HomeHorrorFreddy’s Revenge: On Krueger, Camp, and Failure

    Freddy’s Revenge: On Krueger, Camp, and Failure

    Its messiness is what makes this film so perfect.

    Scream, Queen

    Author’s Note: I first came up with the idea for this article about Freddy’s Revenge in a conversation on Grindr, in case you were curious about my credentials, and what I found was that people generally are disinterested by anyone who brings up horror films while sexting.

    Queer horror is something that is simultaneously pervasive and evasive. It is all around us- its relationalities, ugly monsters tempered by constant sensations of “oh that feels like me!”. But also, explicit (and even deliberately implicit) queerness feels just out of reach outside the purview of art-horror on the one side and confrontational trash on the other. And, while I love both (especially the latter), there’s nary a space for crowd-pleasing queer horror. The commercial slasher, being horror’s cash-cow for nearly four decades of the genre’s ninety-year existence in cinema, has been evasive of queerness outside of negative portrayals established during the Hays-Code years of 1930-1960. But something remarkable occurred in the mid 1980s, as queer-themed horror slowly made its mark. Yes: on November 1st 1985, A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was released.  

    A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is one of a special breed of queer slashers. Loathed upon initial release, it slowly inspires a cult fandom in our wonderfully queer modern horror community. And it’s a cult I am glad to be a part of. It’s brought up some debate as to the actual quality of the film. Many of us who wave the flag for it acknowledge its b-horror sensibilities: its campiness, its strangeness within the Elm Street canon. Ohers, however, remark that its poor quality makes it worth ignoring.

    And the detractors are, well, sort of right. It’s a traditionally badly made film full of exploding budgies, clunky performances, and a plot that never quite goes anywhere. Freddy’s given extra powers and idiosyncrasies that make him less scary and more confusing (possession, pursuing a physical manifestation, the aforementioned exploding of birds, an evil lair guarded by baby-headed dogs). It’s weird, it’s dumb, it’s sort of embarrassing. Hell, even its cast and crew, even Wes Craven himself, treat it as a weird footnote not worth staying on too long. And that’s unfair. It’s not just because I can ignore those flaws, push them aside in favor of my rosy vision of what this weird gay film is.

    No, Freddy’s Revengeis so good, so successfully queer, because of its flaws, not in spite of them.

    Unlike those who reject it outright, I firmly believe Freddy’s Revenge’s failure is what makes it so good. Is a Nightmare on Elm Street 2 a perfect movie? God no, I think I’ve made that clear. But we wouldn’t be talking about it the way we do now if we thought it was. What is brilliant about A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, and all the other camp and strange slashers out there, is their brilliant failure.

    On top of that, Freddy’s Revenge plays around with form and character like no other film in the series. The Elm Street franchise is incredibly creative sure. But its creativity is always in the same mode: new gothic arenas, new kills, new sadistic lines for Freddy to spout like the furnace-burned Bugs Bunny he is. But Freddy’s Revenge? It pushes and pulls at the fabric the original sewed so lovingly together, unravelling a thread from Freddy’s iconic sweater. Freddy’s Revenge is more than creative: it’s transformative.

    Let’s Talk Camp

    If Freddy’s Revenge is anything, it’s camp. Camp, as understood thanks to Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, is a lot of things, but central to it is excess. An excess which, as its title might give away, it doesn’t shy away from. Freddy’s Revengeis full with its excesses, opening with a dream-bus driven by Freddy careening off a ledge and exploding in flame. It only gets stranger from there. There’s the much-derided dance number, leather bars, and the ass-whipping death of the gym coach. But there’s also twists and turns into the surreal and genuinely nightmarish.

    It’s this slapdash nature that gives Freddy’s Revenge its brilliance. Layers upon layers of artifice and aesthetic move steadily from one absurdity to the next in a frenzy of ideas that lunge out as if to challenge the viewer. Susan Sontag, in Notes on “Camp”, describes camp as ‘the love of the exaggerated, the “off”, of things-being-what-they-are-not’. That is true of every moment in Freddy’s Revenge. From the bright lights of dance numbers to the odd moments of drama, to the brutal violence and terror, nothing is sacred. Everything is absurd, overacted, bombastic, surreal, and very gay.

    It’s a deeply obvious film in its queerness, too. So many opinion pieces have been written on it that, even if you did manage to miss its declarative homoeroticism, you wouldn’t go very long without finding it out. When Freddy rubs Jesse’s lips with his blades, whispering “you’ve got the body”, it’s suggestive. When Jesse yells “he’s inside me!” it’s undeniable. Indeed, there are so many moments of blatant and comically excessive sexual allusions in ways that are, today, delightfully camp.

    It’s excellent because the of the film’s place as a sequel to an instant classic. It can’t be gay outright—it’d be mocked. So it tells its story through a series of extremely obvious allusions and hilariously clumsy dialogue. Indeed it was this plausible deniability that allowed the film to hide as unintentionally gay for so long. Screenwriter David Chaskin only admitted to purposeful homoeroticism in 2010. He otherwise blamed lead actor Mark Patton for making the story “too gay”.

    Like a cherry on top, Freddy’s Revenge is never ironic, never veering intentionally into self-parody as later Elm Streetsequels would. It is totally sincere, in many respects one of the last sincere films in the franchise. The film takes bold and catastrophic risks rather than play it safe, and does so with a straight-face. This is true camp: an attempt at sincere storytelling, done poorly, excessively, queerly. And the obviousness is… bad, it’s clumsy, and I love it because of it.

