A lot has changed since Joshua Grannell first rehearsed as his beloved drag persona, San Francisco’s own Peaches Christ, to host a screening of the 1992 cult classic “Death Becomes Her.” The return of the show — which simultaneously lampoons and reveres the Meryl Streep-Goldie Hawn supernatural dark comedy in which the two leads drink an eternal life potion — was planned for March 2020 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.
Then COVID-19 made its presence known across the world. Although the pandemic rages on and the Castro has new owners, Grannell believes that this is the year for Peaches (with fellow performers Jinkx Monsoon, BenDeLaCreme and Major Scales) to finally bring “Drag Becomes Her” back to live audiences. The drag parody returns to the Castro for two shows on Saturday.
As it happens, this year also marks “Death Becomes Her’s” 30th anniversary. When I ask Grannell about this, he insists it wasn’t planned that way.
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“I think that’s the magic of ‘Death Becomes Her’ at play!,” he tells me. “Not [just] the 30th anniversary of the film, but also the fact that we’re performing it mere weeks after Jinkx Monsoon was crowned Queen of All Queens in the winner’s season of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’! Some kind of dark magic must be at play!”
It’s the kind of magic his fans have come to expect from Grannell after 20-plus years of shows. Grannell began hosting Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass film screenings at the now-defunct Bridge Theatre in the ’90s, showcasing renowned genre favorites like the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, ’80s VHS mainstays like “Teen Witch” and camp classics like “Mommie Dearest.” (The showcase’s 1998 screening of “Showgirls” is often considered the first to exploit the camp value of the notorious showbiz melodrama.)
Midnight Mass shows would see the interior of the Bridge decked out in film-appropriate décor as the screening was preceded by short films, cast interviews, musical numbers and outlandish Grannell-conceived stage shows that usually featured drag queens Martiny and Heklina. The audience was often part of the debauchery, with “Showgirls” screenings featuring free lap dances with the purchase of a large popcorn.
Through all films and a post-Bridge move to the Castro, the often-sparkly Peaches served as mistress of ceremonies like the sequined ringleader of an underground circus. Grannell even wrote and directed his own cult film with 2010’s “All About Evil,” starring Natasha Lyonne and Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson.
This isn’t Peaches Christ’s first “Drag Becomes Her,” but the studio blockbuster still seems a curious choice for a niche film showcase. Though it was a box-office smash, “Death Becomes Her” got a lukewarm response from critics, who praised its then-groundbreaking visuals, but turned their noses up at its over-the-top script. For Grannell, those outlandish plot points, combined with two iconic female leads, make the film perfect drag fodder.
“It’s just a perfect film from start to finish: a gorgeous, gothic, Universal Monster send-up featuring two brilliant, comedic geniuses chomping every scene,” he says. “Plus, Bruce Willis and Isabella Rossellini giving us gold. Drag queens fell in love with the movie instantly, and fans of the film love seeing queens celebrate it.”
Of course, the world of March 2020 is different than the world of August 2022. For one thing, the Castro’s gotten new owners in the form of Another Planet Entertainment, whose programming and architectural plans for the venue have frequently rubbed people the wrong way. (This interview occurred before the Castro’s emotional town hall meeting on Aug. 11.) In addition to that, the COVID pandemic is not only still raging, but has been supplemented by the worldwide monkeypox outbreak.
Though Grannell declines to comment on APE or elaborate on the Castro’s COVID measures (saying only that the event will be “following city guidelines”), I ask if he still holds optimism in a world and country that’s still dangerous for marginalized people; in particular, a world still dangerous for LGBTQ+ youth and the country where Roe v. Wade has been repealed.
“I think a lot of what we’re losing today is a direct result and reaction to us gaining so much,” he says, expressing a cautious optimism grounded in reality. “The conservatives are fighting back with everything they have because they feel they’ve lost so much. I hope young people remember that these decisions are not the result of the majority. They’re the result of justices being appointed by a ‘president’ who lost the popular vote by millions of votes. My hope is that young people fight to destroy the Electoral College and make this country a true democracy.”
Part of that optimism comes from all the creative work that’s occupied his time over the past 2½ years. There have been film projects with collaborator Michael Varrati, the “Midnight Mass” podcast (also with Varrati), and the Terror Vault immersive horror tours he produces at the San Francisco Mint every Halloween season. (Last year’s return show, “The Immortal Reckoning,” is scheduled to be followed up by this year by “The Summoning.”)
He also worked with puppeteer Dave Haaz-Baroque’s Shadow Circus Creature Theatre. “Dave is so talented and is one of our creative collaborators over at Terror Vault,” Grannell says. “You won’t believe the puppet he’s built for ‘The Summoning’!”
Not only that, but Haaz-Baroque also found a rather unique place for Peaches Christ in Shadow Circus’ short film anthology “Scary Stories to Tell by the Campfire”: “It’s incredible! Dave asked me to be a butt-spider, and somehow that made total sense!”
It may not be a popcorn lap dance or Meryl Streep’s twisted head, but it’s the very sort of thing that has “Joshua Grannell” written all over it.
“Peaches Christ Productions Proudly Presents ‘Drag Becomes Her’” runs one day only for two shows, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. Although tickets range from $20-$130 (depending on date of purchase, seating location and VIP packages), they are sold out as of this writing. Further information can be found at https://www.peacheschrist.com/event/drag-becomes-her/.
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at https://thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com/project-type/journalism/.