It’s redemption not revenge for cult actor Mark Patton in new documentary Scream, Queen
While we get older, the films we love and hold close to our heart remain the same. Unless you happen to be watching Star Wars or Blade Runner, of course. Films, like all art, will outlive us; the performances on-screen remain eternal. Seeing these stars in their idealised, youthful prime becomes more and more emotional for us the older we get, for as Ray Davies put it so beautifully in his Kinks song ‘Celluloid Heroes’, these stars ‘never really die’.
Then you watch the special features on the DVDs or Blu-rays of your childhood favourites, such as the retrospectives, where the original cast members are interviewed, and it can come as a shock to see that they have, well…gotten older. Two major eye-openers in this case were the extended retrospectives dedicated to the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Because so many of these cast members were only known for their roles in these particular films, and because we didn’t see most of them grow older in the context of a long-lasting cinematic career, seeing them twenty or thirty years later is like seeing an old friend you haven’t spoke to in decades. And these particular faces can sometimes mean so much to us, because these are the films we loved as children, the ones we watched alone or with friends, over and over. And because these films usually ranked outside of respectable critical standing, and that many a parent thought they were trash, they felt extra special to us.
It’s stuff like this that makes a documentary like Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, a touching and emotional look at the life and career of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge‘s lead star Mark Patton, particularly effective. After starring in that 1985 film, for which he will always be most famous for, he dropped off the radar entirely, thanks to the film’s rocky reception and, as a closeted gay actor, the grim reality of homophobia in Hollywood. In fact, he’s referred to here as ‘the Greta Garbo of horror’. This young, fresh-faced, beautiful almost-star seemed destined to be forever remembered only for the role of Jesse Walsh, the unfortunate teen who becomes the latest, and arguably most prolonged victim of one of cinema’s most ghoulish boogiemen, Freddy Kreuger.
When locating the cast and crew members of the series for 2010’s epic Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again, the filmmakers actually had to hire a private investigator to find Patton, who was living in Mexico and owning an art store with his husband. Newly aware of his cult status as a horror icon, Patton checked himself out online, and found out that a whole cultural debate had emerged about the film, and his participation in it. Not all of it was positive. The film’s oft-discussed gay subtext had become a source of fascination just as much as it had become a target for ridicule. Some have mocked the film for its homoerotic undertones, as though that was something to be laughed at in itself. But at the same time, he’d picked up a wealth of fans. Enough for Patton to get on the fan convention circuit and meet his admirers.
Patton only agreed to participate in Scream, Queen if he got a chance to settle a score with a key player in the creation of Freddy’s Revenge, who he blamed for derailing his career, but we’ll get to that later. In a very quick 99 minutes, it probes into the cult and impact of Freddy’s Revenge, and meets with Patton to discuss how the film affected his life and career. Fans of the series will find it fascinating, but the documentary doesn’t just start and end at 1428 Elm Street. Patton’s life and career is the real focus of the film, and a fascinating, often heartbreaking story it is too. First of all, because Patton remained out of the limelight for so long (excepting his contribution to Never Sleep Again), to see him no longer as a fresh-faced teen is startling. To find out that he suffered from cancer and is also HIV positive is totally heartbreaking. To see him tell us of how his promising career disappeared nearly overnight ruined me.
Patton was born in Kansas City in 1958 and following his parents’ divorce and his mother’s troubled mental stability, took it upon himself to be the ‘mom’ of his family. He knew he was gay when he was four years old, but due to the homophobia and lack of acceptance in his home town, he kept his sexuality a secret, and would continue to do so when he moved to New York in the late seventies. Thanks to a mixture of naivety and natural confidence, he wound up getting his foot in the door (literally: when he was specifically asked not to knock on said door, but to simply slide his contact details underneath it, he went ahead and knocked anyway) and got steady work in commercials. Patton’s breakthrough was in Robert Altman’s Broadway hit Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which was swiftly adapted into a film, which Patton also starred in. So began the actor’s move from New York to LA, to Hollywood, and following some work in television, Patton beat the likes of Christian Slater and Brad Pitt to win the lead role in what was one of the most anticipated sequels of 1985 – Freddy’s Revenge.
Elm Street 2 came very quick on the heels of the original, and whether it was down to a bold decision to try out new things or a simple case of not knowing what the hell they were doing, the film abandoned many of the elements which are now seen as some of the strongest factors of the series. Its most notable difference was recasting Krueger as a kind of spectre who can possess his chosen victim – in this case he has taken over the body of young Jesse Walsh and unleashes his inner dark side. This adds a fascinating new dimension to the series, positing Kreuger as a monstrous, id-like creation that (at one point, literally) bursts from within and wreaks terrible violence. The film’s writer, David Chaskin, “thought it would be fun for Freddy to have an human avatar that’s actually doing stuff in the real world”. Although a hit, Freddy’s Revenge soon became dismissed as an inferior Elm Street film. Producer Robert Shaye thinks back on it as ‘a bad idea’. On some levels, it most certainly is. Whereas Wes Craven’s original took an ingenious concept and executed it with masterful writing, the sequel was less disciplined and often ludicrous. Two years later, the back-to-formula spectacle of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: Dream Warriors, which brought back many of the themes some lamented were missing from Part 2, seemed to confirm the belief of many that Freddy’s Revenge was a mistake, a false step, the black sheep.
