Once upon a time, Tab Hunter was—as George Takei would later put it—“the embodiment of youthful American masculinity.” Good-looking, impossibly-square-jawed and blonde, Tab was the very picture of the all-American boy, the wholesome, aw-shucks matinee idol answer to his contemporary James Dean’s dangerous rebel. He was the “shy guy” in Battle Cry in 1955, the eager slugger in 1958’s Damn Yankees, and the romantic lead opposite stars like Natalie Wood and Sophia Loren. He went on highly-publicized dates with starlets like Debbie Reynolds, and had a chart-topping single called “Young Love” that prompted Jack Warner to create Warner Records just so Warner Bros. could monetize his charming voice.
Tab Hunter was also gay, and was in a long-term, secret relationship with Anthony Perkins—the man, of course, best known as Norman Bates in Psycho. He was infamously outed in the pages of Confidential Magazine; he had been arrested years earlier at what the magazine called a “limp-wristed pajama party,” and rumors about the arrest were sold to the magazine by his own management in exchange for an agreement to quash a planned story outing Rock Hudson, already a bigger star. Tab’s burgeoning career faltered and never really recovered, dogged by rumors about his sexuality. “I thought my career was over,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2015.
In 2005, at age 74, Tab came out publicly, reclaiming the “confidential” of it all by naming his memoir about life in the closet Tab Hunter Confidential. It was turned into a fantastic documentary of the same name in 2015, and he enjoyed a few years of touring the documentary on the festival circuit—finally recognized as the pioneering gay icon he could never have been in the 1950s—until his passing in 2018.
But being an out gay icon wasn’t Tab Hunter’s second act. It was his fourth. His third came when John Waters cast him in Polyester in 1981, opposite Divine. Thanks to that role, he enjoyed a few years of renewed (camp) interest in his matinee idol past, with roles in films like Grease 2 (1982) and Lust in the Dust (1985).
Before that, though, Tab’s second act came in 1972. With his film career basically dried up and few other options available, he took a role in the Roger Corman-produced Sweet Kill—a shameless exploitation-flick ripoff of Psycho—and fashioned himself into a monstrous queer.
ii. The Monstrous Queer
In Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, Harry Benshoff takes a taxonomic approach to film criticism, exploring numerous incarnations of what he calls the “monstrous queer” throughout horror film history. His “monstrous queer” is an often-coded queer character in a horror film who represents a threat to traditional heterosexual relationships. The monstrous queer achieves this most commonly through infecting others and seducing them into joining their wicked ways, or by murdering one or both heterosexual participants, frequently while conflating sexual contact and violence. Benshoff notes that many psychologists in the early 1900s saw homosexuality in men as a manifestation of an extreme hatred of women, and films often depicted this in violent, misogynistic ways.
Benshoff writes that Psycho “forever etched into audiences’ minds an almost textbook example of a stereotypical teenage homosexual (complete with a harsh overbearing mother and absent father) — not as a young man who desires other men, but as a knife-wielding, cross-dressing, psychopathic murderer.” And of Anthony Perkins himself, who starred in Psycho a couple of years after he and Tab separated, Benshoff writes that the actor “never lost the monster queer stigmata he acquired in Psycho (even after his heterosexual marriage).”
In the early ‘70s, Tab Hunter wanted to destroy the “Sigh Guy” heartthrob image he was known for, as, he says, “the movie roles were just not coming along.” Benshoff writes at one point about George Nader, a leading man from the ‘50s whose homosexuality was sold to Confidential as part of the same deal that exposed Tab Hunter. He notes that, as a consequence, Nader “spent most of his career making films either abroad or in the backwaters of Hollywood,” an example of “the way that queer individuals wanting to work within the Hollywood system often became marginalized (the lack or presence of talent notwithstanding).”
Like Nader, Tab spent the latter part of the ‘60s working internationally and in small productions. To shatter the expectations people still had of him, he decided to make the move to independent, “backwater” films and signed on for Sweet Kill, an independent horror movie produced by Roger Corman and directed by Curtis Hanson—who coincidentally would later go on to direct L.A. Confidential, a movie about the very gossip rag that destroyed so many gay actors’ careers. Sweet Kill is an ultra-low budget, sleazy horror movie about a high school gym teacher who just can’t seem to get aroused when he’s with a woman. Tamara Asseyev, one of the producers, describes the film in Tab’s documentary as having been made “on a shoestring,” and she says that, in casting the lead role, they were looking for a handsome man who would “love women to death.” She adds, “Tab Hunter would be the last person you would expect to do that.”
She means he’d be the last person to take on the role, but it’s a revealing slip; knowing what we know now, Tab Hunter is indeed the last person you’d expect to “love women to death.” It’s apt casting, and his character’s impotence and eventual explosion of sadistic, misogynistic violence makes him a classic example of the “monstrous queer,” and moreover, one directly in the lineage of his former partner Perkins’ iconic Norman Bates.
