeing. Today queer readings of horror films are well established; we are told that if there’s a male protagonist it is almost always a queer film. This is because the ‘horror’ in the film will generally be a masculine one, so the central dynamic in the film will
be male/male. The focus is then on a usually young, attractive male with another guy chasing him around trying to penetrate him, albeit with a machete or a bullet or homemade claws. If one man wants to penetrate another in a scary way, this is homo-horror.Imagine my joy when I discovered Frank Henenlotter’s low-budget comedy-horror Brain Damage (1988), in which we have soon-to-be soap star Rick Herbst as the handsome, young male protagonist, Brian. There’s no crazed maniac chasing Brian around trying to penetrate him, he’s becoming addicted to the hallucinogenic fluid of a talking disembodied blue penis. Essentially this is the same thing.
Brian’s disembodied penis has a name; he is the ancient entity Aylmer. Aylmer has
a face, soft eyes and a fey voice (provided by horror icon Zacherley), he’s charming,
he’s funny and he can sing too! Understandably Brian is hooked, and so their co-dependent relationship begins. Being with his new penis-friend fills Brian with ecstasy, but the reality (of Aylmer using Brian to find people and eat their brains) frightens him, so he rejects the penis, which upsets the penis, and so Aylmer bullies Brian into taking him back.
Throughout the film there are instances that continue to open up queer connotations; initially we see the euphoria of Aylmer’s effect turn Brian into a cartoonish sissy stereotype, jumping around laughing and squealing. Another time while tripping on Aylmer’s juice Brian goes out to a club, as he moves across the room checking out everyone in his path (male or female) he is approached by a busty blonde credited only as ‘Blonde in Hell’. Attempting to reassert his heterosexuality Brian slips out to a back alley with her for sex. In the monstrous and graphic blowjob scene that follows Aylmer attacks, out of jealousy and hunger, and eats the poor girls brains.
After trying to give Aylmer up cold turkey Brian concedes to his taunts and manipulation, taking him back for another hit and then, of course, heads straight for the communal showers. He’s greeted casually, and concernedly in the showers by a moustachioed beefcake in the form of Joseph Gonzalez. Henenlotter describes the scene as having
a ‘creepy homosexual element’ but the creepiness of the scene is seeing a diseased looking Brian wasting away in his fight against his true feelings. Brian stands pasty
and emaciated in a tiny towel staring uncomfortably at Gonzalez, not knowing quite
how to exact his desires. Eventually (and the scene does linger) he takes out his
penis (Aylmer) to unleash it on the naked hunk.
The camera’s careful focus on the men in the film also lends itself to a homo-horror conclusion. Brian’s brother Mike spends half of his screen time parading his gym trim body around in his underwear and when Brian takes a shot of Aylmer’s juice the camera stays focussed on his orgasmic expression for a length of time only really seen in gay male pornography. In fact the attention paid to Brian is astounding as he is exposed
to us in various ways throughout the film; taking off his bloody underwear in an alleyway, splashing about in the bath with Aylmer and laying out sweat drenched on the floor
in the cold turkey scene.Brian and Aylmer’s relationship could be read as having the anti-drugs message that Henenlotter says he intended but it also presents us with relationships outside of a simple male/female binary, like Aylmer’s initial arrangement
in a three-way relationship with an older couple. Henenlotter’s films tend towards
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warning against the dangers of sexual activity as opposed to specifically homosexuality. In his most recent offering, Bad Biology (2008), we see two hyper-sexed characters (one male, one female) finding each other to satisfy their overactive genitals. The fact that this satisfaction ultimately destroys them reassures us that if anything bad happens on Brian’s journey into homosexual love, he’s not being judged for his preference, just his libido itself. While I don’t want to spoil the end of the film it’s safe to say that all transgressions are taken account for here and Brian and Aylmer’s queer love affair is not punished disproportionately against a heterosexual alternative. In Henenlotter’s eyes all are equal and therefore equally damned.