I love Freddy’s Revenge. Beyond the fact that it has the kind of irresistible period charm that I always fall for in films of this era, it is has some terrific scares, spectacular set-pieces and it has in its three lead characters, some of the most sympathetic and engaging victims of the whole genre. Yes it is often very silly, and yes it treats its predecessor’s logic with a cavalier disregard, but I find its so-called false steps very intriguing. The possession element does inevitably lead to the abandonment of the dream world hook that made the first film so amazing, but in itself it takes the character of Kreuger and the concept of the Final Girl into very interesting territory. Oh sorry, did I say final girl? I meant boy. Jesse, beautifully played by Patton, was a true one-off in the Elm Street series, and I loved him. I loved that there was a vulnerable, sensitive male character as the lead. This kind of character was usually relegated to the third division of slasher tropes, and never made it to the end of the film. The fact that there was a boy being the prime target of victimisation (and that all the main victims are male) here was striking in itself. The added fact that this wasn’t a resourceful, tough male but a terrified, haunted and pranked-on boy was extraordinary. Then there was the idea that this character could be gay, which was frankly unheard of in the genre. Despite the apparent obvious female love interest that is Kim Myers’ Lisa, it’s just as likely that the best friend character of Grady (Robert Rusler) is the real object of Jesse’s desire, which leads to the theory that Kreuger represents Jesse’s suppressed homosexuality, which has been kept hidden for so long that now it has erupted in vicious form.
Elsewhere we have not one, not two, not three, but six individual scenes of a mostly-naked Jesse sweating in bed. Exposed arses. A sadistic, leather-loving sports coach who is said to hang around ‘queer S&M joints’ and would like ‘pretty boys’ like Jesse. Jesse retreating from making out with Lisa (after Freddy threatens to take over) and seeking sanctuary in Grady’s bedroom. Jesse’s bedroom with its ‘No Chicks Allowed’ sign on the door and the curiously-named board game ‘Probe’ on one of his shelves. When Freddy tells Jesse of his plans for him, the way he strokes his finger blade on Jesse’s face is a very erotic touch (originally Robert Englund, who likened this scene to a ‘dance…a seduction’, wanted to put the blade inside Jesse’s mouth, which would have been an extraordinary image). And of course there’s the immortal bit when Jesse dances in his room in an attempt to out-do Tom Cruise in Risky Business, closing a chest of drawers with his arse and making obscene gestures with a pop stick. So yeah, what we’re getting here, more than any other mainstream horror film, is an objectification of the male form. And why not? Made a nice change from the ogling of female bodies in nearly every other slasher.
Many chuckle at the idea of Elm Street 2‘s gay subtext being so blatant that it should really be regarded as out-and-out text, but the fact is that on the surface this is not about a young gay man struggling with this sexuality. This is about a boy being possessed by a phantom killer who is making him kill others. It’s still subtext. It’s just that it’s pretty on-the-nose subtext. When I first watched this film (admittedly, at a young, naive age), I didn’t pick up on any of this. I related at the time to Jesse mostly because he was a bit of a loser, because he was a sensitive kid, because he got scared. Director Jack Sholder appears to have had no idea that there was a gay element to the film, and neither did most of the cast and crew, although Robert Englund and Robert Rusler both insist that they had more than an inkling of what was going on. Chaskin was aware of the AIDS crisis and wanted to tap into that anxiety of self-doubt about one’s sexuality, although this has the potential to be read as a ‘gay panic’ scare story, and hardly the thing that’s going to make nervous, homophobic viewers feel at ease. Englund, interestingly, has said in the past that Freddy could represent the self-hatred that exists within the gay community, or even the taunting element of those outside towards the community.
Freddy’s Revenge, in theory, should have been the film to move Patton up the ranks of fame. Of course, the horror genre, and in particular the slasher sub-genre, is full of actors who never made it big afterwards. For every Kevin Bacon and Jennifer Aniston, there are, sadly, many, many others who never broke out from obscurity. Patton is an unusual exception in that he came to the genre already equipped with critical acclaim, and who knows, maybe he would have moved on to bigger things. It wasn’t to do with a lack of talent — Patton’s performance in Freddy’s Revenge is for me, one of the strongest in the entire horror genre. Patton’s swift disappearance from Hollywood can be chalked to two things – one is the reaction to Freddy’s Revenge itself, and the other is the bigger picture, that led to the film getting such a backlash — homophobia.