In fact, marketing for the movie played up the similarities between the films — posters advertised the film as being “In the tradition of PSYCHO.” It may not really be in the same tradition of respectable, genre-defining box-office hits, but it is in the same tradition of films about a queer man who is moved to violence by his perverted sexuality, slashing women to death instead of sleeping with them. And both commit horrific murders in bathrooms, specifically in showers, leaving their victims bloodied and grasping for the shower curtain until finally they slump to the floor, motionless, leaving their killers shocked by their own actions.
iii. Am I Attractive To You?
The early scenes, before Hunter’s Eddie has discovered his passion for slashin’, are almost tender in their portrayal of a man who just can’t quite figure out why he isn’t interested in sleeping with women. He meets a girl on the beach outside his apartment building — a bright, wide-open, freeing space, as opposed to the dimly-lit, shadowy corners of the film’s interiors — and he brings her back to his room. She takes her shirt off — as do pretty much all of the women in the film, this being an exploitation movie and all — but he pushes her off, seeming uninterested. She’s offended and asks him why he doesn’t want to have sex, and the camera lingers on a glassy-eyed, embarrassed Tab Hunter, choking back an answer, swallowing deeply. Were this a different sort of film, we might be expecting that he’s about to reveal his homosexuality to her. It’s…touching, in a way.
Instead, he pushes her off the couch, and she hits her head on a table and dies. He starts panting, and we realize that he’s finally aroused — by her dead body. So begins his killing spree. So much for tender and touching.
Much of the movie that follows is episodic. A new woman shows up in his life; she gets naked; he’s frustrated by his inability to sleep with her; he kills her instead. One such scene is a startlingly obvious invitation for a queer reading of the film, so much so that to watch it now, knowing what we know about Tab Hunter, we can’t help but chuckle knowingly: yet again Eddie finds himself sitting next to a woman he should be making a move on, but he’s holding himself back, unable to bring himself to be sexual with her. She asks, “Am I attractive to you?” and he sits there, silently, staring, for an uncomfortably long while. We almost expect him to answer “Uh…yeah, no, not really?”
Instead, he kills her, so consumed by his own shame that he lashes out.
Some of the scenes are extremely difficult to follow; characters are introduced with little-to-no backstory, we see them naked, and they are dispatched. The film is almost as misogynistic as Eddie is, frequently completely disregarding its female characters’ interiority in favor of long nude scenes. Part of this is a consequence of the film’s production; upon release, it failed horribly, so Corman shot additional sex scenes, inserted more nudity, and re-released the movie as The Arousers. Instead of promising a “milestone in Tab Hunter’s career,” as one poster for Sweet Kill did, advertising for The Arousers removed him entirely and focused on the bevy of beauties viewers could expect to see in sexual situations in the film. The movie was still a flop. Rather than an erotic exploitation movie, Sweet Kill is a savage horror movie about women being brutalized at the hands of a coded-queer killer. Not exactly titillating.
That all being said, the film is more thought-provoking than that description would suggest. There is something undeniably compelling about the way the film moves between oppressive, frightening interior locations and bright, sunny, wide-open exteriors. The score, too, is excellent. An extended chase sequence at the end shows Eddie tracking down and stabbing the roommate of his first victim; he pursues her across dark, shadowy backyards and through brightly lit porches, the inhabitants of the mansions ignoring her screams for help. The score is propulsive, and the sequence is genuinely unsettling.
After he murders the roommate, he returns to the apartment to finish off her boyfriend. It is here that the queer themes of the film become perhaps most apparent. Eddie closes in on his victim…throws him down on the ground…the man’s legs fly up in the air…Eddie straddles him…and the film cuts to his walk home, where we see that this particular murder has rocked Eddie far more than any of the dozen or so others he’s already committed. Perhaps, we theorize, it’s because this is the first time we’ve seen him kill another man, and a shirtless, masculine, attractive one at that.
In discussing narrative ellipses like this one, Harry Benshoff quotes from Rhona J. Berenstein: “[When a film self-censors], violence and romance are generally conflated and both are hidden from direct view…this device invited spectators to assume that what occurred offscreen was as significant as what happened on-screen and that offscreen events were not solely acts of violence (the monster attacking the heroine) but were displays of romantic/sexual desire as well (the monster seducing the heroine).”
Benshoff expands on and queers her analysis: “Similarly, when a male monster approaches a male victim and the film cuts away from the scene, the audience is left to speculate upon the precise nature of the attack: is it sexual, violent, or both? For a spectator predisposed towards a queer reading protocol, these narrative ellipses open up a range of possible meanings.”
