Monday, October 26, 2015

The Films of 1985 A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

I’m not going to beat around the bush about this. 

There are two ways to interpret A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985).

You can study it as a barely-better than average, run-of-the-mill sequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 masterpiece; one that has no real cohesion or continuity in terms of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) and his abilities as a supernatural being who operates on the dream plane.

Or, you can view it in a way that I believe makes it an inherently more intriguing and challenging film: as the story of a young man, Jesse (Mark Patton), who is beginning to recognize his homosexuality, and the difficulty of being gay in the eighties.

Now -- regarding the second approach -- I have read interviews with the filmmakers (particularly Jack Sholder) that state unequivocally that this second reading is absolutely not intentional.

I absolutely take the filmmakers at their word. 

Yet I also believe that this alternate reading of the film nonetheless tracks well with the imagery and narrative details of Freddy’s Revenge, and I hope to demonstrate how this is so as I explore the movie’s themes.

Also, I should also state for the record, that 1985 was a very different time in terms of the culture and media’s understanding of homosexuality and gay rights. So it isn’t entirely fair to judge Freddy’s Revenge by today’s evolved understanding of that subject. Context is crucial in the understanding of any work of art. It can never be forgotten that this is a mid-eighties mainstream horror film, with a mid-eighties understanding of the issues examined. 

But nonetheless, if I had to describe Freddy’s Revenge in two words, using the terminology of its era, it would be, simply, homosexual panic.

In this film Freddy Krueger symbolizes not the sins of the parents visited upon the children (as he does in other franchises films), but the repression of an alternative life-style that Jesse has begun to realize is part of his character. 

Jesse’s sexual urges and identity keep exploding out of him (in the form Freddy), and he attempts to control them. Ultimately, he loses the battle, because he iswho he is.  So in a sense, the monster here isn't homosexuality, but rather the repression or denial of one's identity.

I hope to demonstrate -- via imagery and a dissection of the narrative -- how this sequels pursues the theme of a young man discovering and simultaneously fearing his sexuality.  Again, this is a possible reading of the film that I believe tracks well, and which adds to one's understanding of the story.

“You’ve got the body, I’ve got the brain.”

Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) and his family move into Nancy Thompson’s old home at 1428 Elm Street, and very soon he begins to experience dreams about Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).

Freddy says he needs Jesse’s body to continue his reign of terror, and begins to “come out” of Jesse, killing his abusive gym coach, and even his best friend, Grady.

Soon, only the love of Jesse’s girlfriend, Lisa (Kim Myers), can save him from Freddy’s assimilation.

 “There’s something inside of me.”

Before I delve into the framework of the “homosexual panic” sub-plot of A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), I want to note, again, that this is really the only framework that makes the film worthwhile as a work of art.

If you subtract this theme, you’re left with a middling, largely non-scary movie that observes no clear rules in terms of Freddy Krueger or his evil nature.  Consider: how does he “get inside” of Jesse and become a physical being?  Likewise, how does Jesse kill that physical form?

What are we to make of the Freddy rats in the (not-burned down...) boiler room, especially since they exist in our reality, not in the dream world? 

And the exploding parakeet?

Or the fact that Freddy, once in the real world, can make swimming pools boil, fences burn red hot, materialize and de-materialize at will, and otherwise reshapes our reality?

After Freddy’s Revenge, the film series went in a new and more coherent direction, and rightly so.  

There, in Dream Warriors, the idea was cemented that Freddy -- and teens too -- possess “dream powers” which make them capable combatants in the dream plane. But once Freddy is here, in our reality, he is as bound to the laws of Physics as we are. In a sense, the playing field is even, so that the dreams are not mere killing fields for Krueger. This was the idea that went on to inform The Dream Master and The Dream Child, as well.

But for Freddy’s Revenge, this "rule-book" of sorts does not yet exist. Instead, Freddy can do whatever the screenplay demands of him at any given time. This kind of loosey-goosey behavior is death to a rubber reality horror film, because the horror becomes fantasy, ungoverned by limits or parameters.

This observation applies to Freddy's Revenge. Unless, of course, one decides to examine the film’s imagery and the symbolism associated with that imagery. And that’s where the second reading enters the picture.

