The relationship between drag queens and horror has been around for decades, and it’s pretty easy to see why — plenty of great horror films feature the most interesting monstrous characters that can be described as “over the top” and “camp,” the perfect fodder for an act that’s all about outrageous behavior. Heck, you can get a good look at the history of horror drag in our list of the Top 50 Most Fascinating Gender-Bending Characters of Psychotronic Film, and that doesn’t even get into the fabulousness that is Divine! There’s just something strangely entertaining about a scary man in a dress.
It’s not too surprising, then, that the latest episode of the judge-‘em-off drag queen competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” entitled “Scream Queens” featured the contestants having to immerse themselves in the world of bloodshed by performing in faux horror films. They even had the inclination to get Linda Blair to act as a guest judge – an always-welcome face on television. (Also “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”’ Lena Headey, who is nice, but not Linda Blair.) It should have been a camp horror fan’s (wet?) dream come true.
For those who have never seen the show, “Drag Race” features a dozen-ish drag performers vying to be America’s Next Drag Superstar, an official title invented by RuPaul and the producers at Logo for marketing reasons because “A Fabulous Queen That Goes to Bars and Shills Vodka While Mouthing the Lyrics to Other People’s Songs” is too unwieldy. (They also get money and shiny outfits.) The competition is fierce (in multiple ways) and viewers get exposed to a wide variety of drag subcultures, from the campy queens who embrace bawdy comedy, to the transgressive queens that experiment with the nature of gender, to the pageant queens who tend to be the most feminine in appearance and the most boring. (Except Season 5’s Alyssa Edwards, who is amazing and reminds me of a sexy Don Knotts.)
The “Scream Queens” episode begins as the two groups of six contestants each finally meet, as they’ve each competed as individual groups on previous episodes. (The entertainingly Christine Baranskian Kelly Mantle was eliminated first, followed by some broad who was just in it for the exposure, so I won’t mention her name. I’ll refer to her as “Amblyopia Sockface” when I need to, which will be never.) There are hugs, and then everyone bitches about how terrible everyone else is, because they are drag queens.
The next morning, they all regroup for the first mini-challenge. RuPaul appears via a static-filled television screen a la POLTERGEIST, and you get the hope that the whole episode will be horror-themed. Ru then enters and introduces the challenge, which is – beach party themed, where the queens team up in order to form one body in order to coordinate a synced dance routine on a beach set? It’s cute and funny, but it has nothing to do with horror. Why not some sort of ghoulish make-up challenge? Or the “makeup-in-the-dark” challenge from a previous season that would have at least had some tangential association to something scary? Or hell, do the same challenge with Charles Busch judging as a reference to PSYCHO BEACH PARTY?
The randomly chosen (as far as I could tell) winners are transgressive queen Milk, who comes from a club background and stands about six feet 58 in heels, and Adore Delano, who comes from “American Idol” (as Danny Noriega) and is so incredibly dumb and annoying that you’re amazed he knows how to stand at all. Their reward is that they get to pick their teams for their main challenge, serving “scary movie realness” in the production of a new horror film franchise called DRAG RACE ME TO HELL. One group will play a scene set in the ‘60s, the other in the ‘80s, allowing for the exploration of two different camps of horror, er, camp. Adore is happy…
…club queen Vivacious, who was in the bottom two the first week, is not.
The team captains take the exact group of queens they competed against the first week, which is smart for Milk but pretty typically dumb for Adore, who can’t, apparently, see past the stupid random rivalry to pick a team that’s going to be good at an acting challenge. The only one in Adore’s group that’s an obvious pick is BenDeLaCrème, a Seattle-based queen with an energy and showmanship obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention.
Adore talks about how he’s a huge fan of ‘80s horror movies and how excited he is, but he doesn’t name any and he doesn’t seem to follow this fandom up with anything, so let’s just assume he saw SLEEPAWAY CAMP II once at a slumber party and liked it. He hands out the parts pretty much randomly, with pissy Vivacious ending up playing a possessed head in a box and Puerto Rican queen April Carrion as a butch predatory lesbian.
April’s idea of “butch predatory lesbian,” however, is changing his voice so he sounds like Dame Edna having a stroke. He’s chastised for not being “manly” enough, but the truth is that the role doesn’t call for “manliness” so much as a parody of manliness – you’re trying to be a theatrical spectacle of forced masculinity, not trying to convince the other guys on the football team that you’re not queer. April and, it seems, the rest of her team, doesn’t figure out that she shouldn’t try to be John Wayne, she should try to be Mercedes McCambridge.
Not that most of these queens would know Mercedes McCambridge if she slugged ‘em in the tuck. Gia, a Chicago native that we need to excommunicate as soon as possible, is about as dumb as a box from BoobsForQueens.com (that’s BoobsForQueens.com), and she just complains constantly about everyone else, making her the double-threat of being toxic AND stupid. She complains about messy queens, cheap queens and manly queens, of which she is all three. Then she doesn’t know what a DeLorean is, and refers to it as an “ancient dildo.” Not knowing stuff is fine, but Gia seems to be proud of her ignorance, completely offended by the idea of having to learn anything. She is what we in the reality show watching fandom call “the villain.”
