Exploring the franchise oddity that is Jack Sholder’s controversial horror sequel
Freddy’s Revenge. Anyone familiar with the A Nightmare on Elm Street series will surely recognise Jack Sholder’s 1985 sequel as something of an outlier, a film that seems to divide opinion like no other instalment. New Line Cinema’s first sequel has become an anomalous footnote in the series, derided by some and achieving diehard cult status among others. There are a plethora of reasons why Freddy’s Revenge has become a source of fascination all these years later, not least the plight of actor Mark Patton, who would fade into obscurity shortly after a film that should have been his big break. Patton is excellent as the film’s ‘final boy’ Jesse Walsh, the character’s struggles with sexual identity mirrored by the actor’s real-life struggles as a homosexual in a notoriously homophobic environment like Hollywood. The fact that the AIDS epidemic was in full swing during the mid-1980s, the disease becoming a dirty word that dehumanised and alienated homosexuals, certainly didn’t help in that regard. In an environment of fear and miseducation, anyone openly gay carried that stigma.
Patton, the self-proclaimed victim of “fag-bashing” from Freddy’s Revenge writer David Chaskin, would quit the industry following a critical backlash that became highly publicised, the subsequent fallout, and the negative impact it would have on his career going forward. A film like Freddy’s Revenge was the death knell for someone like Patton in such a sensitive sexual climate. With such an emphasis on sex appeal, it was commonplace for celebrities to mask their homosexuality, a movie labelled “the gayest horror film ever made” by gay publication The Advocate resulting in unwanted attention for an actor who had always been advised to remain firmly in the closet. Patton, who was diagnosed with HIV after turning 40, has since come to terms with Freddy’s Revenge and the fandom it would ultimately generate, a fact explored in the 2019 documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, in which Patton is able to find a degree of closure, though his relationship with Chaskin will likely always be strained.
Tackling the hysteria surrounding the AIDS epidemic was a novel and socially relevant idea back in 1985, and no character personified the disease quite like Fred Krueger, an elusive monster who thrived on the very essence of fear. But mainstream society wasn’t ready to be confronted with such issues under the guise of escapist entertainment, a fact that New Line executives would ultimately realise. Chaskin was quick to pass the buck, blaming the controversy on Patton’s overtly effeminate performance rather than a screenplay laced with gay subtext, something he was quick to refute. Sholder would also dodge responsibility, claiming to have not noticed anything even remotely gay about Freddy’s Revenge. “I feigned ignorance,” he wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “My movie was being outed and I didn’t know how I felt about that.” Chaskin would also claim that he was, “questioned by a couple of [New Line] execs who were genuinely quite surprised by the review and palpably worried about how it might affect box office,” which hints at a concerted effort on their part to suppress the whole issue. It would certainly make sense from a business perspective.
In hindsight, it’s ludicrous to suggest that Freddy’s Revenge is not a commentary on homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic, and the word subtext, defined as ‘an underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation’, seems like a downplayed interpretation of what we see onscreen. The gay element is so overt and in your face it’s impossible to miss. The relationship between Jesse and Krueger is teeming with sexual tension and innuendo, as is that of our protagonist and Robert Rusler’s Grady, the pair’s ‘bromance’ occasionally flirting with something more. There’s Jesse’s infamous dance, repeated shots of his sweaty torso, a sadomasochistic gym teacher and the kind of suggestive dialogue that smacks you on the butt with a wet towel. In one scene, Jesse turns up at Grady’s house and asks if he can keep an eye on him in case anything strange occurs. “I’m scared, Grady. Something is trying to get inside my body,” Jesse tells him. “Yeah, she’s female and she’s waiting for you in the cabana, and you wanna sleep with me?!” Grady replies. Gay subtext? In my movie?! Never!
Jesse Walsh: Hey, Grady, do you remember your dreams?
Ron Grady: Only the wet ones.
Whether you’re a fan of Freddy’s Revenge or not, it’s easy to see why it’s garnered such a loyal following over the years. People love an outsider, and for those with a nostalgic connection to the era, it doesn’t get more 80s than this movie, but there are plenty more reasons to appreciate it. Krueger, almost feral in appearance thanks to future Child’s Play makeup artist Kevin Yagher, has never looked scarier. The film also features some wonderful moments of practical effects artistry, the scene in which Freddy pulls back his flesh to reveal his brain certainly one to remember. “You’ve got the body. I’ve got the brain,” Krueger informs his chosen incubator in what is arguably the movie’s most sexually tense scene.
