I have long loved horror movies. I was around ten when I got into the Scream franchise and from there it was a blood-drenched rollercoaster ride into the worlds of Urban Legend, Halloween and Final Destination. Subversive, problematic, terrifying, exploitative, thrilling, dehumanising, racist, sexist, scary, horror movies are many, many things, but one franchise I didn’t get into was Nightmare On Elm Street. I’m kicking myself now because I recently discovered that the second Elm Street film, Freddy’s Revenge, is considered one of the gayest horror films out there. Spoilers galore.
The franchise is centred on the demonic Freddy Krueger, formerly a janitor who murdered lots of children before being burnt to death by their parents’. But he comes back from hell to haunt people on Elm Street by killing them in their dreams, resulting in their real world deaths. He does it all in trademark fedora, striped jumper and razor glove. He’s terrifying, which is why I avoided him as a youngster – give me a serial killer in a ghost mask any day. The second film sees high schooler Jesse, played by a 25-year-old Mark Patton, and his family moving into the house where Nancy, the doomed protagonist of the first film, used to live. From the off Jesse starts dreaming of Freddy and it becomes clear that Freddy wants to possess his body and use him to inflict carnage. The central premise of the film is a teenage boy’s fear of being taken over by a murderous, demonic man. As Jesse says at one point, “He’s inside me…and he wants to take me again!”
Yup, this film is very gay. Further gay material includes Jesse wrestling with his jock friend Grady after having his tracksuit bottoms pulled down; numerous scenes in the guys’ locker room; lots of shots of Jesse in his underwear – unlike most horror of the time there is much less objectification of the young female body and no shots of exposed breasts, instead a young male actor is objectified (I’m not saying this was progress but I am noting the difference, and teenage me would’ve appreciated it); a scene at a queer S&M club (yup); a shower scene in which the nasty sports coach – who turned up at the S&M club in a leather vest – is tied to a shower with skipping ropes, stripped, whipped on the bum and then clawed to death (yes, actually). Central to the story is the will-they-won’t-they between Jesse and Lisa, an absolutely stellar horror heroine. At the infamous pool party, the pair are finally making out when Freddy’s gruesome tongue appears from Jesse’s mouth. Lisa doesn’t see but Jesse flees to Grady’s house where Grady is tucked up in bed not wearing many clothes. Jesse is terrified…
Jesse: Something is trying to get inside my body.
Grady: Yeah, and she’s female, and she’s waiting for you in the cabana. And you wanna sleep with me.
Yup, still very gay, and it’s not long until Freddy literally bursts out of Jesse’s body and slashes Grady to death. Freddy then returns to the pool party and attacks Lisa but she wards him off with her love for Jesse, who she believes is still somewhere inside Freddy. So the demonic maniac kills a bunch of other teenagers before finally being vanquished by a fearless kiss from Lisa. Freddy’s skin falls away to reveal a petrified Jesse within. This is almost the end save for the mandatory nasty twist.
That’s the film in a nutshell and on it’s 1985 release many fans hated it. Various articles picked up on the gay subtext (hardly very sub, I’d call it the text), which cued a lot of denial from the movie’s creators. The director, Jack Sholder, claimed to not have a clue the film was super gay as did the writer, David Chaskin. He denied homosexual and homoerotic themes and subtext. Instead, Chaskin criticised Mark Patton’s portrayal of Jesse, blaming him for the character’s effeminacy, sensitivity and possible gayness. At the time, Patton was a closeted gay actor, famous for having played a queer character alongside Cher in a film. Suddenly he was thrust into the spotlight and subjected to all sorts of homophobic abuse and speculation. Panic ensued and it wasn’t long before his agent told him he’d have to get good at character acting because he’d never be able to play it as a straight man. All this to a backdrop of a deeply homophobic moral panic fuelled by Reagan’s Republican party and the press, and their use of the AIDS pandemic as justification for on-going homophobia. It wasn’t long before Patton left Hollywood in order to protect himself.
Over the next few decades Freddy’s Revenge became an underground gay hit and acquired a cult following. I wish I’d had Jesse as a role model, tbh. It got harder and harder to deny the gay subtext and eventually Chaskin acknowledged he’d lied. He’d written the gay themes on purpose. Except, for him, it wasn’t a homosexual story, it was a homophobic one – he wanted to play on the moral panic to scare adolescent boys even more. What’s scarier for a teenage boy than a demon with razor fingers? Being gay! To achieve this Freddy’s Revenge deviated from the typical horror movie plot. Many horror films of the time had female protagonists, aka final girls – virginal female characters who are hunted by a dangerous, male killer with a penchant for murdering teens. The final girl would usually avoid sex, thus making it to the end, while her ‘promiscuous’ friends got butchered. So, we’ve got slut-shaming; punishing and shaming women for their sexuality while fetishizing and objectifying the bodies of young actresses; and the murderous male villain as a metaphor for rape and assault. The first Elm Street film has a scene in which the protagonist, Nancy, is asleep in the bath when Freddy’s razor glove appears between her legs. His grotesque tongue also licks her through the phone and later, after killing her boyfriend he shouts, “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”. These images are deeply scary with the fear centred around female vulnerability and sexual assault. Cut to the end of a typical horror movie and said final girl finally takes it upon herself to kill the maniac with a knife, axe, gun or other phallic symbol – Nancy uses a sledge hammer, an exploding lamp and lighter fuel. In a way, she learns from her tormentor and uses his tools to kill him because murder is so emancipating, right?
