The realization that something is not “right” with you, that your body is not your own: it sometimes comes with a scream, like when Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton), the protagonist of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, looks into the mirror and sees himself as a monster. The glass may as well shatter in front of him and show a fragmented version of who he thought he was. Shards where there were none before reveal that his one self are now many. Sometimes, there’s a reserved, intellectual distancing, as with scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in The Fly, who changes before the eyes of his world and the eyes of the audience, an unconventional reconciliation with the ways his body and his self transform.
It makes sense that horror films – monster movies in particular, and to be even more specific, body horror – would have a preoccupation with queer subtext, or that, conversely, queer audiences would find that subtext within these works. Body horror films like Elm Street 2, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly and other works in David Cronenberg’s oeuvre demonstrate that our (as in queer people’s) bodies are another thing altogether. The body vacillates between its own autonomous form as well as being a part of us. And, forgiving the retrograde utilization of such a metaphor, it becomes parasitic.
That complex relationship with one’s self and seeing a crucial element of one’s identity evolve isn’t nice. It isn’t supposed to be. The mix of common feelings of revulsion and curiosity is nothing if not honest. s Jesse’s actions in Elm Street 2 seem initially innocuous: a shift in focus when it comes to what and to whom he is attracted, the way he dresses, the places he goes. He becomes self-destructive, the monster within ready to slash through against his will. Elm Street 2 has an acute understanding of its protagonist’s interior psychology, and the doubt that Mark feels about his identity. The film commits to the idea that Mark is unable to reconcile with his body and his self.
A queer character struggling with their self-identity, through external expression or through desire, is a trope in LGBTQ cinema. But when it’s articulated through the lens of body horror, there is a singularly visceral element, the genre context allowing the filmmaker to more easily get at the truth of the situation in all of its complexity and, quite often, its ugliness.
Closet Monster, the feature debut from Canadian director Stephen Dunn, has trouble with adequately committing to many unhappy and uncomfortable facets of this experience and using body horror to explore identity. Its elevator pitch is a queer horror film that pilfers knowingly from the likes of the aforementioned body horror auteurs Cronenberg and (sort of) Wes Craven. The protagonist Oscar (Connor Jessup) witnessed a hate crime committed against someone when he was young, and the violence committed upon this queer boy would be etched into Oscar’s memory, resulting in a form of trauma. His social environment as a child would not improve his perception of how sexual others would be treated: young girls tease him for checking his nails like a gay boy, and his father becomes gradually and vehemently homophobic.
Years later as a teenager, coming into his sexual identity, Oscar lusts after a coworker named Wilder. This curly-haired, confident crush is played by Aliocha Schneider (incidentally, the younger brother of Niels Schneider, who served as the object of desire for fellow Canadian director Xavier Dolan in Heartbeats). The body horror gimmick in Closet Monster, is the primary appeal of the film: each time Oscar experiences (sexual) desire for Wilder, he is walloped with excruciatingly painful hallucinations (Or are they?, the film taunts), where his body transforms into a palette for punishment. The same object that was used to destroy another queer body – a metal rod – pokes through his own and blood streams down the rivulets. The experience comes to Oscar as a shock. And this is one of the rare moments where Closet Monster is good at what it wants to do: it’s not that these transformations are a shock for the audience exactly, but that they render Oscar’s body unrecognizable to himself. It is supposed to suggest, as body horror does, that the relationship one has with oneself and the body is incomplete and that the discovery of something the character perceives as ugly about themselves is still possible.
But these moments are short lived because Closet Monster does not actually seem to be concerned with such continuous discovery. Its examination of repression and self-denial seems rudimentary and lacking insight, but mostly, it doesn’t commit to this idea of body horror being a legitimate way to manifest the terror of coming into one’s sexuality. It is more interested in being a melodrama draped with a Cronenbergian cardigan than it is a body horror film. Its relationship dynamics are reminiscent of a play, and its cinematic flourishes are peppered lightly throughout. It’s a screamy Dolanian melodrama with flashes of Videodrome on training wheels.
Body horror works on a thematic and narrative trajectory of maturation like in other films, but the genre resembles a quasi-Kübler-Ross model, and without a happy ending. It’s the loss of oneself, in a way, or as one thought of oneself. Acceptance of the monster inside is reconciliation. There is reconciliation in Let the Right One In: between Eli (Lina Leandersson) and their body, Oskar (Kare Hedebrandt) and his body, and the pair’s affection for one another and its incompatibility in the society they live in. The end of the film suggests an acceptance of unacceptance. As in The Fly, acceptance means death. So often acceptance in queer body horror is death or unhappiness, if only because of these characters’ (and their creators’) understanding of what the world around them thinks.
But what these aforementioned films hone in on is a sensorial and visceral understanding of the nuances of navigating one’s new relationship with one’s queer body. Whether that’s via camp, libidinal and orgiastic slow motion, a streak of horror and self-loathing, sado-masochistic yearning, etc., there’s an acute understanding that multiple things are at play when these experiences are well-accentuated filmically.
Dunn’s strengths are in his vivid horror scenes, where there are flashes of genuine ingenuity. But because there are so few, there’s a sense of a lack of commitment to that idea, especially when a body horror scene is immediately preceded by a sequence that should register as sexy and sensual. When Oscar follows Wilder to a party, still unsure of Wilder’s own identity (but drawn to him nonetheless), he navigates a neon-lit apartment, ingests some narcotic, and deliberates on fulfilling his desires. It’s a scene that resembles one in Heartbeats, both aesthetically and narratively. But while Heartbeats isn’t a body horror film, it nonetheless focuses on the tactility of sexual desire: bodies writhe on the dance floor (including that of Niels’), honey and cream skin become soaked in sweat, the lights blink on and off as if trying to capture captureless moments, and The Knife’s “Pass This On” coos voluptuous hunger for forbidden fruits. Closet Monster’s party scene is unfrenzied, its clusters of partygoers are weirdly calculated, and the performance of sensorial intensity is organized with sterility. When an encounter between the romantic leads is on the table, or against the bathroom wall, there is determination in both acting and form that feels unsexy.
Here is perhaps Closet Monster’s greatest irony: a film about the trouble with unleashing your monster has trouble unleashing its own monster. Queer body horror contains a great paradox: how do you articulate the forbidden and repressed while still letting its character indulge or explore in the nasty and taboo? On a purely experiential level, coming to terms with one’s sexuality, or even not coming to terms with it, brings with it a myriad of sensations and emotions that are often conflicting and rarely coherent or cohesive. But these experiences are nonetheless intense. Queer body horror is an examination of such contradictions and what they do to you in both pleasurable and horrible ways. Closet Monster’s inability to “embrace” those contradictions renders the film a little dry, a little dull, and kind of pale. Its moments of intensity are rare and exist primarily in one generic context, which it doesn’t spend enough time exploring. The genre context ostensibly gives an artist the luxury of exploring the extremes of struggling with one’s identity: self-hate, delusion, the dissolution of one’s sanity, the literal transformation of one’s body, the overwhelming carnal thirst. A deeply visceral approach to these aspects is key, requiring vigor and severity. To replicate the feeling of thinking you’re a monster. In Closet Monster, the monster stays firmly entrenched inside the closet, unready for its transformation.