So Bad, It’s Good: The Scare-Free, Homoerotic Subtext-Rich ‘Nightmare on Elm Street 2’

Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (Birdemic), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you a Halloween edition of our occasional So Bad It’s Good feature: the scare-poor but subtext-rich slasher sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

The original 1984 Elm Street, written and directed by Wes Craven, was an unexpected smash for indie distributor New Line Cinema, then known primarily for putting out John Waters movies and similar lowbrow fare. Nightmare brought them back from the brink of bankruptcy, grossing over $25 million on a $1.8 million budget (thanks to the lucrative franchise, New Line was famously dubbed “The House that Freddy Built”). And like any sensible studio, when New Line had a horror hit, they wanted a sequel — the quicker the better.

They got one. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge opened on November 1, 1985 — a week shy of one year after Nightmare’s November 9, 1984 release date. (The fact that both films were released immediately after Halloween is a puzzle I cannot begin to figure out.) That accelerated timeline does much to explain how Freddy’s Revenge came out the way it did, both for good and for ill.

And let’s make this clear right off the top: Freddy’s Revenge is a pretty terrible movie. Craven’s original was a (mostly) well-acted, brainy, scary chiller; he declined to participate here, and it shows. The sequel is clunky, sluggish, poorly cast (hey, opening credits: no appearance by Clu Gulagher is a “special appearance”), not funny, and worst of all, not scary. And it all but dispenses with what made the first film scary to begin with.

It’s set five years after the original, in a 1989 where a character somehow still has posters on his wall for The Stray Cats and The Power Station. The Elm Street residence inhabited by the Thompsons in the original has recently been acquired by the Walshes; their son Jesse’s (Mark Patton) been having weird nightmares and getting night sweats, both of which are explained when he wanders into their basement and discovers Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) feeding body parts into their broiler. Who hasn’t been there, am I right?

Mark Patton and Robert Englund in "A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge"

This is, of course, a nightmare, but this time, Fred apparently isn’t interested in killing people in their dreams (the premise of the entire series, but I digress). No, he wants Jess to “kill for me,” via a kind of convoluted sleepwalking-avatar situation, where he takes over Jess’ body as he dreams and has him dispatch his coach, his best buddy, and (very nearly) Lisa, the nice girl who likes him. After Fred-as-Jess murders several of their friends at her pool party — really killing the bitchin’ vibe they had going, what with the exploding beer cans and hot dogs — she leads him out to a vintage ‘80s steam factory (steam was big business back then, thanks to all the music video production) for the big climax. To get Freddy “out” of her Jesse, she gives him a big ol’ smooch (every bad boy can be saved by the love of a good lady, after all), resulting in a feel-good Jess-is-fine ending, where everyone seems to have conveniently forgiven him for all those people he killed at Lisa’s.

None of this is all that interesting, on its face; the series hadn’t yet morphed to fit the Quipmaster-Freddy mold that would sustain it, but the kills don’t make much of an impression (mostly thanks to the special effects, which are laughable even by ‘80s low-budget standards). But the picture is a fascinating curio nonetheless, for one simple reason: it is packed to the gills with gay subtext, so much so that it’s been embraced by the LGBT community and made over into something resembling a cult classic.

Put simply, screenwriter David Chaskin used Freddy — bursting to take over Jesse’s body — as a metaphor for the character’s closeted homosexuality. Some of this is background, like the “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” sign on Jesse’s bedroom door, the “Probe” board game in his closet, or the Kajagoogoo and Limahl posters on best buddy Grady’s wall. Other elements are a bit more transparent, from the roughhouse wrestling match in which Jesse and Grady immediately rip each other’s clothes off, to Jesse wandering into an S&M leather bar and discovering his taskmaster coach there (they go back to the school gym so Jesse can run some laps and shower while the coach is bombarded by balls, stripped, slung up, and whipped with towels across his bare ass), to an aborted make-out session with Lisa that Jesse flees for the comforts of Grady’s bed. “I’m scared, Grady!” Jesse confesses, to which his handsome friend muses, “She’s waiting for you in the cabana, and now you wanna sleep with me!” Oh, and then there’s this:

You get the idea. The signaling is so pronounced, it’s impossible to believe director Jack Sholder’s assertion that he wasn’t aware of it — but remember, this film went from concept to script to set to screen in less than a calendar year (about half the time of your average production), with screenwriter Chaskin reportedly landing the gig by producing 15 pages of script in three days. They banged the shoot out in seven weeks, not even bringing Englund back until filming was underway (he appears in maybe 15 minutes of the finished film).

In other words, this is not a project where there was a lot of close examination or asking of questions. That’s nothing new; throughout the long history of exploitation cinema, filmmakers from Roger Corman to Amy Holden Jones have used the relative freedom and built-in audiences of genre film to smuggle in their own political messages. It’s one of the things that make such pictures so much fun to watch, reading between those lines (or slayings, as it were). And that element has given what is an otherwise unexceptional quickie sequel its own identity; countless web posts and discussions have been devoted to it, YouTube videos have been made about it, and star Patton (himself gay and out) is making a documentary about the film and its afterlife, titled Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s all pretty fascinating — and, frankly, a good deal more interesting than anything else in Freddy’s Revenge.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is streaming on Netflix.