**Editor’s Note: The Long and (Often) Dysfunctional History of Lesbians in Horror Films, Part is a continuation of iHorror’s Horror Pride Month celebrating the LGBTQ community in the horror genre.
Welcome back to part two of our short series discussing the history of lesbians in horror films.
In Part 1, we discussed the time of the Hays Code and the queer-coding that went on during the early era of films when they could not write openly queer characters and so they hid them in plain sight. Horror films were no different, and they especially employed these characters as villains who ultimately had to be destroyed.
We left off with 1963’s The Haunting. The film was slightly different in that while the queer-coding remained, the character of Theo was treated with a more careful sensitivity and she managed to survive.
As the 60s came to a close, some of those lesbians began to emerge from the coding. Unfortunately, horror films dropped them directly into the middle of exploitation.
Lesbian characters took on heightened sexuality and amplified predatory traits. Love rarely came into the equation because, to larger society’s understanding of any member of the queer community, being lesbian or gay or bisexual or trans had everything to do with what went on in your bedroom and nothing about what you felt.
As before, this is not meant to be an all-encompassing list. Rather, I chose one example of the three main tropes of the decade (vampire, witch, spirits) to give a taste of what was going on at the time.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a single positive portrayal in the bunch.
1970–The Vampire Lovers
For some reason, screenwriters and directors latched onto the idea of the sensual female vampire seductress that Sheridan Le Fanu created in Carmilla a hundred years before.
As a matter of fact, The Vampire Lovers from Hammer Studios in 1970 was a direct adaptation, and astonishingly somewhat faithful to the subject matter. This was not the only adaptation of this source material in the 1970s–it wasn’t even the only adaptation from this studio.
The studio went so far as to bill the film with a host of lurid taglines:
“If you dare… taste the deadly passion of the BLOOD-NYMPHS!”
“An erotic nightmare of tormented lusts that throb in headless, undead bodies!”
“Carmilla is really queen of lesbian vampires!”
Well…the British seemed to get over some things more quickly than we did in the states, but as you can see, they weren’t above exploiting it, either.
The film stars the ever-alluring Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla/Mircalla/Marcilla who quickly makes her move into some of the finer aristocratic homes surrounding her and begins to make short work of anyone she can get her hands on. Her sights were most keenly set on a young woman by the name of Laura (Pippa Steele), however.
Later on, both the director and Pitt would say that they did not intend to portray Carmilla as a lesbian, with Pitt adding that she intended Carmilla to be aesexual.
Shall we refer back to the taglines again?!
Either way, of course, Carmilla and her unnatural desires had to be destroyed at the end of the film. (Or were they?)
HOWEVER, and this is interesting, watch the trailer. They do their best not to play that up in the trailer at all. One has to wonder what was going on as some of these decisions were made.
Yet another British entry and just as exploitative as the previous title, Virgin Witch starred sibling actresses Ann and Vicki Michelle as sisters Christine and Betty. Christine has been contacted by a woman named Sybil Waite for a possible modeling contract and she eagerly sets out, with Betty in tow, to start a new life.
Little does she know that Sybil’s agency is a cover for a coven of witches who are looking for a virgin to join their ranks. Christine, who we discover has psychic abilities, surprises Sybil by eagerly agreeing to be initiated.
Sybil (Patricia Haines), of course, turns out to be a predatory lesbian who is interested in more than just Christine’s power, and Christine, of course, begins to fight back. She goes so far as to try to take control of the coven during her own initiation.
Christine, because she’s good and a virgin and straight, overpowers Sybil, who is bad and definitely not virginal if you pay attention to the lines shes uses on Christine and a lesbian, and uses her psychic abilities to kill the High Priestess.
In the years since its release, the film (which was also marketed under the name Lesbian Twins) has been denounced by its sibling stars who want nothing to do with it, though neither will say why exactly.
Check out the trailer and be on the lookout for Sybil’s hair-pulling lesson in obedience to the high priestess. I mean, really?
You didn’t think we were going to stay in Britain, did you?
What to say about The Sentinel? Well, before we get into the nitty gritty of it, let’s point out that this film really does have an outstanding cast. Jose Ferrer, John Carradine, Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Burgess Meredith, Beverly D’Angelo, and Sylvia Miles to name just a few.
With a cast like that, you expect greatness, and in some ways you even get it. What you also get is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, personally, with a plot that twists and turns more than the most confounding of Agatha Christie mysteries.
A fashion model (why were they always fashion models?) by the name of Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) gets the deal of a lifetime when she moves into an historic brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. Of course, it’s not long before she realizes that there’s a reason it’s so cheap and that reason has everything to do with the gateway to Hell in the basement.
She also slowly begins to realize that perhaps her noisy neighbors aren’t altogether real. It’s within those neighbors, though, where we find our lesbian storyline, and it’s one of the weirdest on this list. Yep, even weirder than vampires and virgin witches.
Played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo, Gerde Engstrom and Sandra are a strange pairing. The two actresses are 27 years apart in age, and there are moments onscreen where Gerde comes across as very controlling and abusive toward Sandra.
Also of interest in the portrayal of this lesbian couple is that they’re always presented as slightly…dirty. Their clothing, even when they are more dressed up, is always somewhat revealing and slightly unkempt.
Once again, we find a portrayal of lesbian characters that is entirely about sex and nothing to do with real people and relationships. In one of the more WTF scenes in the film, Sandra even begins to masturbate in front of Alison after Gerde walks out of the room for no apparent reason at all.
For all of its stellar cast and heightened ideas, I’m sure that the director and writers thought they were doing something artistic here, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what that might be.
So there are your three basic tropes that 1970s horror used to deal with lesbians. Unfortunately, the exploitation wasn’t quite over, but as the 80s and 90s rolled around, there did seem to be a little hope on the horizon, and we’ll tackle that in the next chapter of this series!