On Milk’s ‘60s team, Trinity K. Bonet, who has a nice sense of style but is fairly boring with her Beyonce love (echoes of the Season 2’s Tyra reverberate, and not just because Trinity is her drag daughter – she’s basically the same person, and even had a sob story last week to remind you.), worries that she won’t be able to perform well because she’s never acted and she has the most lines. On the plus side, the other queens convince her to act more “black” without using the word “ghetto,” so that’s nice. It’s actually the best tactic, as Trinity seems lost in the lines otherwise.
The ‘60s group goes first when it comes to the filming, and Bianca Del Rio and Courtney Act (two of the most obviously talented contestants) ace their lesbian seduction scene and murder. Joslyn Fox does well by announcing “Gasp!” in lieu of actually gasping. Trinity has some issues facing the camera, but does okay in the end, and Darienne Lake does goes work as a possessed head in a box.
The ‘80s group is… messy. April gloats about how she’s a leader because she’s a Libra. April’s “butch” accent is hilariously awful. The disembodied spirit of a disinterested space cadet wearing a Gia mask wanders around and forgets her accent. Adore Delano forgets all of his cues, mixes up names and “plays” a “character” that seems exactly like Adore Delano. Vivacious may actually be sleeping during her lines. BenDeLaCreme is a bright spot, and anyone with any idea as to what Laganja’s accent is supposed to be, please let me know.
Every episode of “Drag Race” concludes with a runway show, and this time out, the girls are told to bring out their best drag. (It’s good that they’re doing this early in the season – often times contestants eliminated early aren’t given a chance to look like themselves.) Along with regular judges Ru, Michelle Visage and Santino Rice, we get the aforementioned Healey and, of course, Linda Blair. “I can’t believe you’re here! My head is spinning!” Ru exclaims, and Blair laughs, as though she hasn’t heard that before. She’s nice! She wouldn’t get revenge on anyone!
Everyone looks great for the most part, especially Bianca, Courtney, Joslyn and Ben, who has a Bettie Page thing going on. Milk is dressed like a deranged lady Pinocchio, which is incredible because Milk is awesome. Vivacious seems to have misunderstood the challenge and is dressed like Spiny from Super Mario Brothers. Gia finds some way to wear an entire Dee-Lite video.
The final videos themselves show a fair share of the camp horror aesthetic – and also a lot of mess. The ‘60s version, entitled DRAG RACE ME TO HELL, is well-paced and clever, with plenty of ridiculous acting (though Trinity still seems to have problems with dialogue) and Darienne Lake does a fine job as a severed head in a performance that should make her a natural for any Peaches Christ show. Then a dwarf shows up at the end and electrocutes the cast, which we didn’t see getting filmed, makes no sense and is never referenced. What the hell?
For the most part, the ‘60s group gets the aesthetic they’re going for, one inspired by the slightly winking camp of STRAIGHT-JACKET and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, perhaps because the ‘60s team tended to be a little bit older. (Save for Trinity, the youngest person on the team was Milk at 25, who strikes me as someone who’s done the research into camp history by her own volition.) One would imagine that an ‘80s camp horror aesthetic, one gleaned from endless re-airings of NIGHT OF THE DEMONS and FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels, would be pretty easy for a younger group to get a grasp on.
One would be wrong, as we then see DRAG RACE ME TO HELL 5, the film produced by the other team. (I don’t get DRAG RACE ME TO HELL chronology – DRM2H 5 is a remake of DRM2H rather than a sequel, but is this the same for the other, unmade DRM2H films? Or is one character from the original intended to be an older character in the fourth sequel? Is this like the WITCHCRAFT movies? What’s going on? As a strict following of franchise fanwankery, I demand answers, or at least some terrible slash fiction.) Pretty much everyone is varying degrees of awkward save for BenDeLaCreme, and due to some deliberately bad editing, Vivacious doesn’t even seem to know her lines. At least Gia learns how to pronounce “DeLorean,” so it’s not a complete waste.
The judges sit in a stunned silence. Gia mentions that he thought it was funny that the other team’s video was in black and white and theirs was in color, because Gia is an idiot, or at least she’s playing one for the sake of additional screen time. Milk’s team obviously wins, and the final two up for elimination are Vivacious, who says she has “no theatrical background” while dressed like a throbbing red cactus, and April, who has completely failed to convince anyone that she’s butch. The judges let Adore slide even though her outfit is mediocre, her team was terrible and she couldn’t remember lines because she’s “charismatic” and “talented,” two attributes which the editors are clearly intent on keeping from us. (Headey calls her “the daughter I’d like to slap.”) Vivacious goes home.
This isn’t the first time “Drag Race” has explored genre films – Season 1 had a challenge referencing RuPaul’s low-budget action pic STARBOOTY, Season 3 had a similar challenge using science fiction, and Season 4 started off with a memorable runway that had the contestants wearing their best post-apocalyptic outfits. And while the challenge in “Scream Queens” was a lot of fun (and, natch, it’s great to hear Blair), I can’t help but wish they’d dug a little bit deeper into the history and culture of the horror hag in drag, as it’s such a rich one.
Maybe have each queen recreate a famous horror hag throughout history or have Peaches Christ, Charles Busch or playwright David Cerda mentor them for a bit? One queen mentioned that they were on the show, in part, to learn from other contestants, and it would be great to see a bit more of the history of drag’s influences become a piece of the show. That said, watching a bunch of fabulously outgoing personalities deliver their best will never get old, and this season of “Drag Race” has enough strong contestants to keep me watching. (I mean, Gia can’t stick around THAT long, can she?)
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