    But I’m not everyone, obviously. It’s easy to see why the film was ridiculed or inspected with such incredulity when it first released. Remember that A Nightmare On Elm Street was a landmark sort of film. It was immediately profitable, a critical darling from the offset, rebooting the career of Wes Craven and kickstarting the legend of Robert Englund. Comparatively, Freddy’s Revenge was a monumental flop. While initially successful, it was soon derided by audiences and critics alike for its patently obvious homoeroticism and remarkable campiness. Freddy was different now: possessing and haunting in a material way rather than lurking in dreams. He’s a cultural murmur trending against one individual—Jesse and the “monstrous” queer desires within—rather than a vague subconscious of small-town regret.

    But art isn’t just allegory. It’s easy to pin the film’s failures on homophobia, or a lack of understanding of the gay paranoia that shapes so much of the dread in the film. Both are valid assumptions, and I’m sure contribute to the disdain viewers have and had toward the film. But the film is not some unrivalled and profound legend of hidden queer brilliance. It’s a hokey old horror film with some excellent queer theming.

    Freddy’s Revenge is, by most normative metrics, a pretty bad movie. It has flat characters and goofy dialogue, a plot that does not, cannot, bank on its theming because of the context of its production. And yet we love it, and yet I love it, so doesn’t that make it… good? There’s a greater conversation at play here. But what is clear is that Freddy’s Revenge and films like it challenge our notions of quality altogether. It’s just so good at being bad.

    Falling In Style

    Freddy’s Revenge was a failed project from the start. It was an overly ambitious script focusing on a controversial topic written covertly and produced as a sequel to a box office smash. Like the bus in the film’s opening it was a sharp veer into chaos, plummeting far down, and crashing into something beautiful. A beautiful disaster. What makes this queer? Well, because for many queers, failure is a way of life, from camp to drag to our existence in the world. Because for queers in the 80s and queers now, failure to fit with societal norms is sometimes the best we can hope for, else we lie. And what is a lie but a failure to be honest?

    See, Freddy’s Revenge is a unique object. Its failures are distinct as compared to that of The Dream Childor the original’s 2010 Elm Street remake. Where they embraced mediocrity, following trends the series was bound to flow into (the series’ increasing silliness and the late-00s slasher remake boom respectively), Freddy’s Revengefailed with a kind of self-assuredness that the series never truly recaptured. Beyond the gay jokes there’s a kind of nobility to the film, a dedication to its own carved path, even if none of the creators besides Chaskin (and maybe Englund) were fully aware of what it was.

    While it’s important to acknowledge that, as documented in the recent film Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, there was a level of cruel denialism. Chaskin implicated actor Mark Patton’s closeted queerness for the film’s own overt queerness. But the object itself stands unique, silly, frightening, and charming. It’s devastatingly camp, aggressively novel, and queer in its subversiveness. In the words of queer theorist Jack Halberstam, in his terrific book The Queer Art of Failure, this is a failure “we might build upon to challenge the logics of success that have emerged from the triumphs of global capitalism”. Put it another way: Freddy’s Revenge in its failure to be a successful horror project creates new avenues of exploration and engagement. It allows for new ways of enjoyment outside of the norms of profit-driven success.

    Take the pool party sequence, where Jesse’s “friend”, Grady, lets Jesse have an ordinary heterosexual sleepover while agreeing to keep him awake all night. Grady falls asleep, and in what can only be described as an “adult birthing sequence”, Krueger emerges from Jesse’s chest like an infesting urge, violent and penetrative. He almost immediately killing Grady in one of the film’s only true slasher-esque kills. Jesse, flees to his “girlfriend” Lisa’s house, saying he couldn’t control his urges. When he sets his sights on the pool party happening just outside, Krueger reemerges. Then, he undoes the slasher. 

    Fully failing to attend to the stalking-killing structure which slashers had fine-tuned themselves to since the early 70s, the events of the pool-party are a massacre, at once terrifying and silly. A smallish Robert Englund framed in wide shots against massive extras, less a supernatural slasher and more just some guy killing lots of people.

    It’s a masterclass of creative failure, a kind of “falling in style” which I just utterly adore—showing the artifice of the slasher and yet completely gouging itself in the process. A sort of magic trick where this shouldn’t work and yet it does. In these moments, steering toward failure, Freddy’s Revengeis queer not just for its symbolism, but through the ways that undermines and destabilises the norms of its own subgenre. It’s part and parcel with its own camp and surrealism. It’s a sensibility that questions whether we could consider it “bad” in the first place.  

    The sheer originality, its failure to be a true sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street is, paradoxically, its own success. While it operates in the same spaces with some of the same characters, the logic of the experience is altogether different. This itself is what makes the project so brilliantly queer. No, the scenes of Freddy spectrally towel-spanking the gym teacher to death aren’t “good” in a traditional sense; they’re dumb.

    The exploding pigeon is… well… embarrassing. Jesse’s conversation and declaration of love to his girlfriend at the film’s conclusion feels like a failure to even articulate a queer message despite the film’s own demonstrable flag-waving gayness. Like a newly resurrected Krueger it, itself, is crawling up only to splatter back into the soil. It’s furnished only enough to stand for a moment in glorious pale moonlight—a brilliantly half-finished, beautifully pathetic thing. And it’s this I feel the most joy in, the imperfect, the flawed, the silly, because the film itself revels in its stretches toward nuance and scattershot creativity.

    In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam writes on the capacity for failure in itself to be a queer act, in philosophy as well as in art- pursuing a kind of radical optimism, a chaotic nihilism for the queer here and now. When we look to films like Freddy’s Revenge, we see a queerness beyond representation of sexuality and gender. A queerness that, through inversion and subversion, refuses to fit into the normativities that shape the horror genre or define progress. Through embracing camp and failure, Freddy’s Revenge made its own unique mark on queer horror fans like me, those who adore it warts and all. There it remains: unique, iconic, and beautifully bad. As Sontag put it in Notes on “Camp”: ‘The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful’

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