For me, the meaning of the film cutting from Eddie straddling a nearly-naked man, to his walk of shame in the rain, to him sitting on the floor of his apartment building — where he begins to do pushups and flashes back to all of the times he’s seen a naked woman — is quite clear. Eddie has experienced the encounter as a homosexual one, and he’s shaken by it; to prove his own masculinity to himself, he thinks about naked women and he exercises. He’s just come face to face with what he’s been repressing, and it sends him spinning for the remainder of the movie.
iv. The Pigeons and the Cranes
The birds are the element that makes most visible how the film seems to intentionally remix Psycho’s motifs. In Psycho, Norman Bates has a taxidermy hobby; his office is filled with stuffed, elegant birds of prey, and he and Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane have a conversation while framed by owls and raptors. The birds, in their death, have been reconstituted as sculpture, as art. Psycho, too, is an art-horror film, an elegantly-constructed, at-times-beautiful look at a twisted, deranged situation.
Sweet Kill, on the other hand, frequently associates Eddie with live pigeons. Pigeons are not nearly as elegant as the birds that Norman surrounds himself with. Pigeons are pests. They’re common. They’re associated with trash. Eddie’s neighbors complain several times about the noise and the smell of his birds; they’re a general nuisance rather than living sculpture.
This difference in the use of birds reflects the difference in approach between the two films. Psycho is concerned with art, with psychological examinations of depraved minds. Sweet Kill, on the other hand, is sleazy, brash, wallowing in trash. Tab Hunter’s Eddie is the pigeon to Anthony Perkins’ lanky crane. Both serve a purpose; they’re just both doing different (yet related) things.
Sweet Kill climaxes with a truly upsetting scene that recalls the infamous Psycho shower sequence. The victim this time is Eddie’s downstairs neighbor, who has shown genuine affection for him throughout the film. One day, she finds a body in his tub, and before she can react, Eddie sneaks up behind her, stabbing her repeatedly. The sequence is all quick cuts and invasive camera movements that suggest stabbing rather than showing it, just like Hitchcock’s original. We get a shot of her bloody hand sliding down the wall just like Marion’s head, and we see her pull down the shower curtain.
And then, there is a lingering shot of a blood-streaked Hunter, his chest heaving as he stares down at his latest victim. A dribble of drool escapes his mouth, and he wipes it away. The image of Tab Hunter the beefcake, heartthrob, all-American boy has been reconstituted into something grotesque, pornographic. We’re definitely not meant to objectify him here, the way we are when he goes shirtless in many of his other films. Instead, we’re meant to be utterly repulsed by him. And we are.
Sweet Kill ends with a long tracking shot in almost total darkness, the only sound the overwhelming cooing of the pigeons. It’s not clear what we’re seeing at first. There’s a shape that we are getting closer and closer to, but it’s difficult to make out. Is it a…bird?
The image resolves itself and comes into focus and we see that it’s Tab Hunter, lurking in the shadows of the rafters, his face melting into the darkness. He’s wild, animalistic, his eyes probing the camera, daring us to look at him. It recalls the overlay of Norman Bates and the death’s-head that comes at the very end of Psycho. It’s shocking and upsetting and far more sophisticated than anything that’s come before.
There’s a section of Benshoff’s book entitled “Exposing the monster queer to the sunlight, circa the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion.” It’s about the way that monsters moved out of the shadows in the late ‘60s and in the ‘70s, becoming more normalized and taking on different forms than the repressed killers of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In that way, Sweet Kill is quite regressive; yes, it could show far more nudity and sexual violence than its counterparts under the Production Code, but it still reduces its monstrous queer to a wild animal, literally forced back into the shadows and in-between spaces of his building.
One trailer for Sweet Kill called Tab’s performance “a new kind of role that moves him into the front rank of screen artists.” That…didn’t really happen. Instead, Tab had a brief but memorable role alongside Paul Newman in John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean that same year—as did Anthony Perkins, although they didn’t share the screen. After that, he spent the rest of the decade languishing in TV guest spots. It wouldn’t be until 1981 that John Waters resurrected his career and installed him as a camp icon with Polyester, which led to spots in Grease 2 and Lust in the Dust, among others. His final acting role was in 1992’s Dark Horse, a film he co-wrote and produced with Allan Glaser, his partner from the early 1980s until his death. It’s about a young girl who does community service on a ranch and winds up bonding with one of the horses. His character, the ornery owner of the prized horse, is named Perkins.
But what if Tab Hunter’s Sweet Kill performance had been recognized as the courageous feat it was? Sure, the film itself isn’t great. However, as a career move from a Hollywood star who spent his youth in the closet, it’s a stunning exercise. Here Tab Hunter has remixed and reinterpreted the most iconic performance by the man whose love he was forced to hide, and turned it into something even more twisted and perverse. And he did it as a way to break down and take control of his own star persona, wresting it away from the Hollywood machine. This “monstrous queer” role is thus a radical act, a primal howl against the repression of the Hollywood closet. While Sweet Kill didn’t ultimately propel Tab “into the front rank of screen artists,” perhaps we’re now ready to see and appreciate this performance for what it is.