So, what’s the basis or case for reading Freddy’s Revenge as an exploration of Jesse’s repression of his sexual orientation?  

As I note in Horror Films of the 1980s, our protagonist is depicted shirt-less and in briefs -- no less than four times -- in the film, an act which effectively sexualizes him. We are asked to consider, in these shots his very physicality. He is objectified, in a sense, by the frequent focus on his body.  

At one point, Jesse even performs a dance in his bedroom with a phallic substitute, thrusting and moving around suggestively.

Simultaneously, Jesse is associated with heat throughout the film. He wakes up after a particularly disturbing nightmare, writhing and moaning as if possessed by a very strong fever. 

He adjusts his testicles as he awakens and exits his bed, and the very next shot is a close-up of two eggs cooking in a skillet. This conjunction of images suggests the source of this uncomfortable heat, doesn’t it? 

Jesse’s sexuality is awakening, and burning. It is cooking like those two eggs.

It is important to note that Freddy is also related visually to the "heat" imagery in the film. We see him stoking the furnace in the basement of the house, and this is a vital image. He is causing Jesse's heat, in a sense, making him burn, threatening to emerge from his repressed state. Freddy keeps throwing gasoline on the fire, as it were.

At school, the sexualized imagery surrounding Jesse continues at a rapid rate. A friend of Jesse’s, named Grady (Ron Rusler) humiliates him in a sexual fashion during gym class. He pulls his pants down in front of everyone.  

The coach (Marshall Bell) -- a sadomasochist -- intervenes and tells them both to “assume the position." 

They are both made to do push-ups in the dirt, holding their poses in a sexually suggestive fashion.  

Grady then tells Jesse that this is how Coach Schneiders “gets his rocks off.”

Meanwhile, Jesse’s sexual desire is still burning hot. The next night, the lamp on his night-table melts.  An LP melts on a cabinet.

So what does Jesse do, in the middle of the night (and in a blinding rain-storm) to stop the fire that Freddy is stoking within? 

Well, he leaves his house to visit a local S and M bar called Don’s Place. There, he runs into -- surprise, surprise! -- Coach Schneider. Notably, the coach is the only figure in the film to be identified by an “alternative” sexuality. This is also an important connection for Jesse.

So why does Jesse make a bee-line to a sex bar, and rendezvous with a man who gets his rocks off to young men humping the sand?  

Good question.  

There are two, interconnected answers.  

The first involves Jesse’s subconscious.  He has been drawn to the one person whom he understands may be like him, at least in some sense.  Both are outside the norm of 1980s accepted sexuality.

Secondly, his fear of being gay (represented by his inner Freddy) has decided that Coach Schneider must be punished -- or die -- for being open about what Jesse tries so hard to suppress and repress: his sexuality.

Next up, while still at the bar, Jesse lets the Coach pick him up.  

They go back to the gym together (and remember, this is the middle of the night…) and the Coach makes Jesse run laps and take a shower.  

The coach/student bond does not extend, to my knowledge, to 2:00 am, and meet-ups at pick-up bars.  Jesse goes, of course, because he is exploring his repressed desire, not because this is an approved extra-curricular activity. 

Jesse is gay, and he knows it, but he represses it.  And when he fears who he is, Freddy comes out to play.  So Freddy emerges, ties the coach to the shower head, and whips his naked ass with a towel several times before slashing him to death.  When Jesse gazes at his own hand, following Coach Schneider’s death, he sees that he is wearing Freddy’s glove.  He has just committed murder (in a sexual context, clearly), and he is the one wearing the glove because he is the one battling his true nature, his true (repressed) desires.

Consider too, that this scene ends with some pretty indisputable phallic imagery.  The shower water spout spits out (ejaculates) blood.

Now it’s necessary to discuss Jesse’s girlfriend, Lisa (Kim Myers). Jesse is asked if he is “mounting her nightly,” and the answer is negative. . He hasn’t even really kissed her in a very romantic way.  Later in the film, Jesse attends Lisa’s pool party, and begins to engage in intercourse with her.  

During foreplay, however, Freddy’s tongue emerges from Jesse’s mouth, and he runs away in horror at what is inside him. In this case, Freddy inhibits his ability to perform with a willing, able and gorgeous young woman.

