Friday, October 31, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge

(R, New Line Cinema, 87 mins., theatrical release date: November 1, 1985)

After Hours, Better Off Dead..., Brazil, The Breakfast Club, Fright Night, Heaven Help Us, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead, The Sure Thing.

These ten films will all be celebrating their 30th anniversary next year. I bring up these titles in particular, deliberately setting aside the blockbusters (Back to the Future, The Goonies, Rocky IV) and the ball-busters (St. Elmo's Fire, A View to a Kill), because I devoutly appreciate every single one of them from past until present. This is not thorough, as I have failed to mention Mr. Vampire, Real Genius, Runaway Train, Lost in America, and several other gems I caught up with. Even trashier stuff like Commando, Death Wish 3 and Red Sonja I can understand getting some love. But 1985 was the year which gave us John Cusack, Stephen Geoffreys and Linda Fiorentino in heavy doses. I'll gladly stick up for 1985 as a good year at the movies for those three reasons alone.

One of the more interesting movies I can see getting the retrospective treatment is A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge. Yes, I'm talking about one of the most infamous horror sequels in history, in the same year, mind you, that spewed out Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. The film drove a wedge between series creator Wes Craven and New Line Cinema honcho Robert Shaye, sparked a deathless debate over its brazenly homosexual allegory and, like Halloween III: Season of the Witch before it, became a cinematic orphan in mewling need of a willing cult of sympathetic adopters. The comprehensive Elm Street series documentary Never Sleep Again is essential viewing in understanding these bones of contention.

The best thing about Daniel Farrands & Andrew Kasch's project was that it marked the welcome public appearance of NoES 2's long-estranged lead actor, Mark Patton. His entertaining, frank comments on the film's legendarily gay subtext are priceless, but the outtakes from his interview were even more revealing. Patton dropped out of professional acting when his integrity was challenged by the still-prevalent Celluloid Closet and the cattily competitive behavior therein, which was maddeningly trivial even without the real life horrors facing the gays of the world. Patton overcame multiple health concerns, including HIV-positive testing, and is currently living a fulfilling life in Puerto Vallarta. He has kept up a solid profile as an artist, activist and writer, with hopes for completing a documentary called There Is No Jesse which may as well prove just as candid and critical as Heather Langenkamp's I Am Nancy, if not more so.

Patton's character of Jesse Walsh is the new kid on Elm Street, freshly relocated to the same white house with bars on the windows wherein Nancy Thompson vanquished Freddy Krueger. Screenwriter David Chaskin and director Jack Sholder burden Jesse with the same all-too-real nightmares of the scissor-fingered psycho, but they've jettisoned one of the more resonant themes of the original Wes Craven film, the inheritance of the parents' sins. Mr. & Mrs. Walsh, played by Clu Gulager and Hope Lange, are interlopers with no understanding of their new house's eerie history, let alone aware of the mass show of vigilantism which loosed Krueger onto his killers' brood. They are your garden variety suburban caricatures, as are all of the other parental units, and serve no consequence on the ensuing teen angst.

Mr. Walsh, stern simpleton he is, is far from Craig T. Nelson's character in Poltergeist, reacting less plausibly to clearly supernatural phenomena and jumping to jokey conclusions at every opportunity. This type of skeptical, oblivious father who may as well be the absentee parent in many a bad teen sex comedy. Mrs. Walsh is stereotypically passive, and kid sister Angela (Christie Clark) has somehow even less of a personality. The crux of the story is specifically Jesse's gradual torment by none other than the goading spirit of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who makes it his crusade to possess Jesse Walsh and resume killing in a mortal coil.

If only that were Jesse's lone concern. He is simultaneously bullied and befriended by Rod Lane ringer Ron Grady (Robert Rusler), the two of them bonding over phys ed detention sessions under the sadomasochistic thumb of Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). There's also the matter of pretty Lisa Webber (Kim Myers), who isn't so well-off that she cannot rely on Jesse to get her to school every morning. Their peer-pressured romantic courtship is at risk thanks to Krueger's machinations, which turn dead serious when a supposedly sleepwalking Jesse makes the bizarre choice to catch Coach Schneider's eye in a gay bar and is taken back to the gym for punishment.

