VENGEANCE IS MINE :: Why I love ELM STREET 2 (in three parts)

Very few movies scare me - at least, in the sense they're meant to scare.
The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project give me hyperawareness of things that go bump in the night. Fire In the Sky put me off alien abduction forever. Jacob's Ladder gives me second thoughts about death. Any supernatural scenario that can reach out and grab me in my own reality is the stuff that hits me at a weird angle. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) this list is most likely the long & short of it; these are the movies that are strong enough & well-crafted enough to make me tense outside of the confines of their 90-120 mins.

I've endured depressing movies like I Spit On Your Grave and Martyrs that I don't care if I never see again.
I've stomached gore the likes of Audition and Bone Tomahawk that I wouldn't mind seeing again.
I've seen clever, campy, crappy, funny, moody, sexy, suspenseful, and anything else you can tack the suffix "-sploitation" onto. And then there's the far out stuff that keeps you working the rest of your life to fill in the voids with your own thoughts: The Shining, Eraserhead, The VVitch, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge.

I'm of the understanding that many filmgoers have negative feelings against the second Elm Street movie, but that's not what this is about. I've shorthandedly addressed the defensive position once here before (and many times in real life), but no more (at least for the duration of this essay).

I've been dancing around it for years: it's survived three rounds of my Top 100, and it feels pretty locked in at this point. I very briefly told you about my earliest history with the movie, but I'll encapsulate it further: I'd seen Elm Street 1 & 2 at a very early age (a bit of math confirms that I musta been 3). Truth be told, the only things that stuck forever & ever was the opening bus ride sequence from Part 2. Only a couple of years away from riding a schoolbus myself, these images of terror would stay embedded under my fingernails and eyelids to this day...
And this is where we start to flip the bill a bit; it's not so much that the movie made me afraid to ride the bus, but how accurately the movie depicted what it was like to ride the bus: rocketing past the speed limit, the windows that won't slide down, the taunts from other passengers, and biggest of all, missing your stop due to the casual incompetence of the driver.
In this scene (like nearly all his scenes in this particular entry) Freddy Krueger's function is separate from those of the parade of 80s slashers; he's not concerned with a high body count, he's merely an indication of the existential crisis in which Jesse will find himself. It's no mistake that Freddy's the driver, shrouded in darkness, laughing maniacally (I mean, when is he not?). In this early sequence, Freddy's a warning sign - an early symptom of Jesse's "problem." And already he's scarier than he was in Part 1.

I'll keep my promise & not get defensive, but that doesn't limit me to some comparative weights & measures regarding the other Elm Street films. And the best & most important comparison is Freddy himself. Not just in his unique role of the antagonist in this picture (more on that later), but in terms of makeup and performance.
Anyone can witness the evolution of Robert's portrayal of the Springwood Slasher over the course of eight movies, and it was always a bit different from movie to movie. I'll forgo charting all the subtle nuances of each entry and say that, for my money, what he did with Freddy's Revenge was both more abstract and mean-spirited than what he'd done before or since. His brooding sadism and deliberately paced swagger suggest all the insidious motives of this story - even more than his unusually sparse dialogue and one-liners.

And the makeup compliments it - effectively.

I think what's most unnerving is that the more-excessive-than-usual use of facial prosthetics disguise the actor more than in any other entry. He's been given this pronounced bone structure around his eyes that makes him look constantly pissed off (which makes it that much more startling when he smiles). His teeth are bigger and more rotten this round, his eye color changed to red, and he's consistently covered in a layer of some kinda ooze. Not that we'd notice much of this: he's usually lit in ways that make his face look like an angry, slimy skull. The result is the shadowy demon he was meant to be in Part 1, and even still a bit closer in New Nightmare, but never as good as in this one.

The list of ways it differs from all the other films in the franchise is long - which is, I'm sure, why it's so divisive - but what that also adds up to is that it's different from most slasher fare, period, and it brings up tons of talking points, because these differences are notable not because they're different, but because they're better.

Regardless of anyone else who falls under the glove in Elm Street 2, the film's only victim is Jesse, and apart from the scenes when Freddy speaks through him, he's the only character Freddy interacts with. And his torment - unlike any traditional slasher - is verbal, psychological, psychosexual, and just overall manipulative.
Each new Elm Street movie introduced us to a new group of teenage caricatures living under the regime of the burned man who chases them in their dreams and stabs them with metal fingernails. Freddy's Revenge is not that, because as any competent sequel achieves, the 'hero' (Fred Krueger) has evolved. And because Freddy's basically a ghost who must abide by the rules of dream logic, this 'evolution' can go into weird, creative places. And this is the device that elevates it from 'great sequel' to 'great movie.'

For anyone who's interested, I'm sure there've been a handful books published on the subject of dreams in the past coupla centuries. There is sometimes common ground, but most often conflicting views in every aspect of this natural phenomenon: what they mean, where they come from, etc. Though most psychologists and analysts generally agree that stuff like trauma, repressed memories, fears, fantasies, insecurities, neuroses, and anything else we keep in our brain are certainly integral to their neurological makeup. So, outside of lying on a beach, watching Dick Cavett, or becoming the Wizard Master, the other movies (for the most part) are laughably superficial in utilizing this very rich subject matter. Freddy's Revenge is the complete opposite of this laziness; and by that measure you discover all these major differences in story structure, tone, gender roles, plot, and the supposed "rules" set forth by the first movie.

