The 2010s were a fantastic decade for horror– particularly queer horror. Mark Patton’s tell-all documentary, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, is now streaming online after a successful national tour, and Shudder recently announced they’re producing an entire queer horror documentary. In reality, horror has always been pretty gay. From early pioneers like F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and James Whale (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) to contemporary influencers such as Don Mancini (Child’s Play), Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys), Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Candyman) and Kevin Williamson (Scream), queer filmmakers have been a major driving force in the genre since its inception. However, it has only been within the past few decades that mainstream filmmakers have been allowed to move beyond subtext and incorporate overtly queer major characters and themes into their films. There is still a lot more work to do in terms of promoting diversity both in front of and behind cameras (aka more than just white, cis male filmmakers).
Below, I’ve compiled a list of 13 horror/thriller films from 2010-present that feature significant queer characters and/or themes. This list is far from comprehensive, and there are many worthwhile films from the decade not featured here. That separate list includes mainstream gems with varying degrees of queerness like Black Swan, Suspiria, Raw and The Neon Demon. It also includes coming-of-age supernatural drama-thrillers like Closet Monster, Boys in the Trees, The Blue Hour, Jamie Marks is Dead, Blue My Mind, The Wild Boys and The Lure— plus several other worthwhile, indie queer-horror efforts such as All About Evil, Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, I Was a Teenage Werebear, Pitchfork, Deviance, Bit, Midnight Kiss and You’re Killing Me (the last of which I included on my queer dark-comedy list). Oh, and a special shout-out to formative queer horror TV shows from the decade like Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and Scream Queens, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and others.
1. THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011)
“A brilliant plastic surgeon creates a synthetic skin that withstands any kind of damage. His guinea pig: a mysterious and volatile test subject who holds the key to his obsession.”
Pedro Almodóvar’s twisty, flashback-driven psychological thriller, The Skin I Live In, is difficult to discuss without giving away major plot points. The film touches on a number of complex themes ranging from sexuality and gender identity to grief and profound loneliness. Various moments of levity and camp are also sprinkled in throughout the elaborate, soap opera-esque story. While the film isn’t subtle in any way, nuanced performances from Elena Anaya, Antonio Banderas and Marisa Paredes bring a welcome sense of humanity to a somewhat preposterous plot (one character is introduced in a tiger costume, if that helps paint a picture).
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2. STRANGER BY THE LAKE (2013)
“Summertime. A cruising spot for men, tucked away on the shores of a lake. Franck falls in love with Michel, an attractive, potent and lethally dangerous man. Franck knows this, but wants to live out his passion anyway.”
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is a hypnotic, sun-soaked psychosexual thriller that moves along at a slow but deliberate pace. The film contains quite a bit of full-frontal male nudity and man-on-man sex, but strangely none of that feels exploitative here. In fact, sex is portrayed in a fairly mundane fashion throughout– treated more as a casual pastime for the perpetually restless than anything else. Ultimately, it’s a film about loneliness and our subsequent propensity toward self-destruction as queer people. These themes become apparent throughout as the protagonist Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) debates whether or not to end things with his clearly dangerous new suitor, Michel (Christophe Paou).
3. ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE (2013)
“After a heated confrontation with the high school football team, a group of cheerleader friends are sent on a supernatural roller coaster ride that leaves a path of destruction none of them may be able to escape.”
Divisive upon its initial release, Lucky McKee’s All Cheerleaders Die is considerably more intelligent than it appears on a surface read. In fact, it’s a pretty subversive and satirical take-down of horror tropes and expectations (while being campy and fun as hell). The story is chalk-full of complex female relationships– both platonic and romantic in nature. At no point does a male character ever assist in any meaningful way– beyond being finger food. Additionally, the film’s central antagonist– a misogynistic sexual predator turned football captain– is essentially the embodiment of toxic masculinity. Watching the titular cheerleaders fight back against him and his mindless cronies is a particularly cathartic experience.
