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Shudder's Queer for Fear Takes on Hitchcock's Gayest Movie

The docuseries' reevaluation of classic horror films has prompted our own analysis of the 1948 film Rope.
  • Farley Granger, James Stewart, and John Dall in Rope.
    Farley Granger, James Stewart, and John Dall in Rope.

    Primetimer's Reviews Editor Mark Blankenship isn't just a TV fan: He's also a movie buff. From time to time, something on the small screen will inspire him to write about a film, which is why Shudder's Queer for Fear inspired this deep dive into Rope.

    Bryan Fuller's new documentary series Queer For Fear, premiering September 30 on Shudder, isn't only a shrewd analysis of how horror movies embrace queer characeters and themes. It's also a treasure hunt, leading us back to the films themselves. Whether we're seeing a creepy classic for the first time or the tenth, we can use the show's sharp and often witty insights to enhance the experience of watching.

    The second episode, for instance, convinced me to stream Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Rope. I once reviewed an Off-Broadway production of the play, but I had never seen the film, partly because I assumed the movie would sand off the gay edges.

    But in Queer for Fear, film experts discuss the movie's flaming homosexuality. Even if straight people didn't know it was a gay film back in 1948, they say, queer audiences would have seen the signs.

    Damn right. Having just watched the movie (which streams for free on Peacock), I am amazed by its gayness. Take the opening scene: The very first thing we hear is what sounds like a man having an orgasm, only we quickly learn it's his death scream as he gets strangled by two of his former classmates, Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger). After they stuff his body in a trunk in their living room, Brandon even has a cigarette, like he's just finished making love.

    That's just the frosted tip of the iceberg. It's obvious, for instance, that Brandon and Phillip live together in the apartment, and they only mention one bedroom. They also talk about taking vacations together and argue over the ideal placement of candelabaras at the dinner party they're throwing on the same night they kill their friend. Throw in the longing looks, the close talking, and the furtive way they touch each other, and you're basically one float short of a pride parade.

    Nobody says the word "homosexual," of course, because back then, it just wasn't done. Queer-ish movies had to heavily code themselves and trust a queer audience to pick up the clues.

    In 2022, however, the subtlety in Rope plays differently. Now it's possible to assume the characters don't explicitly acknowledge Brandon and Phillip's sexuality because it's not a secret. That's why Brandon's ex-girlfriend can be there with her new man without anyone suggesting Brandon will be jealous. That's why the maid can tartly announce that Brandon and Phillip both got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Everyone's so used to their queerness that it's taken for granted. Bringing it up would be as unnecessary as mentioning that everyone lives in New York City.

    From that perspective, Brandon and Phillip's motives are somewhat revolutionary. Since nobody is concerned about their sexuality, then we don't have to read their queerness as the root of their homicidal tendencies. In vintage movies like The Children's Hour, in which a lesbian kills herself out of shame, or Hitchock's own Psycho, in which a queer man's sexual obsessions make him a killer, homosexuality and depravity are all tied up together. But in Rope, our villains are amoral narcissists who just happen to be gay. They surely have a twisted relationship, but the movie never suggests that if they were straight, they'd be raising families instead of destroying them.

    And seriously, this is something to celebrate. By letting its gay characters' sexuality be less important than their blood lust, Rope demonstrates that a queer person can lead any kind of story. All these years later, that's still refreshing to see.

    Queer for Fear premieres September 30 on Shudder. New episodes Fridays. Rope streams for free on Peacock.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Queer for Fear, Shudder, Alfred Hitchcock, Bryan Fuller