For all its kitsch, Freddy’s Revenge has some truly dark moments. In fact, with the exception of A Nightmare on Elm Street and New Nightmare, it’s probably the darkest in the series, featuring a version of Krueger who is less attuned to cute quip celebrity. The action itself may be questionable at times, but Freddy is a monster first and foremost. When he lingers on the fringes of Jesse’s sanity, all insidious shadows and guttural sadism, he’s a truly terrifying creation. There’s little time for humour where Krueger is concerned.
Take Grady’s death, one of the absolute finest in the series. The kill in question, which sees the ill-fated youngster pinned to his bedroom door by Krueger’s razor-fingered glove, is great in itself, but the scene’s true magic arrives just prior, the moment when our horrifically scarred monster sheds Jesse’s skin like a silk gown still a jaw-dropping sight. Jesse’s powerless and utterly distraught reaction as he stands wearing that same glove, a fiendish Krueger cackling in the mirror’s reflection, is a high point in the series, as pure a distillation of what Freddy represents as you’re ever likely to find.
The best thing about Freddy’s Revenge is arguably Patton himself, who gives what many consider the finest performance of the entire series as far as the Elm Street kids go. He’s not the American as apple pie sweetheart we’re accustomed to, but he harbours the same teenage concerns. If anything his predicament is the most hopeless, Freddy’s grip on him the most substantial. A gaunt outsider plagued by the kind of inner conflict that his pursuer is oh so adept at exploiting, Jesse spends much of the film wading through a pool of terror sweat, and you absolutely empathise with the character’s growing alienation, the torture of being prisoner to an intangible entity with unlimited manipulative powers. We’d suffer from a plethora of weakly sketched characters as the series evolved, but Patton’s performance is one to cherish. He certainly gives original final girl Heather Langenkamp a run for her money.
There’s also the wonderful Robert Englund to consider, though he almost didn’t appear in the movie at all. New Line, who figured any bozo in a mask could play Freddy, initially went with a cheaper option until quickly realising that the actor and the character are inseparable. The sadistic cackle, the gunslinger stance, the devilish nuances and wicked sense of wit that make him such a commercial draw are further refined as Englund grows into the role, oozing malevolence as Elm Street’s perennial scourge. For pure, concentrated evil, the poolside massacre is probably his highlight (he looks absolutely terrifying when the light catches him just right), but a few questionable moments aside, the movie excels whenever Freddy is onscreen. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees have been played by various actors and stuntmen over the years, some of them able to capture the essence of those characters quite beautifully, but Englund turns a corner with his portrayal of Krueger. Even when the series descended into youth-oriented silliness, he rarely missed a beat.
Those who see Freddy’s Revenge as something of a missed opportunity generally do so based on its dramatic digression from Craven’s original vision. When A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, the slasher sub-genre, way past its Golden Age peak and running into all kinds of trouble with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), was given a new lease of life by a supernatural story that saw a former child killer, burned to death by a mob of vengeful parents, return from the dead to stalk their kids in their dreams. There’s nothing more personal and isolating than a person’s dreams, which made Krueger an entirely different threat. With a character like him, you spend your waking moments suffering under the very fear he thrives on, knowing your inevitable fate draws irrefutably nearer. When one of Jason’s victims runs senselessly into the woods, you shake your head with derision, but we can all relate to the futile realms of the subconscious, a place where illogical decisions are beyond our control. Craven was such a master at blurring the lines, too, seamlessly transitioning from dreams to reality to create a sensory void that was captured through an almost illusory filter.
Freddy’s Revenge begins with a dream, a rather effective one involving a runaway school bus. In fact, there are ambiguous fragments of dreams scattered here and there, various allusions to dreams cropping up all over the place, Jesse and Krueger undergoing a physical back-and-forth that is both deeply confusing and utterly implausible, but overall Sholder ditches the concept for the kind of straight-up possession story we’ve seen a dozen times before.
In the film, Krueger attempts to return to reality by possessing Jesse’s form. It’s an interesting concept that taps into teenage angst and the process of finding oneself, but one that has always troubled me. Why would Krueger, a sadistic monster whose only desire is to torment children, want to return to reality, a place where he is completely fallible and open to public scrutiny? The beauty of Krueger is his elusiveness, his ability to convince those on the outside that he doesn’t exist. Take that away from him and he edges closer to the standard slasher villain that Craven’s creation initially laid waste to. As director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, Chuck Russell, would tell Bloody Disgusting, “I thought in Nightmare 2 Freddy became almost less personable… more of a typical slasher than a dream demon.”
