This was the first question I was asked as a guest on Michael Varrati’s Dead for Filth podcast last year. I had just completed directing an LGBTQ+ themed horror short called The Latent Image and I was on a visit to Los Angeles. I considered it really serendipitous to not only meet Michael and other L.A based horror peeps on what amounted to a holiday but to also get invited to speak about my work. That first question really got me thinking because my answer is: it’s always been horror and I couldn’t quite say why.
Since I was a small child in the 1980s I managed to do a speedy history of cinema, thanks to VHS, that took me from Laurel and Hardy through to A Nightmare on Elm Street by the age of 8. I loved movies in general but my favourites were all horror. The gateway movie was Jaws, which I watched at age 4 through a doorway in a different room from the TV because I was anticipating being so scared. Sure enough, when the head popped out of the boat I ran screaming to my Grandmother in the kitchen but then ran back to the TV to rewind the tape to watch that bit again and then continue with the film. I was hooked.
At that age, I didn’t know I was gay – I just knew I was different in some way. All the clichés applied in my case – I was lousy at sports, answered all the questions in class, tended towards overweight and obeyed all the rules. In other words, I was a prime target for relentless bullying and was actually introduced to my own sexuality by the bullies who seemed to know I was gay before I ever did. Looking back on this, it makes perfect sense why I dove headlong into horror and the slasher film in particular. While other boys were into Tim Burton’s Batman, I became “the world’s biggest” Nightmare on Elm Street fan. Nancy Thompson was my superhero closely followed by Alice Johnson. Soon after, I discovered the Halloween and Friday the 13th films and all the others.
Then, I gravitated to Italian horror after seeing Suspiria (again on VHS at age 10!). Phenomena’s Jennifer Corvino and Opera’s Betty soon joined the ranks of the “final girls” who I saw myself in so intensely. Their fights for survival in a reactive, non-aggressive way seemed the perfect analogy for my daily discomfort with my closeted self and the homophobia that seemed all around. It was also still the early 90s at this point and the spectre of the AIDS epidemic was everywhere and was something that a gay pre-teen couldn’t easily keep from his mind. Now, when I see some of my old favourites like The Blob remake, Prince of Darkness and Lifeforce I can see how those films helped provide an expression of that fear and a catharsis that is maybe forgotten now as those real life nightmares are happily being consigned to the past.
I knew since childhood that I wanted to make films and was writing little scripts and designing fantasy film posters and crew lists since I was little. I used to dream of being pigeonholed in horror the way I used to read certain directors complain about in the pages of Fangoria. In 2009 I was given an opportunity to make a DVD horror feature. The IMDb lists the budget as $20,000 but I can only ever remember there being about $6,000! Braincell was created to order. I was told to include certain themes and certain cast members. I dove into it with enthusiasm and decided to spoof the B-horror movie genre’s classic elements. We had it all – a mad doctor, virtuous final girl and sinister research institute. I also included something that I now regret which was an attempt to poke fun at the cliché of the predatory lesbian sidekick of the evil villain. She was also a nurse no less.
I was hoping to spoof the trope going back to films such as Dracula’s Daughter but I instead discovered that when you have no money, no time and no crew that it is sometimes better not to try to be too smart. I was horrified to find some reviews at the time which didn’t get the joke and I still cringe at the thought of people assuming that the crudely drawn character was an actual attempt at representation. Braincell taught me that if my heart wasn’t in it I probably shouldn’t do it. It also taught me that 2009 was not the late 70s/early 80s period I had always fantasised about when everyone was making low budget movies and getting them out there. No one was interested in an underfunded shot on SD video project that even the director didn’t like.
It was time for film school and I was lucky enough to be accepted to one of the UK’s best. I learnt the ins and outs of filmmaking, sampled 35mm shooting and the Arri Alexa and attended masterclasses by people such as William Friedkin and Danny Boyle. All of that was great. What wasn’t great was the amount of prejudice in the school (from staff and students) towards anyone interested in genre – especially horror. It was almost funny. We would study Fritz Lang and Hitchcock genre masterpieces but were then expected to make social drama shorts with no cutting! There was also a lot of homophobia (from the students, not the staff). It was the insidious, we’re-joking-with-you kind but it was there. Film is kind of a strange mixture of the creative and the military and on real sets the creative wins out. Film school can be full of Lars Von Trier and Michael Bay wannabes so the balance shifts the other way sometimes.
I graduated with a horror short called Suspicions – a homoerotic story of two bros who’s lack of ability to admit their affection for each other leads to murder. I expanded this into a feature script that got me some attention and has then led to other feature scripts and completed short films. The latest of these shorts is THE LATENT IMAGE that is very much about the dangers inherent in falling for the hot, straight guy.
I am currently putting the finishing touches to a feature script for The Latent Image. The budget is already in place for a solid low budget feature so it looks like this year or the next I’ll be making my real feature debut and the happiest thing is that in 2019 I feel completely comfortable to make my lead the gay male I always hoped he could be. I don’t have to create a metaphorical heroine or use comedic or coded elements. This feels great. I’ve also discovered the wonderful, supportive gay horror community around the world and the common experiences we share – there are so many of us!
Alexander Birrell is a Writer/Director from Liverpool, England. His short film work includes BLACKOUT, SUSPICIONS and THE LATENT IMAGE and has been included at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival and the Fantasia Film Festival amongst others. He is currently working on his debut feature.