In regards to the film, the biggest question concerning its homoerotic elements was simply, who initiated it? Was it David Chaskin, who wrote the screenplay and therefore seems the most obvious candidate? Or was it Patton, who, according to Chaskin, brought the subtext way, way out into the open and turned what could have been just another horror sequel into a film that ended up being the #1 film in online lists of Most Homoerotic Horrors, ‘Gayest Horror Films’ and the like. You’d think that a horror film exploring homosexuality, if only obliquely, would be a good thing, but those times were different, and any gay connotations were seen as risky. Chaskin publicly denied the existence of such a subtext, essentially placing all the ‘blame’ on Patton, who in turn felt that the rewrites of the script were in fact pushing him in the film’s homoerotic direction. As a young actor, you pretty much are under the control of your superiors, and what they say, goes. He feels that he was coerced into acting this way.
In 1985, the AIDS virus was killing thousands of people, and a new wave of homophobia was emerging, with ignorance over AIDS and fear/hatred towards gay people now exploding with a public hatred of the homosexual lifestyle, with the virus referred to as ‘the gay plague’. Compared to the freer, more hedonistic and happy halcyon days of the late seventies, being a gay actor in the Eighties was seen as suicidal to one’s career, and Patton, who at this time was not out of the closet, didn’t want to be stigmatised for his sexuality or defined by it either. After Freddy’s Revenge, he was told that his future lay in character acting, not lead roles, because of his sexuality. Apparently he couldn’t play straight. As far as Patton was now concerned, he’d been typecast, and given the amount of major stars who were openly gay at the time (not many, if any), his career seemed to be over. To be gay in Hollywood at the time meant a life of intrusion from the disgusting likes of sensationalist shit-rag The National Enquirer, who were seeking to out closeted actors and who had published exposes on former superstar Rock Hudson, who would die from AIDS-related complications. No wonder so many actors went back in the closet.
The scene in Scream, Queen which compiles casual use of the word ‘faggot’ in PG and PG-13 films proves that homosexuality was considered as something to be mocked, feared and a quick and easy insult to humiliate your prey. Oh yeah, we can say now, it was a different time then, and we shouldn’t be trying to win woke points by retroactively criticising these films for their casual homophobia, but I say fuck that. It was a shit attitude then, and we should cringe at the use of such ugly cheap shots now. The swift turnaround against the film (despite making more money than its predecessor, it was considered a failure on every other level) also meant that the backlash that greeted it, as well as personal traumas such as the AIDS-related death of his partner Tim Murphy, was enough for Patton to abandon Hollywood and retreat into anonymity for decades. Then in 2010, Chaskin finally admitted that the gay subtext was intentional, but as far as Patton was concerned, the damage was already done, and that Chaskin was only declaring his part in everything now when it was more fashionable to do so.
We travel with Patton as he tours the film convention circuit in 2015, meeting and greeting his fans, to whom he believes should be treated with professionalism and kindness — to them, going to conventions marks that vital moment in a fan’s life where they get to meet their hero, and Patton is very aware that he wouldn’t want to make their experience a disappointing one. The moment when the bulk of the cast of Freddy’s Revenge (and Sholder) are reunited at a convention was wonderfully touching. To see these actors, preserved forever in their youth, in a film that despite its unpopularity in certain quarters, is growing more and more in acceptance and is truly loved by those that do love it, reunite so many years later, well it got to me, dammit. Given that the structure of these conventions means that fellow actors rarely get the chance to interact with each other, everyone seemed genuinely pleased to be able to catch up afterwards.
There’s an interesting (and uncomfortable) moment the day after the reunion when Sholder, quite harshly, takes Patton to task about still holding a grudge against Chaskin after so long. Yet this does lead to the long overdue reunion between Patton and Chaskin at the latter’s house, where Patton wishes to seek some kind of resolution and closure to his distress. An apology from Chaskin is what Patton needs, and yet when it comes, it’s one of those suspect ‘I’m sorry if you took offence’ kind of apologies that doesn’t really give you the impression that the person apologising feels he has anything to apologise for. Patton accepts it however, and maybe his acceptance is more a case of needing to forgive and move on for one’s own peace of mind than anything. His embracing of spirituality and his admittance that maybe his antagonism towards Chaskin is not just about his feelings towards Elm Street 2‘s content but the possible need to focus his anger regarding the whole homophobic state of affairs in Hollywood towards a single person is quite bold and revealing.
Yet ultimately we, and Patton, leave Scream Queen with a sense of triumph, as we see what kind of impact Freddy’s Revenge had on those who loved it, and the results are quite wonderfully heartening. We see how Elm Street 2 was quite the eye-opener for young gay viewers, and how it means so much to many people. Patton is met with an uproarious reception as he re-enacts his famous bedroom dance and the amazing bit when Freddy erupts from his body. It’s like he’s found peace. And it’s beautiful.