Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

"A Strange Desire That Never Dies": Monstrous Lesbian Camp in the Age of Conformity

Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

"A Strange Desire That Never Dies": Monstrous Lesbian Camp in the Age of Conformity

Article excerpt

Lesbians are sharks, vampires, creatures from the deep lagoon, godzillas, hydrogen bombs, inventions of the laboratory, werewolves-all of whom stalk Beverly Hills by night. Christopher Lee, in drag, in the Hammer Films middle period, is my ideal lesbian.

-Bertha Harris

In the opening precredit moments of Edgar Ulmer's lesser-known horror gem Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), the viewer comes face-toface with a smiling fiend who emerges from an absurdly dense veil of fog-not the titular daughter but a father figure. At first appearing in profile as the embodiment of the backstory being offered, this shrouded male creature sits among scientific paraphernalia, including beakers and test tubes, while the narration conjures a legend of the "strange experiment" that transformed the good Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson's famous work of terror into Mr. Hyde, "a human werewolf." Clearly taking a bit of license with Stevenson's narrative, the precredit scene transitions from the silhouetted doctor figure into a close-up of a monster, with sparse werewolf-like hair covering much of his face and vampire fangs protruding from his impishly grinning mouth. When the authoritative voice-over promises that the evil will be vanquished in the end, this ghoulish grinning figure squeals out to the audience from within the diegesis "Are you sure?" and, with high-pitched giggles, fades back into the fog. Critic Gary Morris has called this moment one of the genre's "most memorably campy," within a film that is marked by "sheer weirdness" and by a "paranoia about what women were capable of in a postnuclear era."1 While I agree with Morris that this moment's knowing artificiality and wonderful incongruities- including the inexact dubbing with the actor's mouth movements and the return of the same scene at the end of the film but with a different voice actor-exemplify the film's camp style, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll offers many more moments of campy splendor, the majority of which center on exactly what women might be "capable of" in the postwar era. Indeed, those scenes of the daughter's queer transformations and apparent attacks on young women of the village should be considered a realization of the promise of this opening (and closing) delight, offering the campy consummation of the film's "fabulously weird" world.2

Typically, however, when we think of camp icons or classical camp objects of pleasure and study, the daughter who fantasizes or acts out her dreams of pouncing on other women-in other words, the lesbian-rarely has a starring role. The anguished lesbian subject or monstrous lesbian predator seldom delights as a fabulous and humorous camp figure (Bertha Harris aside) and instead is taken quite seriously as a negative stereotype, a damning cautionary tale, and a lethal source of shame and self-loathing. Yet, in exploitation films of the 1950s such as Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, the cryptolesbians there both caution against and brilliantly camp up a crudely imagined lavender menace. Her presence in these films provokes for me some fundamental questions. What might be the purpose for camping up lesbian desire in the popular culture of the 1950s-at a time when lesbian visibility was on the rise, as were, of course, the vicious attempts to discipline, contain, and even excise gays and lesbians from public life, but then also what might be the consequences of letting her run amok onscreen, especially considering that the era's she-monster films-such as Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, Blood of Dracula (1957) and Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)-were intended for a female adolescent audience? In other words, how is this lesbian camp supposed to be functioning in/for dominant culture, but also how might it exceed that intended purpose for a variety of viewers? What I am arguing, through a reading of Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, is that this camp lesbian figure both serves a predictable misogynistic and homophobic purpose-an attempt to contain female sexuality in the age of conformity-and has the potential to denaturalize and make comic the compulsory heterosexuality that was imposing itself on young women of the period from seemingly every quarter. …

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