4. TOM AT THE FARM (2013)
“A young man travels to an isolated farm for his lover’s funeral where he’s quickly drawn into a twisted, sexually charged game by his lover’s aggressive brother.”
One of the more surprising films on this list (to me), Tom at the Farm is a gripping, tense little psychological thriller-drama that manages to do a lot with relatively little. Xavier Dolan both stars in and directs the film, adapting a play of the same name by Marc Bouchard (who co-wrote the film). The two creators have quite a bit to say here about topics ranging from internalized homophobia and toxic masculinity to dysfunctional families and collective grief. As viewers, it can be difficult watching Dolan’s character constantly put himself in harm’s way, but anyone who has ever lost a loved one will likely sympathize with his need to feel something in the wake of personal loss. On a lighter note, the film has a killer soundtrack.
5. LYLE (2014)
“Leah’s grief over a personal tragedy turns into paranoia when she begins to suspect her neighbors are part of a satanic cult.”
Lyle is one of only two films on this list directed by a woman, and that fact alone should demonstrate how much work and progress is still necessary moving forward (NOTE: Raw, listed above, has a female director as well). Frequently labeled the ‘lesbian Rosmary’s Baby‘, Stewart Thorndike’s film is a tense and well-crafted, DIY psychological thriller perfect for Halloween season. It’s also a quick watch at around 60 minutes. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, and while there aren’t many serious surprises throughout, Lyle is heavy on suspense and character development. Special props to Gaby Hoffmann (Transparent), whose manic lead performance makes the film a must-see queer horror gem.
6. GOOD MANNERS (2017)
“Clara, a lonely nurse from the outskirts of São Paulo, is hired by mysterious and wealthy Ana as the nanny for her unborn child. The two women develop a strong bond, but a fateful night changes their plans.”
Arguably, Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Good Manners should be viewed without knowing anything about the plot in advance. That said, how many of us are going to watch a nearly 2.5 hour, Brazilian indie film without knowing anything about it first? Perhaps that is why this excellent, genre-bending gem hasn’t generated a ton of buzz in the horror world over the past few years (thanks to Horror Queers Joe & Trace for turning me on to it!). I’ll just say this: Good Manners is a beautiful, queer dark fairy tale revolving around two women, and it’s absolutely worth your time. For more plot clues, just Google the poster (don’t say I didn’t warn you). This is one of my favorite horror/genre films from the decade, queer or otherwise.
7. B&B (2017)
“A gay couple return to a bed and breakfast to bait its Christian owner who had previously refused them a room, but the arrival of a mysterious guest begins a battle for survival involving all three men.”
B&B aims for Hitchcockian thriller-level heights, and though the film never really reaches that goal, it’s still an enjoyable ride overall. What sets it apart from many other films on this list is a streak of macabre humor throughout– creating a unique blend of psychological thriller and comedy-of-errors. None of the characters in the film seem willing to listen to one another, and ultimately that leads to some truly dark twists and turns in the plot. The filmmakers also deserve credit for attempting to tackle a divisive issue like religion vs sexuality– even if the overall messaging there becomes a bit muddled by the end. While the film isn’t a ‘love’ for me, I liked a hell of a lot about it and will likely revisit it at some point to reassess.
8. THELMA (2017)
“A college student starts to experience extreme seizures while studying at a university. She soon learns that the violent episodes are a symptom of inexplicable, and often dangerous, supernatural abilities.”
Thelma has been described by some critics as a fusion of Carrie and Let the Right One In. It’s a visually stunning, slow burn thriller/drama centered around a sheltered young woman who simultaneously manifests supernatural abilities and physical abnormalities soon after developing feelings for another girl at college. From that point on, the character’s troubled past is slowly revealed through flashbacks while present events build to a startling but generally satisfying conclusion. Eili Harboe’s fantastically nuanced performance as Thelma provides a solid anchor throughout, and Joachim Trier’s surreal directing/storytelling style is captivating to watch (though it would have been nice to see a few women behind the camera here).
