“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
***A Warning: This column contains plot spoilers for Cruising***
Slasher movies are all I ever want to write about, so when the brass at Dread designated this month as the Summer of Blood I knew I’d have a good time. But how could one possibly choose? What ended up solidifying my topic for this column was the fact that it’s also Pride month, and if you’re thinking of gay ’80s slashers, you obviously can’t look further than the looming, controversial Cruising, William Friedkin’s 1980 leather bar thriller.
The film’s release caused a huge stir in the gay activist community at the time, for good reason. If you take a marginalized group who are hardly ever represented onscreen and have their biggest silver screen outing in a long time be about their being brutally murdered, it’s not going to make you any friends. But thankfully in 2019, Cruising is part of a larger tapestry of LGBTQ representation in pop culture (not as large as I’d want it to be, but larger nonetheless) and we can look at it with some amount of objectivity that could never have been possible in 1980.
There are obviously a whole constellation of problems with the film, but I kind of love it. It’s like The Prowler or Maniac, only for the gay community! If we can take it as a given that the slasher films we love have always been problematic faves (look at the generally retrograde approach to morality, virginity, gender, and murder, to name a few issues), Cruising fits right the hell in.
The thing I love about Cruising is that its gay characters and themes are more than just window dressing. Obviously, the lead is a straight cop/audience surrogate played by Al Pacino forced to go undercover in the world of New York’s leather bars, but the other characters who fill out this world are the denizens of that particular subculture. Not only are the bar scenes a fascinating document of a vibrant community that might have been lost to time – considering that the film was shot immediately prior to the gay scene being tragically ravaged by the AIDS epidemic – but the people we spend time with are given depth and humanity in spite of the goggle-eyed panic with which the film views their lifestyle.
I could easily point to Pacino’s neighbor Ted, played by Don Scardino (who has since moved on to be quite a successful TV director). He’s a warm and welcoming presence to the undercover cop whose death is a devastating loss, but I also want to spend time with the characters who are less vanilla and “palatable.” An early sex scene between two leather bar regulars might have been shocking to the audience at the time, but it’s shot with an eye toward eroticism, not shock value. If that freaked out the normies, that’s on them. It’s a surprisingly sexy, even a little bit tender scene in the middle of all this mayhem.
And while I object to the idea that anybody who is oppressed by society instantly becomes a serial killer, the reveal is interesting. The culprit is someone who has been so repressed and forced into the closet, the only way he can express the sexuality he has been born with is with homicidal rage. The repression he has lived with all his life has turned his identity into a poison, one that spreads and affects everyone around him. He has certainly committed evil acts, but the true evil is the society around him that turned him against himself and his community in this way. (I’m not going to mention the lame ambiguous ending that follows this reveal, because that one is hard to read in any other way than trashy gay panic – we can’t have everything).
But here’s the real kicker. The general reading of the average heterosexual slasher film is that the killer’s knife/ax/chainsaw/what have you is a phallic stand-in for the sexually repressed killer. He is using this sharp weapon to literally penetrate his victims (usually women) because it’s the only way he can exorcise the sexual rage roiling through his mind. Cruising does exactly that, except the killer’s victims are stabbed in the back.
Look, Cruising won’t be winning any GLAAD awards any time soon, I think it’s a perfect example of taking the problematic structure of the early ’80s slasher film and mapping the gay community’s lives and woes directly on top of that. It might not be an objectively good thing to do, but I’m happy to have a film like this to grapple with rather than no gay ’80s slasher film at all.
Um… Happy Pride, everyone!
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also produces the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf! on the Blumhouse Podcast Network.