Horror, Homosexuality, and Homiciphilia in McKellen's Richard III and Jarman's Edward II

Article excerpt

In his article "Cinema and the Kingdom of Death: Loncraine's Richard III," Peter S. Donaldson observes the director's repeated conflation of sexuality and mortality:

   Loncraine's handling of the voyeuristic conventions of filmic
   sexuality ... is always complicated by our being able to read in
   them the signs of Richard's particular obsession with death.... The
   scene of the murder of Rivers at the moment of ejaculation during
   fellation, followed by a cut to a child's train and then to a steam
   engine entering a tunnel, also enacts such a double displacement,
   whereby screen voyeurism is refrained as necrophiha. (254n)

While it is legitimate to employ the term "necrophilia" to refer to "Richard's particular obsession with death," Donaldson elsewhere uses a form of the word in its more commonly understood denotation: "sexual attraction to, or intercourse with, dead bodies" (OED). Recalling a particularly macabre moment from Richard Eyre's 1990 stage version, which first transported the action to an imaginary Fascist England of the 1930s, Donaldson writes,

   The National Theatre production from which the film derives even
   contained explicitly necrophiliac scenes: after Hastings's death
   his head was brought to Richard in a fire bucket. Alone on the huge
   stage, he savored the moment, glanced about (no one there; only
   us), and reached lovingly into the bucket in a kind of erotic
   ecstasy. (252)

Although this episode in Eyre's production clearly exhibits Richard's necrophilia, no such scene appears in Loncraine's film (1995), which never brings Richard into direct physical contact with the corpses of any of his victims. In the film, Ian McKellen as Richard experiences erotic arousal, not from the mere contemplation of death or from touching dead bodies, but from the thought of having caused those deaths himself. (1) To describe the sexual pleasure that McKellen's Richard appears to derive from homicide, I have coined the term "homiciphilia."

Since Richard's homiciphilia may be fed only by murder, the film brands Richard's erotic desire as an evil perversion, and the king's ultimate defeat by the virtuous Richmond, whose licit heterosexual orientation is stressed, therefore represents the triumph of married sexuality over depraved sexual deviance. This conservative, even reactionary treatment of deviant sexuality seems startling in a film based on a screenplay by, and starring, Ian McKellen, one of the most prominent openly gay actors working in modern cinema. Such a paradox appears even more puzzling when one considers that Richard III also occasionally hints at Richard's homosexual attraction to his henchman Tyrell and contains images that evoke the gay bathhouses associated with early outbreaks of AIDS. By combining these dual markers of Richard's/McKellen's transgressive sexuality, the film leaves itself dangerously vulnerable to a reading, characteristic of the backlash against homosexuality in the late 1980s and 1990s, whereby gay men are demonized for deriving sexual pleasure from passing along a deadly disease to their partners, and through them, to the rest of society.

In its paradoxical treatment of homosexuality, McKellen's movie resembles the classic Hollywood horror films of the 1930s, particularly those directed by homosexual filmmaker James Whale during the same decade in which the action of Richard III is set: Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). As Harry M. Benshoff illustrates in Monsters in the Closet, "the figure of the monster throughout the history of the English-language horror film can in some way be understood as a metaphoric construct standing in for the figure of the homosexual" (4). Shakespeare's depiction of Richard makes him an ideal candidate to star in a horror film because he is already a monster: not only an "individual with a gross congenital malformation" (OED 3a), but also a "person of repulsively unnatural character . …