The biggest problem Elm Street kids have to deal with is Freddy Krueger. Jesse already has his own problems - most of them within himself. This poses the biggest question in the show: does Krueger take advantage of Jesse's insecurities, did he manifest from Jesse's supposed homosexuality, is he just a metaphorical figment of it, or is Jesse just the newest kid on the block, in the right place at the wrong time? I'm of the overzealous mind to believe that it's all of the above.
If dreams occur in the brain, then that's where the oft-mentioned 'dream world' must lie. And without an ounce of irony, I ask: does Freddy just hang out there in his off hours, waiting for folks to fall asleep? ...It's rhetorical, because I have to believe the answer is no. What Elm Street 2 suggests - accurately - is that one's thoughts & experiences during the waking hours not only contribute to the subject matter of their dreams, but that they carry all subconscious baggage with them all the time. That original mantra, "Don't fall asleep!"- established in the first movie - sets up a clever plot device for that movie. The second one just had a bigger, more logical scope: someone who can infiltrate your dreams could also pollute your mind, body, and soul - all hours of the day or night. And that's probably the major deviation from the original setup that left people upset & confused.

Either that or the gay stuff.

How many mainstream teenage Horror flicks have a controversial, sociological subtext? Most shit is pretty straightforward, and accepting A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 as an allegory for:

- coming out in the 1980s
- the struggle to fit in
- the confusion of self-acceptance

...seems to be met with the same resistance and ridicule as homosexuality itself. Any attention the movie's ever received regarding its sexual overtones has been for the purposes of mockery, or singled out as a flaw. There was an online poll some time ago that numerically ranked the "Gayest Horror Movies" ever produced, with Freddy's Revenge at the top of the list. My gripe is less about sensitivity and more about the ignorance surrounding the film. Defining a movie by measuring one particular aspect of its subject matter simply undermines any & all of its other achievements. Philadelphia may very well be the gayest Courtroom Drama ever made, but that's certainly not the first thing I take from it.
But I haven't broken my promise, because this isn't a defense. This is to state that plain fact that: yes, Freddy's Revenge is about grappling with one's own sexuality, and Freddy himself is a metaphor for the stigma, not the orientation itself. And I point this out not for the purposes of making an observation that many before me have already made, but to applaud a confrontationally abstract slasher movie. All of the Elm Street films had broad strokes of surrealism throughout (that's one of the reasons I prefer it over the other Horror franchises), but Part 2 clearly challenged audiences beyond their level of understanding. It's paced out like a psychological thriller, because that's what it is, and at its heart, so is the entire franchise. But as much as I enjoy the synth/metal laser light show that are the 'other' Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Part 2 is simply a darker, smarter, more serious approach. Seriously!

Any piece of art this vulnerable to analysis that produces wildly different interpretations across the board is certainly my kinda bag. But stuff like "themes" and "meanings" don't fully address the very simple reasons behind why it moves me.
Consider, for a moment, Mark Patton's performance beyond the overly-scrutinized 'feminine' screams & silly dance sequence. Better still, consider his character in realistic terms: scared, angry, confused, sleep deprived -- and he maintains this state with varying levels of intensity throughout the entire picture with a believability and a cleverness that you don't typically see in this genre. It's a juicy role that asks a lot of its actor, and he doesn't hold back.
And for better or worse, Mark's performance has always (understandably) overshadowed the more subtle approach of costar Kim Myers. She's given very little to say or do, but her character is maybe the most integral to this weird story, and she plays it that way. Sure the plot's focus is the male existential crisis (and then some), but that ends up requiring the strength and level-headedness of its female lead. And she needn't transform into a T2 Linda Hamilton to overcome this madness that's been put upon her; her 'battle' with Freddy consists mostly of patience and empathy, which, if you were paying attention, is all Jesse needed in his life. It was a logical ending to a movie full of metaphors and abstractions, though I feel like some folks felt ripped off. But that's the driving force of this installment; unlike the other Elm Street movies, we don't get that figurative "heads up" every time a character falls asleep, because the chaos occurs abruptly, and in the real world.

Or does it...?

The most fun and provocative sequence is Jesse's full-blown, literal metamorphosis into Freddy in Grady's bedroom. What we witness onscreen is Jesse's body torn apart as Freddy Krueger emerges from his chest. In any other film of this type, Jesse's body would be discarded as a pile of bloody skin and guts on the floor, but the revelation is that this incident was either a supernatural hallucination or merely a filmic analogy that we saw but Grady didn't.
Either scenario is pretty rad. The fx have a coupla rough edges but it's choreographed and edited with precision, and to my understanding, Grady's wounds were much more severe on the page.
But foam Mark Patton heads and MPAA cuts aside, the greatest moment in the entire film occurs during this scene: Freddy slowly rises into the frame like a jungle predator. In any other installment he'd crack wise at this moment and the tension would be thwarted, but instead, he gives the creepiest, most effective grin even put on celluloid. He casually places his trademark fedora onto his head and gives a subtle, ambiguous nod before he slowly makes his way across this teenage bedroom festooned with posters of Stray Cats and Limahl, claws out, no remorse. He is Nosferatu of the 1980s. He is Jaws on land. This is the sound and vision that all Freddy Krueger movies coulda been.