Something else that bothers me about Freddy’s Revenge is its decision to ditch Charles Bernstein’s A Nightmare on Elm Street theme. It’s difficult to recall a musical accompaniment that captures the essence of a movie’s villain quite so emphatically. It’s pitch-perfect. This is somewhat unfair given that the movie all but abandons the dream concept, and future Hellraiser composer Christopher Young does a fine job in his own right, his chilling contributions like hellbound wind chimes stoked by invisible fires, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, particularly if you have aspirations of creating a franchise audiences can readily identify with. When you think of Fred Krueger, which of those themes first leaps to mind?
You are all my children now!Freddy Krueger
I loathe to draw comparisons with the original movie ― Sholder tried something unique and that’s always commendable ― but the shadow of such a game-changing concept will always loom large, especially when the sequel almost leads to the series being shelved. Even so, the film has issues away from such comparisons. Freddy’s Revenge is a movie that I desperately want to love, that I appreciate to a certain extent, and every time I come back there’s a renewed hope that it’s perhaps better than I give it credit for, but the fact is I always leave just a little disappointed.
Jesse is new to Elm Street, his father acquiring the infamous Thompson house on the cheap after failing to inform his family of its gruesome history, though how they remained unaware of one of the strangest, most deplorable acts of mass murder the US suburbs has ever witnessed is beyond me. Inevitably, a spate of disturbances lead Jesse to the family basement, where visions of old fritter face threaten to unravel his sanity. Matters are further exacerbated when love interest Lisa (Myers) stumbles upon former victim Nancy’s diary, which features some rather familiar tales of razor-fingered stalkery.
Since Lisa is a long-time resident of the neighbourhood, Jessie naturally looks to her for answers, but apparently those infamous murders were ‘before her time’ — a whole year by my reckoning. To be fair, Lisa does mention that Nancy’s diary is five years old, which is why I initially figured that Freddy’s Revenge was set in 1989, but according to various sources, the events of later sequels pushed the original A Nightmare on Elm Street back to 1981. So if you were watching Freddy’s Revenge prior to the release of those sequels, it was, for all intents and purposes, 1989. If you’re watching it all these years later, it’s actually set in 1986. As if the film wasn’t peculiar enough!
Soon, Jesse finds himself at the centre of a string of grisly murders as Krueger begins to use him as a conduit into reality, and this is where everything gets just a little messy. Most mystifying are the alternating roles of Krueger and his transient incubator. Is Jesse dreaming? Is he possessed? When Grady is watching over our protagonist having promised to monitor his dreams, how is he able to witness Freddy emerging from Jesse’s torn carcass? When Krueger replaces Jesse and commences his pool party killing spree, where does the kid disappear to? I mean, what in the hell is going on here?
When coach Schneider is found dead, slashed to death in the buff in an act of sexual torture, why is Jesse not a suspect? I mean, the cops did pick him up that very night, wandering nude in a semi-catatonic state. You’d think someone would put two and two together. To a lesser degree, the same can be said of Grady’s death. He and Jesse spent a lot of time together. They were seen scuffling in front of the entire school only days earlier. His parents heard the boy screaming as their son lay dead on the other side of his bedroom door. You’d at least think a round of questioning would be in order.
Okay, so this is a horror movie, and plot holes kind of come with the territory, but there are times when Freddy’s Revenge is alive with silliness, the kind that detracts from the film’s overall fear factor. I’m all for silliness ― most great horror has at least a hint of humour ― and Freddy’s Revenge has plenty of it in the right places, but the film’s more generic scares aren’t particularly scary. They could belong to any number of nondescript horror movies. Granted, several of those moments are tied to ‘the threat’ of homosexuality, but for any casual viewer unaware of the film’s subtext, the action can be somewhat irrelevant and underwhelming. A year earlier, Craven had stunned audiences by having Krueger come up through a plug hole, push through a solid wall, drag a girl’s bloodied torso across a ceiling while remaining invisible ― moments befitting of one of horror’s freshest, most enduring characters. Here we get a phallic snake in the classroom, a flaming bird (more subtext?), exploding sausages (definitely more subtext), and, perhaps silliest of all, a moment in which a blast of kitchen-bound lightning strikes the dirty dishes. Not exactly Krueger at his most deliciously malevolent.
The practical effects are hit-and-miss too. There are some nice touches, like Jesse’s melting vinyl, a cute and effective symbol of Krueger’s stifling presence, but for the most part it lacks the creativity and visual impressiveness of the first movie. For every spectacular Grady death there are numerous instances of profound silliness, particularly during the film’s all important third act. There’s an evil cat that looks like it belongs in an episode of slapstick comedy The Young Ones, and a pair of vicious guard dogs with human faces ― not just human faces, baby human faces ― are so utterly ridiculous it’s almost as if they’re aware of it, like they’re just waiting to be put out of their misery. They don’t exactly hunt Lisa down like your typical cinematic hellhounds. They growl a little, but they generally just amble around as if doped to the eyeballs on Xanax. Lord knows what they were trying to achieve here.