So naturally, Jesse runs right to the real target of his affection. He goes to Grady’s house. Jesse  enters Grady’s bedroom, finds the hunk stripped down to the chest in bed, and tells him, in these exact words: “I need you to let me stay here tonight...there’s something inside of me.”

Again, consider that Jesse is conflicted. He is tormented by knowledge of his identity, and yet drawn to Grady because of that identity. And now, it is too much to bear, Freddy -- Jesse’s Id, essentially – bursts out of Jesse’s body, “coming out,” as it were, to kill the object of his desire (just as the earlier object, Coach Schneider) was killed.

Then, in the scene in which Freddy is loose, consider how the fire or heat subplot comes to fruition . The swimming pool boils.  The pool area fence is read hot.  Fire blooms all around Freddy. He is no longer repressed.  He is free.

Jesse’s crisis resolves temporarily when Lisa begs Jesse/Freddy to “come back to me.” She forces a kiss on him, and love -- and heterosexuality, apparently -- restores Jesse to the societal, 1980s definition of “normal.”  

But in the film’s last act, of course, Freddy re-emerges, his gloved hand ripping through a co-ed on the school bus.

Why?  Because Jesse can’t deny his true nature, as gay, for long.  He might suppress it.  He might try to deny it.  But it keeps bursting out. The heat keeps growing.  His attempts at repression will not be successful.

A major question to consider, I suppose, is: is Freddy’s Revenge homophobic?  I’ll confess, that question has stumped me for a while.  I vacillate on that one.

At first, I thought the answer was affirmative, because all the scenes involving Coach Schneider seem horribly clichéd and two dimensional.  When I wrote Horror Films of the 1980s, I believed the film was evidencing a fear of homosexuality.

Similarly, we don’t really use the term “homosexual panic” anymore, but it was certainly in vogue in the eighties (and was referenced directly, for example, in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness [1985]).  It seems an insulting or pejorative term by today’s standards, although I don’t think it was, necessarily, meant to be.

Recently, I re-screened the film for my Freddy Week here, and I felt differently about it.  I felt that Freddy’s Revenge was attempting to express -- in some awkward and adolescent way -- the story of a teenager trying to find himself, battling against the self-concept imposed by society, culture, and to some extent, even himself.  Freddy isn't an avatar for homosexuality in the film, but one for the repression of self. That's a distinction worth noting.

In a ham-handed, primitive kind of way, Freddy’s Revenge grapples with Jesse’s identity, and what it means.  The images are clear-cut (a transition from testicles to cooking eggs?), as are the situations (a visit to an SM bar? An extra-curricular trip to the showers?), and yet the film never openly acknowledges its theme. 

The film itself is therefore “in the closet” so-to-speak.  On the surface, it is not apparently about what its visuals so clearly convey.  In that way, it may be considered a metaphor the gay experience in 1980s America.  The film is not entirely free to openly be itself.

The other question, which you also must judge for yourself, is: am I reading too much into the film? 

Go back and closely examine the images that accompany the post, and consider my interpretation, and its plausibility. I see a preponderance of symbolism that supports my reading of the film.  Yet I acknowledge the filmmakers themselves disagree. Is it possible that they didn't know what their film was about?  

Of course, you may choose to reject my reading, but I’ll be honest: There is simply not an alternative reading that makes Freddy’s Revenge a very good sequel, or good horror film for that matter.  

But factor in my reading, and Freddy’s Revenge becomes one of the most fascinating, even subversive efforts of the Reagan Era.  In ways not apparent immediately, or easily, Freddy's Revenge seems to see that you must be who you are supposed to be, or you risk becoming a monster by repressing the truth.

1 comment:

  1. I quite recently saw Freddy's Revenge on Netflix for the first time. I never saw the second chapter in the series for some strange reason, even though I grew up in the eighties. Seeing it with adult eyes and being gay myself I definitely saw the symbolic inner homosexual battle within oneself if you want to call it that or more precisely repression of self. This self-discovery theme of the movie made it far more interesting watch than the others Nightmare at least for me. Your take on this movie is spot in John! This is why I love your blog. You takes me back to the movies/shows I grew up with and love ...or missed as in the case with Freddy's Revenge and make me see them from new angles or perspectives. You make revisiting past pleasures into a new kind of fun! Thank you!