Director: Jack Sholder
US - 1985
Making horror sequels can be a difficult undertaking, and making good ones can be even more difficult, as countless would-be franchises can attest. The most taxing thing about a sequel, I find, is finding a way to expand the story without corrupting or screwing up what made the first one great. The makers of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (director Jack Sholder and writer David Chaskin), were thus in a bit of a bind. The first Nightmare sets up a few rules pertaining to the Freddy mythos, yet were unmade by the meddling of producers (for instance, the ending of the first film). So, without series creator Wes Craven and with no defined objective for the character other than skulking about in dreams and slashing some teens, what do you do?
A new family has moved into the Thompson house on Elm Street. The Walshes are a fairly typical American family, with Dad Ken (Clu Gulager, fresh off Return of The Living Dead), mother Cheryl (acclaimed character actress Hope Lange), son Jesse, and daughter Angela. The Walshes have just barely moved into their new house when weird things start happening to Jesse, because it seems that there is a holdover from the previous family's time at 1428 Elm Street, and that is one Freddy Krueger. And Freddy's got an interest in Jesse; enough of an interest that our teen hero wakes screaming and sweaty on a nightly basis. "Why," little sister Angela asks, "can't Jesse wake up like everyone else?"
The short answer, of course, is that Jesse is teetering on the brink of madness, haunted in dreams and waking life by Freddy and his murderous impulses. Unlike any of the other films in the series, we find Freddy able to physically enter the real world at will, physically inhabiting Jesse's body and carrying out various nefarious deeds. Even more perplexing is the fact that once in the real world, Freddy is not subject to the laws of physics (case in point, his fading in and out of tangibility during the pool party at Lisa's house).
As Jesse Walsh, Mark Patton (from Robert Altman's Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) has a John Amplas kind of thing going on here. He's got a Kate Bush poster up in his room, and periodically he likes to dance around while phallically stroking a mini-bat. In other words, he's a normal American teenager coded for 'queer.' This was, of course, the eighties. It would be impossible to directly address the issues a gay teen might face, especially in a film that a wide audience might see. So there is never an explicit statement made about Jesse's sexual identity. He has a girlfriend whom he carries on with platonically, and (most importantly) there is the explicitly gay character of Coach Schneider to draw the attention of anyone looking for signs of homosexuality. Because nothing explicit happens with Jesse, and Schneider operates as a lightning rod, what is known in Hollywood as 'the principle of deniability' is upheld. But more on that later.
Jesse's 'girlfriend' Lisa Webber (played by Meryl Streep lookalike Kim Myers) is somewhat of a cipher, though her character arc should be familiar to any girl who has had to make the dreaded discovery that her 'boyfriend' has some secrets. But she, noble girl that she is, wants communication, and she really is the most intriguing character in the film. She makes an effortless transition from sexually frustrated rich girl to good-hearted supernatural warrioress without missing a beat, and she is both a resourceful thinker and an active participant in the drama. Any woman who doesn't balk at being bitten by a Freddy-faced dog that leaves a bloody maggot-infested wound is the kind of badass that any horror franchise could do well with. If this were a more conventional horror film, Lisa would be the main character, and Jesse would be killed off at the beginning of the third act. Fortunately, this is not the case.
School, as anyone plodding through the eighties would tell you, is hell. The makers of Freddy's Revenge decide to take that literally, giving us a sexually-charged, snake-laden battleground for anyone who doesn't cotton to traditional notions of authority and social behavior. Is it any wonder that the school bus is seen as an infernal transport bound for the shunned pit of the divine? The film's opening and closing sequences on said bus are strange and surreal tableaux that set up one of the central differences of this film, in that at no point in the film are we ever given concrete reassurance that we are within the safeness of reality, and this is reflected, beautifully, in the way the characters act.
Everyone is driven by fear, in almost every aspect of their lives. The quintessential moment in this film is identical to that in the first, in which bars on the windows are the path to 'security.' Ken and Cheryl Walsh seem like good parents, but the keystone of the entire Elm Street mythos is that Freddy thrives on family stress, and these parents are no different than the initial group of parents who burned Freddy alive to begin with. As Jesse's psychotic mesh with Freddy continues and he sinks deeper into uncertainty and horror, he can depend only on himself- which is particularly unfortunate, as Jesse's insecurity leaves him unable to defend himself or anyone around him. "My dad thinks I'm on drugs, my Mom thinks I'm crazy, and I don't know if I don't agree with them," he tells Lisa, pushed to his limits.
Even amongst the oft-dodgy Elm Street canon (Freddy's Dead, this means you), Part Two is often marginalized. There is an excerpt from the film during the opening montage in Freddy Vs. Jason, which is some kind of validation, but even most fans seem to treat this effort as the bastard stepchild of the Elm Street films. My theory is that it is a combination of three factors that are the cause of this; 1) the discontinuous nature of the narrative (i.e. the only character that it shares with any of the other films in the series is Freddy (and, if you want to get technical, the house at 1428 Elm Street)), 2) the not-even-subtle gay content, and 3) the fact that there is no clear delineation between reality and dream in how Freddy operates. The time frame of this film is also very strange, as it posits itself as taking place five years after the events of the first Elm Street film. If this is the case, we have two options: 1) That the events of the first film took place in 1980, or 2) that Freddy's Revenge is happening in 1989. Either way, it is a very strange timeshift.