Lisa Webber: Jesse, help.
Freddy Krueger: There is no Jesse. I’m Jesse now!
All of this makes for a rather underwhelming finale. The final showdown between Lisa and Freddy is fairly dark once we get past all the animal-related nonsense, Englund typically dazzling in a more subdued manner than we’d one day become accustomed to, but the whole thing is just as baffling. Though the movie veers away from dreams, its convoluted plot means it often treats events like one. When Krueger deteriorates and Jesse emerges, fully formed, with barely a scratch to show for his torn flesh hardships, it’s just a little hard to swallow. And there’s no room for ambiguity here. Not unless Lisa was dreaming, Grady was dreaming, coach Schneider was dreaming, the two-dozen pool party guests, including Lisa’s parents, were dreaming. Much like the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, there’s also a sequel-setting epilogue that not only seems tacked-on, it manages to devalue everything that went before (did they really go through all of that for nothing?).
There are fans who appreciate Freddy’s Revenge as a standalone movie, one that features Englund’s iconic marquee attraction in a context that is atypical to the series at large, but it’s impossible to extricate it completely. As unique as the film is, it still fails to fully distinguish itself from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and to its detriment. One of the main problems I have with Freddy’s Revenge is its indecisive nature and inability to adhere to any kind of internal logic. In one sense it’s its own movie, with an emphasis on possession, identity, and a version of Krueger who is able to enter and impact the real world at will, but it also squeezes in a couple of classic dream sequences, presumably for commercial purposes, which makes the whole affair somewhat baffling.
Freddy’s Revenge did strong numbers at the box office, raking in a cool $30,000,000 from an estimated $3,000,000, but that’s hardly representative of how the film was received critically. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street really connected with horror audiences, and as with any sequel, the Box Office is largely determined by the popularity of the film which preceded it. In reality, Freddy’s Revenge was something of an anti-climax, swerving audience expectation perhaps a little too hastily. All these years later, it’s easier to appreciate Freddy’s Revenge as something different, but in 1985 audiences weren’t ready for different when it came to Krueger. Horror fans were still riding the wave of Englund’s unique dream demon, so it’s understandable that people wanted more of the same. The creative possibilities were endless.
Craven’s concept demanded further exploration, but that didn’t happen until 1987 when Chuck Russell convinced New Line to flesh out the Krueger character and further explore his dreamworld omnipotence. “The studio rightfully felt that A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was a bit of a misfire and wanted to get the franchise back on course,” Russell would explain. “In fact, at that point they were uncertain it would continue… I convinced New Line we could do bigger, wilder dream sequences and make Freddy more of a devilish ring master… make it both more frightening and more fun… they took a chance on my vision.”
The Dream Warriors achieved that for the most part, though for many it led Krueger away from his dark origins, beginning the transition from genuine horror threat to pop culture prankster. The series would continue on in that direction, focusing on spectacular practical effects set-pieces and the kind of crowd-pleasing one-liners that turned Freddy into a glorified pantomime villain, a marketing machine who would succumb to commercial oversaturation by the turn of the 90s.
Perhaps as a result of New Line’s antics, Freddy’s Revenge has become something of a unique gem in the series. It may lack conviction, but it doesn’t resort to formula like some of those later sequels, which haven’t aged half as well. It also portrays Krueger as a much more serious monster, something fans didn’t experience nearly enough of as the series quickly opted for self-awareness in the face of horror movie censorship. It’s sometimes difficult to recall just how nasty Krueger initially was.
Ultimately, Freddy’s Revenge is more than deserving of its cult status. It may be flawed, borderline nonsensical and pretty damn silly at times, but no one can say it’s not distinctive ― not just as a conceptual anomaly, but due to a rich and storied legacy that continues to fascinate. With films that inspire such loyalty, it’s generally all or nothing. Any notion of criticism is sacrilegious to die hard appreciators, which is why it may surprise you to learn that, despite my reservations, I do enjoy this movie; a lot more than I tend to admit. It’s far from perfect ― in fact, it can be deeply frustrating at times, losing its way rather dramatically during its final act ― but something just keeps me coming back. I’ve seen this movie countless times, always with the same concerns, but that doesn’t stop me reaching for it, semi-catatonic against its neon projection, all the while whispering, ‘why do you do it to yourself?’ It just has that intangible quality. A dreamlike mystique, if you will. It’s compulsive, sadistic viewing, possessing any body, brain or soul with the gall to reject it. I guess I’m Freddy’s child now.