In the Queers in Horror series, I will highlight genre films that feature prominent queer characters or themes. Some of these films will be wildly popular while others may not have as big of a spotlight on them as other films. So brace yourself… for the Queers in Horror.
Release Year: 1980
Who’s In It: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
What’s It About: New York is caught in the grip of a sadistic serial killer who preys on patrons of gay S&M bars. Captain Edelson tasks a “young” rookie Steve Burns (a 39-year old Al Pacino) with infiltrating the S&M subculture and to try and lure the killer out of the shadows before he strikes again. As he immerses himself deeper and deeper into the underworld, Steve risks losing his own identity in the process.
What Makes This Movie So Gay: Extremely controversial during its production and release, CRUISING, uses gay characters and, more specifically, the S&M world as the backdrop of the story. It’s set in a graffiti-ridden New York City that, for better or worse, no longer exists and the explicitness of the open and carefree sexuality is a time-capsule of a pre-AIDS era. Al Pacino’s character, Steve Burns, is presented as an All-American heterosexual exploring the world of gay sex, lube, fisting, poppers, bondage, and really awkward dancing.
Is The Movie Any Good? Technically no- but I still enjoyed this movie. William Friedkin, who previously gave us the masterpiece, THE EXORCIST, exposes a world and characters that were considered extremely taboo in 1980 cinema. A macho, good looking, well-respected actor such as Al Pacino as the surrogate for the audience would possibly temper any audience discomfort at the various shots of ass-less chaps and muscle daddy’s lubing their forearms with crisco. That, unfortunately, allows the film to feel a bit self-congratulated to it’s own detriment. By being risky the film also suggests judgement of the characters and the film’s semi-exclusive setting. There’s not much to the character of Steve Burns other than it’s assumed he was 100% heterosexual at the film’s start but there’s not much devoted to explaining his backstory, nor his ticks and motivations. At one point he’s bound and gagged with his naked ass ready for action from a male patron he brings back home only to have the encounter interrupted by his fellow officers in a sting operation. Burn’s relationship to his…girlfriend? fuck-buddy? Nancy (Karen Allen) seems to only exist to show his wrestling with his sexuality after a night at the gay bars. Was he in love with her? Did he actually like her? Or was she just a vessel to prove his heterosexuality? Also, what was up with the Mandingo-esque Black man in the interrogation scene slapping everyone around? Was that meant to represent something significant to the story? Was this an actual police practice used? Was this a plot point that was explored in the CRUISING novel and barely hinted at in the movie? (Also, that scene was hot as fuck). The film also implies that Burns may have been guilty of murder(s) himself. However since we’re working with a complete blank canvas of a character and a frustrating devotion to narrative ambiguity the viewer is left with the feeling of annoyance instead of the desire to dissect the plot with friends. CRUISING has a few things working in its favor. The kill scenes are well executed and genuinely disturbing and the acting from everyone is stellar. Unfortunately it’s not enough to make the film stand the test of time other than to service as a snapshot of a very specific world, in a very specific time, in a very specific place that no longer exists.