Two Nightmares on Elm Street and a Final Boy

Of the three big horror franchises of the 1980s, the Elm Street franchise was my favourite. Halloween (1978) was the original, and is a classic of the slasher genre, but most of its sequels are terrible and it never really recovered until the 40th anniversary follow-up Halloween (2018). (The much-maligned Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is a fascinating left-hand turn which abandoned Michael Myers and was all the more interesting for it.) Friday the 13th (1980) and its sequels didn’t make much impression on me at the time, but when I watched them all in sequence two Halloweens ago I was surprised to find that I enjoyed more than half of them (and that not all of the characters were as awful as I’d remembered). But A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was more than just a slasher movie – it was bursting with imagination and had so many possibilities inherent in its dream-based supernatural format. Although it didn’t always live up to its potential, I saw the final three movies in the cinema (not counting the recent pointless remake) and can find something to love in every one of the entries.

I’ve recently begun a series rewatch roughly in parallel with the “easy listening horror” podcast With Gourley and Rust. Today’s post is basically a collection of the moments that stood out to me after rewatching the first two films, followed by my impressions of the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019), which is now available for rental or purchase from Umbrella Entertainment.

The original A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a highly effective and well-constructed horror movie while also, weirdly, falling into the category of personal comfort viewing. It contains so many of my favourite moments from the series as a whole: Freddy’s elongated arms (which admittedly played more effectively on VHS than they do on a pristine Blu Ray restoration); his face and claws stretching the material of the wall above Nancy’s (Heather Langenkamp) wall to peer down at her, then retreating; the first killing, Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) gruelling death scene in which she’s dragged up the wall and across the ceiling while her boyfriend (Nick Corri) watches helplessly; the gloved arm emerging from the bath; the bodybag being dragged along the school hallway by an unseen figure; the tongue emerging from the telephone receiver; the seemingly endless fountain of blood erupting from Glen’s (Johnny Depp) bed; the flaming footprints on the stairway; and the final fakeout ending in which Nancy’s mother (Ronee Blakley) is dragged through the door’s tiny window at an unnatural angle and speed. Looking back from an age when so many modern movies rely heavily on CGI, the practical effects still hold up and convey a physical reality that CGI has come close to approximating but cannot always match.

So many horror movies featuring students include a scene in a classroom where the subject of the lesson foreshadows what’s to come, often heavy-handedly. I’d picked up previously on the dream references in Nancy’s Shakespeare class – the speech from Julius Caesar about bad omens which becomes, just as she’s transitioning into dream, Hamlet’s “were it not that I have bad dreams” – but I don’t think I’d noticed that the teacher (Lin Shaye) discusses Hamlet’s frustration with being lied to by his mother, which becomes a key plot point for Nancy later on. Looking in a mirror after waking from a bad dream later, Nancy comments that she looks 20 years old – which was the actual age of Heather Langenkamp (who, of the four main actors playing teens, looks the most convincing as a teenager). I love the scene where Nancy pretends to go to sleep and her mother removes the coffee-maker and cups… only for Nancy to leap out of bed as soon as she’s left and pull out another coffee machine from under her bed, then peer through the crack of her bedroom door to observe her mother pulling out a bottle of vodka from her secret stash in the linen closet. And there’s a great moment near the end where Nancy tucks her mother into bed, demonstrating how through the course of the movie the roles of parent and child have reversed.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) is the odd one out of the series, radically changing the focus of the original by turning Freddy into a possessing spirit trying to break his way into the real world. By throwing away so much of what made the original movie special, it becomes a more conventional horror movie which could have been grafted onto another franchise or operated as a stand-alone. It’s effectively ignored by the sequels and considered by many to be the worst of the series.

In recent years, however, it’s been reassessed in light of its increasingly recognised gay subtext and has attained a following in its own right. It’s not something I was particularly aware of when I first saw it on TV. I noticed that Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell) attended a leather bar and seemed to have a weird interest in the main character Jesse (Mark Patton), which appeared to be the motivation for his death in the showers… but the sequence was difficult to follow due to TV censorship and it certainly never occurred to me that Jesse could be read as gay – after all, he had a girlfriend, Lisa (Kim Myers)! I thought she was sweet and cute and was thus invested in their relationship and never thought about it further than that.

Watched again with more life experience than my teenage self possessed, the subtext of Jesse as a boy struggling to come to terms with his unacknowledged homosexuality jumps off the screen. He’s been sleeping poorly, has a friendly but chaste relationship with his girlfriend, and finds himself getting distracted on the sporting field. He puts a lot of effort into tagging out Ron (Robert Rusler), the athletic guy trying to steal base, who pulls down his pants and wrestles him to the ground. After a shared punishment in which they’re told to “assume the position” by a coach known to attend “queer S&M bars”, he and Ron are new besties and bond in the locker room while Ron admires himself in his locker’s mirror. Noticing that Jesse has fallen asleep in class, Ron drapes the classroom snake over his body. Jesse later ends up wandering the rainy streets at night in an unbuttoned shirt and just happens to wander into the local gay bar for a drink. The coach finds him there and takes him back to the school gym to do laps and hit the shower. The coach then finds himself pelted by balls, dragged into the showers via skipping rope bondage, lashed to the showers facing the wall, stripped and having his buttocks whipped with wet towels before his death. A couple of nights later, Jesse begins a heavy petting session with Lisa but runs away before it goes too far and is next seen leaning over Ron’s naked torso and shaking him out of bed, begging to be allowed to stay in his room that night. Clearly there’s a lot of material to work with here, and there’s more I haven’t mentioned.

