Lesbian horror films have generally meant lesbian vampire movies. It's a trop that stretches back to 1936 with Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter, and became trendy during the 70s with films like The Vampire Lovers, Daughters of Darkness and the iconic Vampyros Lesbos. We've had cult classic The Hunger and the David Lynch-produced Nadja, but when lesbian romance dramas became marketable in the mid-90s, lesbian representation in horror declined and when the occasional film did make it to the screen, it barely diverged from its bloodthirsty roots. But thanks to 2017’s Thelma and the newly-released What Keeps You Alive, the genre is ready to lose its fangs and enter the rebirth it deserves.
In the dreamy Norwegian thriller Thelma, director Joachim Trier takes the typical coming out (and coming-of-age) narrative to the next level. After moving away from her religious parents to study in Oslo, the titular character (played by Eili Harboe) finds herself becoming romantically attracted to another woman. As her feelings toward her classmate Anja (played by bedroom-pop artist Kaya Wilkins) grow stronger ─ and are adorably reciprocated ─ Thelma attempts to deny them out of fear, triggering seizures that indicate mysterious, and often dangerous, telekinetic abilities that lurk within her.
What Keeps You Alive plays with common horror themes, but with a lesbian couple leading the way, it’s immediately refreshing. Directed by Colin Minihan, wives Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) embark on a getaway to a remote lakeside cabin to celebrate their one-year anniversary. As they bask in their love and the gorgeous nature that surrounds them, Jackie begins to act stranger and stranger — as if their isolated locale wasn’t already a bad omen. Jackie soon reveals her true, deranged nature to her loving wife, creating a game of cat-and-mouse that forces Jules to fight for survival. This adrenaline-rushing tale tackles the notion that you can never truly know who you fall in love with.
Though lesbian vampire flicks may have made themselves redundant thanks to constantly reinterpreting J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (which is known for being the first instance of lesbian vampires in fiction), many of these films express their own distinct complexity. For example, gaining companions through vampirism might be a thrill for The Hunger’s Miriam Blaylock (an alluring Catherine Deneuve), but digging deeper, it’s actually a method to attain what she fears most: loneliness, isolation and mortality. Beneath its cold exterior, Daughters of Darkness displays a remarkable (and let’s be real, true) contrast of heterosexuality and lesbianism, treating the former as brutal and deceptive, while the latter is glamorous, comforting and genuinely devoted. But while those are certainly admirable ideas, among others in the genre, gayness remains cloaked in villainy.
What marks out Trier’s and Minihan’s films as interesting is that none of the characters are demonised or mistreated because of their sexual identity. In Thelma, the eponymous lead may undergo terrifying, serpent-filled incidents, but she ultimately gets to experience liberation, love and self-acceptance upon the realisation that she’s gay. Her relationship with Anja is depicted with tenderness and truth -– enough to classify Thelma as a romance as much as a supernatural thriller. In What Keeps You Alive, Jackie’s monstrous nature and affection for violence isn’t a made into a reason for or result of being gay. The film never includes lesbianism in the major conflict, instead giving it natural respect and normalisation. Through Allen’s character Jules (wh deserves to be lauded for one of the year’s most visceral performances), we get a resilient and brave gay character to root for.
Thelma and What Keeps You Alive transcend stereotypes, introducing depth that lesbian horror has not witnessed until now. Instead of centring fantasy-like narratives, these two films feature realistic, relatable concepts that intelligently communicate the fears of anyone who’s queer.
LGBTQ acceptance has improved, but due to the heteronormative world we live in, the apprehension to act on love will never cease to affect same-sex couples. What Keeps You Alive effectively addresses this anxiety. What Jules expects to be a celebration of romance turns into the ultimate attempt to stay alive, running from brutality for the mere act of being in love. Equally, the coming-out experience of Thelma is true to life in many ways. All the lead character wants is to live authentically, but the trepidation attached to that has become too overwhelming, making her believe that she’s worthless. Trier and Minihan beautifully convey the horrors that lie within the minds of the marginalised, creating chillingly-accurate metaphors that assure us we’re not alone.
The rise of modern lesbian horror doesn’t end there. #20GayTeen has already proved to be a boom year for lesbian cinema, so it’s only right that every genre catches on. Arriving on September 14 is Craig Macneill’s Lizzie — based on the 1892 Borden murders — starring Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny as lovers. The next, also biographical, is Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller Benedetta, expected to be released in 2019. An adaptation of Judith C. Brown’s book Immodest Acts, the film centres on the life of 17th-century lesbian nun Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira) who experiences disturbing visions, and enters a love affair with a fellow nun at her convent. As we continue to look for media that feeds our hunger for lesbian content (not to mention, Kristen Stewart in an explicitly gay role anyone?), those are two movies that you definitely won’t want to miss.
These upcoming releases demonstrate that LGBTQ visibility deserves to be at the forefront of genre cinema while not being demeaned for its attraction. If they’re as breathtaking and intricate as Thelma and What Keeps You Alive, which both gracefully moved lesbian horror forward, then the niche is more than worthy of its resurgence.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.