And as much as I love the kitsch & camp of the electronic keyboard and drum machine score of the other films, Christopher Young's traditional Monster Movie orchestral soundtrack gives Part 2 the weight and grandeur it deserves. Most of his music here is restrained and ominous like a black cloud on the horizon, mostly building towards the scene in Grady's room with a piece transparently titled "Chest-Burster" that is such a straightforward indication of suspense and terror that it should be taught in schools.

The other big set piece worth talking about is the decidedly underwhelming pool party massacre (which, again, supposedly fell under the knife of the ratings board). The execution's a little dry, but the concept is fucking tits! The 'fish outta water' gimmick is something I've always adored - the whole 'King Kong in New York' thing is fertile drama when it's done right.
Predator 2 was very satisfactory.
Jurassic Park 2 was mildly satisfactory.
Jason Takes Manhattan was not satisfactory.
Freddy's Revenge came right at the height of the slasher boom (in some countries, it even came out before Part 1), and for anyone who's endured any or all of the movies from that time, you know it was usually 75 minutes of stalking and 11 minutes of slashing. The idea of Freddy running wild through a crowd of prospective victims was an exhilarating refreshment. (Wes Craven hated it, so they musta done something right.) Even if it is poorly edited and light on the carnage, it's an awesome shock that punctuates the pace of the movie right in the right spot.

I like the dance scene. I like the stuff in the S&M bar with Schneider.
I like Clu Gulager and Hope Lange.
I like spotting the bright red objects precariously placed in nearly every frame (cans of New Coke are all over this thing).
I even like the 'demonic bird' stuff (even though I completely forget about it between viewings).
I like that it ends with a hissy Bing Crosby number that leaves the whole thing with a Shining flavor.
I like that it doesn't really tie in with the other films & that it could've been a standalone feature about demonic possession. Imagine that! Like Halloween III, had it been its own thing, not affiliated with a franchise, would it have a wider following? It's certainly stronger than any of the supernatural melodramas of that time - or any time.

In the end, I like the collective perception of the Freddy Krueger we have: the scary clown of the 80s, the spokesman of the Fangoria era, the Heavy Metal heavy of MTV, the bastard son of a hundred maniacs.
What became of the character as pop culture devoured him was a symbol for cartoon violence - which is an institution in its own right that's too fun to be ignored. Though I still make the argument that the jokey prankster who was prevalent in all the other films (Part 1 included) took a backseat to the menacing child molester of Part 2. For the sake of argument (which I didn't wanna do), peep this blurb from Fangoria's Best & Bloodiest Horror Video Guide from 1988:
"While the homophobic imagery is a perplexing, gratuitous addition, the films's elevation of Krueger from a loathsome child molester to a witty antihero is reprehensible. Robert Englund's characterization here is quite unlike the one Craven obtained; Freddy is not only brought out into the light, he's brought out of dreamland and into reality, which he can also control, and trades his former laconic venom for a series of one-liners ("You've got the body, I've got the brains!")."
As opposed to what? "No running in the hallway?" "I'm your boyfriend now?"

Robert Englund's always happy to point out the dirty little secret of the movie: this guy's attacking scantily-clad teenagers in their beds. The element of naughty is always beneath the surface.
Freddy's Revenge is a much less ambiguous (and thus, more chilling) depiction of a pedophiliac assault: he spends the entire picture grooming Jesse without ever pulling the trigger. This is the added dimension that was absent from the other movies; it's how the teen slasher with the bad puns and the "personality" generated t-shirts, Halloween costumes, and young fans - by sidestepping the icky stuff.
And I suppose therein lies the tradeoff: mouthwatering merchandise for more generic motion pictures. It's not a terrible deal - you know I love me some officially licensed Freddy products. And if that means we gotta watch him rap with the Fat Boys & play Nintendo with Breckin Meyer, then I will continue to accept this sugar-free serial killer.
And if I ever want a darker, scarier Freddy, I'll always have Freddy's Revenge.

- Paul


Roland Calhoun said...

Great read. Cool to see this film get some love and the opportunity to open the discussion on underrated sequels.
For me, I'll never see this as a great film but rather a great experience. Makes me want to go back to my letterbox page and see how I ranked these films years ago.

Peyton D said...

You've been waiting a while to post this, indeed. We needed this essay from you. Thank you.

Your affection for Freddy's Revenge is like my affection for Halloween 4. I will defend Danielle Harris and the cult of Thorn (4-6) over the original Halloween movies (1-3) till I die.

P and J said...

That's a unique take we've not heard before - it's too outta-this-world to not give you our full respect!

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