While the movie is much more successful on these terms than as an Elm Street movie, it does still contain some good Elm Street moments. I’ve always enjoyed the opening nightmare scene on the bus (which returns to close the film) – it grabbed me immediately (and perhaps also set the audience up for disappointment, as it’s the closest the film comes in tone to the original). And the scene at the pool party where Freddy spreads his arms and gloats “You are all my children now” is a classic which even haters of the film tend to remember. Rather more oddly, most of the Freddy-related scenes are accompanied with echoing whalesong – considering this is more frequently associated with New Age relaxation techniques, I assume it must have been relatively new to audiences at the time and was intended to be eerie rather than calming.

Last year’s documentary release Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street provides a more personal perspective on the legacy of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Narrated by Cecil Baldwin (Welcome to Night Vale), it follows the movie’s star Mark Patton on his year-long tour through the USA in celebration of the movie’s 30th anniversary.

Patton was born in 1959 to a Catholic family in Missouri and knew he was gay from the age of four. He moved to New York in 1977 so that he could live the life he wanted and built a career appearing in commercials before making his acting breakthrough with Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), appearing first on Broadway before reprising his role in the movie. He fell in love and moved in with Dallas actor Timothy Patrick Murphy, and three years later began work on his third movie Elm Street 2 – in what was intended to be his next step towards wider recognition, but ended up killing his career, because the AIDS epidemic was in full swing by the time of its release.

When Patton first arrived in New York, the attitude towards homosexuality was one of tacit “don’t ask don’t tell” acceptance. AIDS changed all that: actors found themselves forced back into the closet if they wanted to continue work, and some television programs required their actors to have blood tests due to the unwarranted fear of catching the disease from kissing a gay actor. Patton had to leave the house whenever his boyfriend Murphy had a promotional photo shoot to avoid creating the “wrong” impression. The National Enquirer took great joy in outing closeted celebrities, and broke into Murphy’s hospital room when he was dying from AIDS. The documentary provides a montage of scenes from movies of the era depicting the prevalence of the slur “faggot” as acceptable even within films aimed at children.

After seeing his performance in Elm Street 2, Patton’s agents informed him that his career options had narrowed – he was apparently incapable of playing somebody straight and would have to become a character actor. Already dealing with the stress of his boyfriend’s illness, Patton quit acting for good, moving somewhere else entirely after Murphy’s death. Fast forward to 2010, when the makers of the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy hired a private detective to track him down for an interview. Not having thought about the movie in some time, he looked it up on the internet and was horrified to read the vitriolic homophobic bile which riddled most comments on both the movie and him. Even more appalling was the discovery of an interview with the screenwriter offloading all blame for the film’s poor reception onto Patton’s shoulders, basically accusing him of “gaying it up.”

Scream, Queen! provides examples of the many ways in which Elm Street 2 has been rehabilitated and Patton embraced as a social activist. The movie has become a core text for queer film theory and has been embraced by the queer community, with extracts from his appearances at a range of queer and mainstream horror events scattered throughout the film, leading to Patton’s reunion with the original cast and director. Their recollections of the making of the film are quite illuminating. Robert Englund provides valuable context about the ways in which Hollywood’s attitude to homosexuality changed and was under no illusions about the film’s content – he was aware of the gay subtext and incorporated it into his performance during his scenes with Patton (after seeking his consent). Robert Rusler (who played his male “friend”) said this element was obvious from the moment he read the script, but Kim Myers (playing his girlfriend) missed it entirely. Bizarrely the director himself pled ignorance, failing even to register that the bar they had chosen to film in was a known gay bar.

The core throughline of the film is Patton’s quest to come to terms with the comments of screenwriter David Chaskin, who after initially denying or downplaying the subtext began to take credit for it as Elm Street 2 began to receive more positive attention. The documentary culminates with a meeting between the two men as Patton seeks an apology for Chaskin’s hurtful comments and his hypocrisy. It’s an awkward conversation and Chaskin comes across as if he doesn’t fully understand what he’s done wrong. He dismisses some of his comments (such as a suggestion that Elm Street 2 would be perfect for gay conversion therapy) as jokes (which seems unlikely from their context); persists in insisting against the evidence that Patton added elements that weren’t scripted; makes comments such as “I never wrote ‘he screams like a woman’”; deflects responsibility away from his writing onto the director; and tries to “straight-splain” the homophobic climate of the time to Patton as an excuse for hiding the subtext and panicking when it was noticed unfavourably. But Patton does at least get the apology he wanted and is willing to put his grudge behind him – and while I’m not sure whether Chaskin really earned his forgiveness, it appears to have allowed Patton to exorcise his last remaining demons. The movie which destroyed his life has since become a badge of honour which has given him the opportunity to support HIV treatment groups and LGBTQIA charities. Quite the legacy for an unloved sequel!

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