A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1986) is perhaps the most mainstream queer horror film ever. It’s not necessarily a great film, having been criticised for losing the scares, thrills, and even the dream invasions of the original blockbuster classic. It is, though, a sequel definitely worthy of reflection, as it brings a very thinly veiled gay subtext that makes the film a compelling watch in 2020 — and one that’s had a drastic effect on its star. The documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019) explores how Mark Patton, the star of the film, found his pathway into Hollywood blocked by partaking in an ’80s movie that close enough to outed him as a gay man. Why would one movie have such an impact on one individual’s life? And has that impact extended into queer cinema today?
The subtext of Elm Street 2 undoubtedly would have been a surprise to viewers. Its predecessor didn’t concern itself with sexuality beyond vaguely continuing the sex-equals-death theme made common in Halloween (1978), and its camp edge merely was a result of the surreality inherent to the idea of an unstoppable killer. There wasn’t a particularly accommodating environment for gay cinema, either, with few major films on release that were actively supportive; My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) is the era’s biggest example yet was merely an indie British movie. Horror hasn’t historically shied away from exploiting social concerns, though, with the likes of The Last House on the Left (1972) tackling sexual violence through entertainment – and so the hot-button issue of homosexuality was ripe to be, for better or worse, exploited the screen.
Scream, Queen! makes it clear that the film’s tone was a surprise for Mark Patton, too. People in the industry were quick to recognise that the film depicted him as a gay man, from the campy nature of the character to the homoerotic situations he found himself in. This didn’t prove to be some watershed moment, though, with an opportunity for Patton to stand out as a symbol of cinematic openness to addressing young people’s concerns around their sexuality. Patton soon had it made clear to him that his appearance in Elm Street 2 had marked him as a gay man, something that he hadn’t openly expressed due to the expectedly negative response, and that he’d not find himself cast in a mainstream role again.
It’s abundantly clear why the film didn’t have a more positive impact, its approach somewhat respecting but also shying away from, even mocking, its subject. Patton‘s character, Jesse, is “possessed” by Freddy and struggling with something inside of him – and not being able to talk about or address it in any way tears him apart. Yet the film also lunges into innuendo, Jesse perhaps most famously partaking in an a gyrating, phallic dance, and also telekinetically whipping his naked gym teacher in extremely homoerotic revenge. The cheap laughs are amusing as a queer viewer today, largely because it’s more comfortable for some of us to be open about our sexuality, but sincerity could’ve made a big difference in 1985. The lack of sincerity seems immature, unhelpful, and cowardly.
That the internet didn’t exist is one reason why the film – and, more importantly, its star – couldn’t get a deserved revaluation. Patton was subject to pressures both real and imagined; the imagination coming from an industry that would pre-empt the public response and no longer deem him as having the potential to be a bankable star. Had the same film come out years later there would have been the opportunity for alternative perspectives, redeeming both the work itself and an actor who undeservedly felt left in the cold. It’s a terrible indictment of the lonely nature of filmmaking that Patton has only realised, through being coerced back into the limelight, that there have been people sympathetic to his performance for the past thirty years.
It’d be hard to imagine many people missing the subtext nowadays since gay cinema is significantly closer to the mainstream. Indeed, the film hardly seems to work without recognising Jesse’s frustrations as deeper than a tough gym coach and possession by Freddy: the dialogue becomes interminable padding between middling action and tepid hauntings. It’s become a historical curio and, in some ways, reasonably intelligent in the way which it alludes to Jesse struggling with his sexuality; we’re now in the position to openly discuss what various moments mean without shying away from honesty. Regardless, its more immediate impact on its supposed lead and its direct audience still happened, and there are possibilities that actor might have achieved had the filmmakers been bolder in their vision.
But is horror, in any case, a suitable medium for exploring sensitive social issues? The main obstacle is that ambiguity and mystery are woven into the concept of horror, and that to unsettle an audience a tale must be told through fogged glass. Prestigious works like Audition (1999) and Midsommar (2018) provide thought-provoking implications on toxic masculinity yet, no matter how much room there might be for contemplation, depth and truth can be easily lost amidst blood-letting and atmosphere. It’s not reasonable, given the challenge of marrying horror and affecting meaning, to expect Elm Street 2 to have been a seminal moment for gay rights, but it’s reasonable to expect those involved in the creation of a film to consider the ramifications of what they make.
It’s hard to see any sort of direct legacy for A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 that warrants plaudits. There’s not been any direct inspiration for other works that’s noteable in any way, and it’s certainly not sparked a revolution in LGBTQ+ horror — the latter made obvious by how revolutionary it is to have a well-written lesbian couple in this year’s The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). There is, in its favour, entertainment to be had when returning to it today, and its meaning can even be somewhat seriously unpicked without controversy undermining that possibility. The decades of distress caused to its star, however, can’t be overlooked, and act as a stark reminder of the responsibility and influence filmmakers have – and the wastefulness in not utilising that.