The combination of Chaskin's eccentric if hackneyed plot and Sholder's plebian proficiency as director pays dividends in terms of camp. Grady teases Jesse early on that his soft, pretty boy physique is exactly what gets Schneider's rocks off, but then the leather-vested martinet and his lanky prey turn up serendipitously at a watering hole for homosexuals?! When Schneider starts raiding the supply closet and pulls out a jump rope, all the while Jesse is taking a shower nearby, my brain tells me there's going to be some squat thrusts going on that I shouldn't even begin to contemplate. But then you get to Schneider's death, which involves racquets snapping, balls exploding off the shelves, towels becoming sentient and whipping Schneider's bare ass. Chaskin intended this as simple adolescent wish-fulfillment, but I'll be damned if it doesn't exacerbate the queenie absurdity of it all.

The audience had already gotten an eyeful of the Risky Business rip wherein Jesse dances around his bedroom to club diva synth-pop wearing gold lame sunglasses and closing drawers with his tuches. The production design is so shameless, that Nancy's journal is placed conveniently next to a board game named "Probe" and a "No Out of Town Checks" sign outside Jesse's door has an I pasted over the E. And in a twist on the original scene where Nancy asked her boyfriend Glen to watch over her as she slept, the frightened Jesse, foiled in an intimate moment with Lisa, begs Grady to protect him in much the same way, complete with wake-up call warnings and stoic recitation of "Don't fall asleep."

Objectively speaking, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is simultaneously derivative and defiant of its immediate progenitor. Krueger is still a shadow demon whose favored tropical climes involve boiler rooms and power plants. The bravura opening sequence in which Jesse's school bus teeters over an infernal pit packs the same kind of sweaty, sleazy dread as Tina's inaugural nightmare the last time. The teenagers are elevated to nobility through investigation and open-mindedness, not just their sympathetic supernatural anxieties. And Jesse Walsh is every bit a solid central character as Nancy Thompson or Alice Johnson, relatable even as Krueger eats at both his will and his sanity.

The main problem is in reducing the Freddy mythos to just another slab of Amityville Horror/Poltergeist hokum. The worst offender is the famous scene where a spooked lovebird is loosed from its cage and flies around the living room dive-bombing Mr. Walsh, only to explode in flight. The ludicrousness of the scenario is hardly deflated by dad's dopey rationale for the bird's errant behavior: "It's that cheap seed you've been buying." Furthermore, dream logic matters little in the overall goal of Freddy Krueger being reborn in Jesse's place, especially when a pool party populated by hardly narcoleptic teens are beset by Krueger, who surrounds them in flames, turns the water to boiling and cavorts around, sticking his razors into the panicking herd. It's an equally embarrassing turn of events given the grim urgency of the original, which blurred fantasy/reality and life/death with resolute tragedy. Krueger feels strangely emasculated, saddled with a plan that saps him of his primal fear potential and makes him frightening only in mere context.

Whatever genuine pain this sequel conjures depends largely on Mark Patton's internalized, anguished central performance. The young man looks distressingly fragile, more so than a lot of female survivors in past slasher movies, and there's a glistening, grim pathos that is hard to deny. Whatever psychosexuality and gay repression themes rise up to the top of this milkshake are tempered by Patton's earnest, personal commitment to the role. There is a case to be made for Jesse Walsh as a more effeminate version of the Everyboy persona, and in the film's universe of adolescent confusion and foiled romantic desire, Walsh is well-rounded enough as a character to make the madness sting. The fortitude he lacks is ably compensated by Kim Myers as the concerned, brave female friend Lisa, and there is an innate tenderness to their scenes which is a welcome touch in a youth-driven market fueled by leery sexism.

Kevin Yagher, taking over the FX work begun by David Miller in the original, gives Krueger some distinctly gothic touches, especially in the amber-colored eyes which Sholder locks onto in one memorable close-up. And the film's coup turns out to be Jesse's on-screen rebirth of Freddy, impeccably crafted by Mark Shostrom and filmed with the utmost dread by Sholder. The eye peeking out of Jesse's mouth, the head indenting itself in Jesse's abdomen, the razors tearing out from Jesse's fingers...every shot counts.

The trouble with A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is that not everyone appears to be on the same wavelength, so the earnest qualities of Jesse's body horror/sexual orientation predicament and the micro-budget inanity fail to mesh together in a proper way. It's formless, jarring quickie product which doesn't quite bastardize Freddy in the same way later sequels did, but it doesn't really add much to the Gloved One even as it subtracts. It's not fully deserving of its disreputable rep, and I'll take this over Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare any day, every day. But there's a reason Wes Craven was allowed some input on the subsequent Dream Warriors. A lot of NoES 2's legacy appears purely incidental, as strange and senseless as any nightmare. But at least they spare us the parakeet's lucid dreaming.

Here's the rare red band theatrical trailer I can recall seeing on my old special edition VHS of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

No comments:

Post a Comment