Freddy’s Revenge changed the formula by having a final boy. The change wasn’t a simple one though because part of the final girl story is her objectification and her punishment for being sexual. But if a final boy is being stalked by a male antagonist then the sexual overtones would be gay. You wouldn’t hear Freddy yell, “I’m your boyfriend now, Jesse!”, partly because Jesse wouldn’t have a boyfriend in the first place and also because Freddy can’t be gay. There was even a scene where Robert Englund, who plays Freddy (very well), suggested that as well as stroke Jesse’s face with a razor finger he also put it into his mouth. But I think it was the make-up artist who suggested to Mark Patton that he not go through with this because it might look gay (unlike all that other stuff). Furthermore, in a horror movie the monster is often a stand in for predatory behaviour, assault and rape as experienced by women. But with a final boy at the helm this would force us to consider male rape, which was beyond the scope of an Elm Street film. So, how to solve the problem of the final boy? Well, he can’t just pick up a machete, slay the monster and liberate himself from the oppression of men, instead, he became the monster. Because that’s the story of male sexuality – the end result is becoming a monstrous sexual predator and mass murderer.
For these reasons I want to argue that while Freddy’s Revenge can be seen as a gay film, this is only possible via an act of reclamation – i.e. it takes a queer eye to see the details. But the original script was never meant to be gay, it was meant to be homophobic. It’s a cautionary tale meant to terrify teenage boys out of their possible, blossoming interest in other guys, be they bi, pan, gay or anything else. The point is guys shouldn’t like other guys. Homosexuality is a monster within that will literally tear you apart and destroy your life. One can also see the monster-within as a metaphor for AIDS, another way gay men were vilified and left to die. Remember, also, that the leather-vest wearing coach was slashed to death moments after we see him turn up at a queer S&M bar. So the only queer character is quickly murdered and there’s even the implication that he’s a pervert/paedophile. Grady warns Jess that the coach is “into pretty boys” like him and the coach sure does enjoy punishing Jesse and sending him off to the showers. And let’s not forget that moments after Grady mocks Jesse for wanting to sleep with him, Jesse/Freddy impales him against his bedroom door, because if you can’t sexually penetrate your best friend why not do it with a razor glove. In terms of LGBTQ+ representation, the film basically says gay men are a murderous threat to those around them and deserve to be killed. This isn’t gay, it’s homophobic. A gay version of the film would go something like this…
Jesse would fall for his male friend Grady (rather than his female friend Lisa) and the feelings would be reciprocated. Jesse could be camp and femme, into sports, love wearing nail varnish, and all sorts, he could just be himself as he wanted to be, not as toxic masculinity dictates. Tension would amount around the two friends having sex together, cue Freddy’s arrival to punish sexual teens. Freddy would hit on Jesse just as he’d hit on female characters and it would all be gross and problematic. By the end true love would win and Grady would kiss Freddy to save Jesse. This is a much gayer version of the film which would, in the crass, contradictory and violent way horror movies do, celebrate Jesse’s sexuality. But we didn’t get that film, we got a homophobic one.
I’d also like to voice a big shout out to the character of Lisa, played brilliantly by Kim Myers. First things first she is bonkers level intelligent and adapts to the supernatural horror without batting an eyelid (while Jesse has yet another breakdown). For example, while Jesse’s Dad is busy trying to come up with a “rational” explanation for why his pet parrot just burst into flames, Lisa has already researched the origins of Freddy Krueger and is quick to suggest Jesse might have a psychic link to him. This is lightning fast intellect. She also fearlessly confronts the absolutely terrifying Freddy and even kisses him, in order to save Jesse. This time the Princess saves the Prince. When I watched the film I genuinely believed in Jesse’s affection for and attraction to Lisa and didn’t see his attraction to men precluding an attraction to women. However, the film won’t let Jesse actually voice this or realise his attraction to men, other than turning into a psychotic killer and penetrating his best friend with razors rather than, say, a finger or his penis. In many ways, the film can also be seen as a thwarted and deeply problematic bisexual coming of age story. Either way, Lisa gets caught up in a young man’s angst around his own sexuality and gets a rough ride for it. This is a sexist trope very prevalent in the genre of male coming of age films, here’s looking at you Call Me By Your Name. In my version, Grady and Jesse would be lucky to end up in a throuple with the clever, brave, compassionate, kind and independent Lisa. Having said all that, shouldn’t Lisa be allowed to freak out, be messy, and go off the rails like Jesse does? Why should Lisa have to highly achieve being a heroine when the guys around her are kinda average (but I do get that Jesse is in the throws of demonic possession which is no easy ride)?
The final point I want to make concerns villainy. Because the real villain here isn’t the razor glove wielding Freddy, it’s patriarchy. Yup, I whacked in a plot twist in the final paragraph just like the movie does in its closing scene. Toxic masculinity pervades all of the story – in the way Jesse is verbally bullied by his father and his coach; in Jesse and Grady only being able to connect intimately through fighting rather than platonic, sexual and/or romantic affection; and in the way Lisa is forced to compromise for a teen-demon. Patriarchy also pervades the creation of the film itself, as demonstrated in its huge homophobia and the way in which Patton was scapegoated. Fortunately, Patton recently made a brilliant documentary which outlines his story. I think Freddy’s Revenge is a fascinating example of how the limits of society limit how we can tell stories. The twist isn’t that this is actually a gay film, it’s that it was never the straight film it pretended to be, because straightness is an identity that artificially precludes queerness, even though we all carry queerness within. Queerness is no monster though but its suppression is truly monstrous. That’s the stuff of very real nightmares.