9. RIFT (2017)
“Months after they broke up, Gunnar receives a strange phone call from his ex-boyfriend, Einar. Gunnar drives up to Einmar’s secluded cabin and soon discovers there’s more going on than he imagined.”
Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Rift is a moody and ethereal psychological thriller, mystery and relationship drama that moves along at a slow but deliberate pace. Beautifully directed and superbly acted, the film’s greatest strength is the chemistry between its two male leads Björn Stefánsson and Sigurður Þór Óskarsson. As viewers, we want to believe these characters will rekindle their previous relationship, but a pervasive sense of doom and dread creeps just below the surface. While the final act won’t please everyone, Rift deserves credit for placing far more emphasis on character development and relationships than the vast majority of horror films. It’s a bold, heart-wrenching addition to the growing queer horror canon.
10. WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE (2018)
“Majestic mountains, a still lake and venomous betrayals engulf a married couple attempting to celebrate their one-year anniversary.”
Writer/director Colin Minihan never makes a big deal of the lesbian relationship at the heart of What Keeps You Alive. In fact, either of the two lead female characters in this Canadian survival-thriller could have easily been written as male. Instead, the film takes more of a matter-of-fact approach to queer representation. That’s a positive thing overall: Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen both give fantastic performances in their respective roles, and the relationship between their characters provides an essential wrinkle of interest to the film’s twisty but hardly groundbreaking plot (once again, it would have been nice to see some queer women behind the camera here, especially given the subject matter).
11. KNIFE + HEART (2019)
“In the summer of 1979, gay porn producer Anne sets out to film her most ambitious film yet, but her actors are picked off, one by one, by a mysterious killer.”
Knife + Heart isn’t a traditional slasher film– preferring to live in both the worlds of arthouse drama and moody noir (with some giallo-esque trappings). At its core, this slowburn thriller revolves around a found-family consisting of individuals from across the queer spectrum (gay, lesbian, bi, trans, etc.). The film’s late 1970s setting also allows for an intriguing look at queer culture during the age of ‘free love’ just prior the international AIDs epidemic. Vanessa Paradis is particularly captivating as the character Anne, a morally complex, gay porn director who attempts to keep her male actors safe from a masked killer– while also trying to come to terms with a recent, heart crushing breakup between herself and a female co-worker.
12. THE PERFECTION (2019)
“When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte seeks out Elizabeth, the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences.”
From the minds behind the twisty, Sarah Michelle Gellar-vehicle Ringer comes this even sexier and flat-out bonkers Netflix-distributed film. The Perfection features many surprising turns throughout its tight, 90-minute run time, but it’s the on-screen chemistry between leads Allison Williams and Logan Browning that elevates the film to essential queer horror status. Had this been released in previous decades, romantic and/or sexual interactions between their characters likely would have been relegated to subtext or exploitative fetishization, but the filmmakers here approach those interactions in a surprisingly deft and sensitive manner (especially given the cuckoo crazy plot). Go into this one knowing as little as possible.
13. KILLER UNICORN (2019)
“A Brooklyn party boy is excited to go to a huge party event, but the night takes a turn when he is attacked by a stranger. A year later, he gives his social life a second chance, but a man wearing a unicorn mask is killing his friends one by one.”
Utilizing a familiar story setup to horror films like The House on Sorority Row and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Killer Unicorn combines popular slasher tropes with a drag-infused camp aesthetic to create something truly unique. The film itself is a bit rough around the edges, but the DIY approach on display here is admirable, and these performers are clearly having a blast. Character dialogue is rapid-fire and loaded with queer-coded slang- making it obvious from the start that this film was made predominantly for queer eyes. There’s always something to be said for a film that knows exactly what it is and who it’s trying to reach. Though not entirely my personal cup of tea, Killer Unicorn is certainly deserving of a spot here.
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