The film's weird quasi-existence on the fringes of the franchise can be explained, somewhat, by the fact that Ken and Cheryl Walsh had nothing to do with the inciting event in Springwood, nor is Jesse brought into the razor-sharp grasp of Freddy by friends returning from previous sequels (as is the case with Alice in Nightmare 4). But given the desperation that franchise-holders will often seek even the most tenuous of connections with previous offerings to connect their sequels to, it seems very strange that there's been no effort to connect any of the subsequent films with the strange story of Jesse Walsh.
What Nightmare 2 does better than any of the other films in the series is play games with physical space. There are a few weird-assed tracking shots that shift perspectives on (or in) 1428 (most especially the one that goes from the basement/boiler room to Angela's room during one of Jesse's Freddywalks), and, in keeping with the lack of geographic specificity of the first film, we are spatially disoriented on an almost shot-by-shot basis. But Freddy's boiler room is where the physical world as we know it takes the evening off. A friend has a theory about how many great horror films could be seen as taking place in the Twin Peaks universe, and there can certainly be a case made for Elm Street 2, as we have a secret diary which alerts us to a monstrous presence, the shifting physical space of Freddy's boiler room (which feels oddly enough like a variant of that milieu's Black Lodge), even in the way Freddy conducts himself (in this film) through heat, as Bob in Twin Peaks does so through electricity. The amorphous horror of the boiler room is also reminiscent of Italo splatter at its most creative, with Argento-ish color schemes and the sense of unspeakable dimensions of horror lurking just beyond human realms of perception (I'm thinking specifically of Fulci's L'Aldila ). This foreshadows nicely the nightworld Craven envisions for the omniFreddy in the New Nightmare.
But let's get back to the gay, shall we? Nightmare 2 is a Freudian minefield of gay text. Any of the film's sequences involving gym class elevate Freddy's Revenge into the pantheon of pioneering gay representation. Between Coach Schneider ("they say he hangs out in queer S&M joints downtown. He likes pretty boys like you," as Grady tells Jesse), the baseball game with no pants and rolling about, and the lingering locker room tableaux, this feels like it could veer into gay porn at any given moment. For instance, the first time that Jesse wakes up sweaty and screaming like a butch bottom, that's terror. But the second, third, and fourth times it happens, well, it doesn't take a semiotician to get what's going on.
The character of Grady is a strange one, as he is first introduced as a rival for Jesse, an antagonist rooted in the world of school and reputation, rather than the dreamworld where Freddy rules. The fact that Grady pantses Jesse in front of most of the school, then rolls around with him in a brawl, doesn't seem to strike anyone as odd. Of course, after their shared ritualized abuse at the hands of the sadistic Coach Schneider, Jesse and Grady warm up to each other. The Grady/Jesse friendship evolves naturally, and is one of the few ways that the film tries to evoke realism in its interpersonal dynamics, though there is a fine line between bullying and flirting, and this film leaps back and forth across it. The thing to keep in mind when observing the character of Grady is how he is changed by Jesse. It is because of Jesse that Grady is accepted at the lunch table with Lisa and her friend Kerry (played by Sydney Walsh, whom eagle-eyed viewers might recognize from the sadly underrated where-is-the-DVD-of-this vampire romance To Die For), and it should be a major klaxon of significance that Grady has posters for Limahl and Tina Turner in his room. Why does a bad boy like Grady not have a girlfriend, you might ask. What could bond him with fellow misfit Jesse so strongly that when Freddy comes a calling, it is Grady that Jesse seeks out? And, for that matter, what exactly happens in between when Coach Schneider finds Jesse at Don's Place (which looks surprisingly diverse and peppy for a horror film's conception of a 'queer S&M joint') and when we see him running laps at school?
"Well, Mr. Queer Theory," you might be thinking, "why is it that Jesse gets all sexed up with Lisa at the party? And moreso, why does a kiss from Lisa prove the means by which Jesse is freed from Freddy?" First of all, Jesse gets sexed up at the party with Lisa because Freddy is exerting control over him. It is not Jesse's extended tongue that is flopping about around her decolletage, it is Freddy's. As for Lisa's kiss, I see its power coming more from being an unselfish gesture than from being the spark that reawakens Jesse's passion. Jesse is defined as a character by his dispassionate nature, so why would this change just because he is physically imprisoned within the eldritch flesh of the bastard child of a thousand maniacs? In A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Freddy is patriarchy incarnate, and the reason why Jesse is completely helpless at fighting Freddy is because he is what society wants. Freddy comes out to kill whenever Jesse is surrounded by gay stimuli, but Freddy comes out to play (which, because he is insane and because this is a horror film, usually involves killing as well) whenever traditional boy-girl couplings loom. All those heterosexual pairings at Lisa's party, and we wonder why that's what triggers the complete shift from Jesse to Freddy?
The fact that A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge is slagged regularly (even by Freddy himself, Robert Englund) as the weakest in the series is a disservice to a textually and subtextually rich film. Viewed on its own, apart from the baggage of the Elm Street series, Nightmare 2 is a stylish and unsettling slice of 80s horror at its best. Viewed in the context of the series, it is an anomaly, this is true, but it is certainly better than Nightmares 5 and 6 and Freddy Vs. Jason. I would call it the best of all the sequels, and a more than worthy follow-up to the first film, and at the very least, you should check out this weird touchstone of 80s mores and gore
-- Copyright © 2004 by Jason Shawhan