Tension and suspense may be key components of thrillers but often, unfortunately, they are often joined with a healthy dose of homophobia.
From Russia with Love (1963) is one of the best Bond films, and Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb one of the best Bond villains, but there is no doubt it sees her lesbianism as evidence of her wickedness. Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as the Oscar for best foreign film, went one worse, featuring a gay pederast as an assassin. Oliver Stone’s fast-with-the-facts but entertaining JFK (1991) offered a chorus line of simpering queens, who, the film affirms, had a hand in the president’s assassination. Transphobia runs rife too – The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is terrific, but its references to trans people in relation to serial killer Buffalo Bill jar.
These are classic films, in spite of their problematic depictions of gay lives. But luckily there are also some great thrillers that invest in their provocative characters, rather than simply portraying them as outlandish freaks. Here are 10 of the best.
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Filmed to appear as if it were shot in one very long take (in fact, the film consists of 10 short sequences, with the edits subtly masked), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is 80 minutes of pure tension. It opens with a murder. The killers (John Dall and Farley Granger) conceal the body in a wooden chest and then, in a twisted act of cruelty, invite the victim’s friends and family over for dinner.
The suspense of waiting to see if the crime will be uncovered is palpable, especially in a scene where the maid prepares to open the chest, unnoticed by the killers. The murderers, heavily coded as gay, are based on Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who killed a boy to demonstrate their ‘intellectual superiority’, committing what they believed was the perfect crime.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Director Sidney Lumet
Despite moments of nerve-shredding tension and one of cinema’s great portrayals of stress – this is a film that barely allows the audience to relax – Dog Day Afternoon is rarely thought of as a thriller. This is largely due to the many moments of comedy, played up in Al Pacino’s kinetic performance as Sonny, a bank robber seeking money, it is revealed, to fund his partner’s gender reassignment surgery.
Everyone remembers the film’s crazed moments, as more and more pressure is put on Sonny, hopelessly out of his depth from the start of the heist. Yet the best scene is the quietest – a sad telephone conversation amid the chaos between Sonny and his partner (Chris Sarandon). Both Pacino and Sarandon were deservedly nominated for Oscars.
Director William Friedkin
Can Cruising be called great? Contemporary gay audiences didn’t think so, protesting its sordid tale of a gay serial killer in New York’s S&M community, leading to a disclaimer being added to the beginning of film, clarifying that the film was never meant to be representative. Critics hated it, and the film was a flop.
William Friedkin’s film is certainly flawed – its plot spirals off the rails by the end, and it wallows in a lurid depiction of a menacing gay underworld. But there are some fine performances, not least from Al Pacino in his riskiest role, as a cop who goes undercover and finds himself drawn to the wild side. It’s never less than fascinating, and the set piece murder in a park cruising ground is very chilling. Approach with caution, though.
The Fourth Man (1983)
Director Paul Verhoeven
Eight years before he pushed queer thrills even further with the gleefully mischievous Basic Instinct (1992), Paul Verhoeven made this sly and sexy Dutch tale of Gerard (future Bond villain Jeroen Krabbé), a bisexual man who becomes romantically involved with a mysterious woman (Verhoeven regular Renée Soutendijk) and nurtures fervent lust for her lover (Thom Hoffman). A drunken discovery leads Gerard to suspect that the woman may be a serial killer, and that he may be her next victim.
Nobody does hysteria like Verhoeven, and The Fourth Man hurls at its audience a castration nightmare, a sexy Christ fantasy and one admirably disgusting death scene. Its outrageous religious themes and unfazed attitudes towards queer lust make for a one-of-a-kind thrill ride.
The Crying Game (1992)
Director Neil Jordan
Warning: this section contains spoilers
The spoiler warning may now be redundant, as the big ‘reveal’ of The Crying Game – that the key character of Dil (Jaye Davidson) is a pre-operative trans woman – is one of the most widely known ‘twists’ in cinema history. It’s an unfortunately sensational moment in a gripping thriller about Fergus (Stephen Rea), an IRA soldier who tracks down the girlfriend of one of his hostages.
Davidson was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, and he gives an unforgettable performance as the nightclub singer who falls in love with Fergus. She is far from a passive romantic interest, however, as one of the antagonists finds to their cost in the film’s frantic climax.
Directors The Wachowskis
Before The Matrix (1999) focused their talents on epic sci-fi, the Wachowskis made this taut film noir, a world away from their sprawling later works. Jennifer Tilly is wonderful as Violet, a bored gangster moll who seduces Corky (Gina Gershon), the plumber next door. The duo plan to steal the gangster’s loot and escape together, but unfortunately for them he is not quite as dumb as he first appears.
Tilly and Gershon have real chemistry, with the former in particular revelling in the camp excesses of her character, panting out every line with steamy suggestiveness. It’s also very exciting – a table-turning scene involving a ringing phone is masterful.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Director David Lynch
Naomi Watts gives as astonishing performance as an aspiring young actor who moves to Hollywood to make it big. She finds a woman (Laura Harring) sleeping in her new flat, who has lost her memory. The two embark on a quest to find out the amnesiac woman’s backstory, which takes them into the underworld of LA. An unexpected romance flares up following a disturbing discovery.
Anyone who has seen Mulholland Dr. will know that a plot summary can never do justice to David Lynch’s vision. This is a unique, mystical and often terrifying walk into another world, with some utterly haunting set pieces, from the appearance of the diner monster to the dreamy visit to Club Silencio. It’s one of the key cinema works of the last 25 years.
Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Director Alain Guiraudie
Alain Guiraudie’s ruthless tale of deadly obsession is set entirely on a lakeside gay cruising ground. Franck has an immediate attraction to Michel, a handsome new face on the beach, but one night he witnesses what appears to be a murder, and Michel’s allure takes a new turn for the sinister.
The often negative depiction of gay men in Stranger by the Lake is provocative (a police officer chastises the hero for the callous attitude the cruisers have to the murder), but Guiraudie brilliantly depicts the insane erotic urge that attracts people to danger. The last few moments of the film, a masterpiece of tension, had the cinema audience I was in gasping in shock.
Tom at the Farm (2013)
Director Xavier Dolan
Following I Killed My Mother (2009), Heartbeats (2010) and Laurence Anyways (2012), Xavier Dolan, 24 at the time of production, embraced the thriller genre in his unnerving adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard’s play. He stars as Tom, who travels to his dead lover’s rural village to read a eulogy at the funeral. He is treated with violent hostility by the dead man’s brother, but he decides to stay on at the farm after the funeral, unaware of the danger he is in.
Tom at the Farm has many startling moments, beautifully shot by Dolan. The final scene with the deceased’s mother, where she reacts with sudden fury to her situation, is quietly terrifying, as is a horrible story revealing an incident in Francis’s past. It’s Dolan’s most unusual film, and one that rewards repeat viewings.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Director Park Chan-wook
Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) transforms Sarah Waters’ marvellous crime novel Fingersmith into a frenzied erotic thriller, adding extra kink and shocking violence into the mix. The setting is changed from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea, when it was under Japanese rule. A Korean con artist is sent to ensure the marriage and subsequent incarceration of a Japanese heiress, but an apparently mutual attraction complicates the scheme.
The Handmaiden boasts astonishing visuals and moments of exquisite, disturbing beauty. Park adds stylised set pieces and injections of humour to Waters’ thrilling tale. Even if you know the novel’s secrets, The Handmaiden keeps the character’s motivations hidden until the very end.