When Subtext Becomes Supertext
Scream, Queen! profiles “final boy” Mark Patton, who launched a thousand thinkpieces
You never know what disreputable pop-culture skunk will be excoriated, and then eventually re-evaluated and appreciated, by the same beleaguered community. The gay-themed thriller Cruising, for instance, was vilified by gay activists on its 1980 release for being homophobic; it then found a thriving cult audience among gay film fans of later generations. Something similar happened to 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. For a time, this quickie sequel to Wes Craven’s major horror hit (it went into production a mere seven months after the original hit theaters) was loathed by its young (hetero) audience for gay undertones that often verged on overtones, and some gay commentators once again decried its alleged demonizing of the queer as the Other. Today it’s cherished by a wide assortment of gay fans, many of whose first big-screen glimpse of gayness (including the inside of a gay bar) the movie was.
Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street focuses on Mark Patton, the then-25-year-old star of Nightmare 2, who was cast as the then-rare (heck, still rare) “final boy,” the opposite of the usual trope of the “final girl” — the smart, tough, sometimes nerdy girl who lives to give the killer a taste of his own medicine. Patton played Jesse, a teenage boy possessed by the franchise’s boogeyman, Freddy Krueger. The movie has Jesse acting out all sorts of toxic homoerotic fantasies at the spiritual behest of Freddy. Now, does that make the movie toxic, or is it just pointing out the toxins in a country that was, at the time, blaming gays for AIDS and officially ignoring their mortality rates?
Back then, Patton was gay but closeted. He knew, as did countless other actors, that to come out was to kill your career. In that case, making his starring debut in what shakes out as a very weird gay nightmare seems in retrospect not very shrewd. After the film came out, Patton was told by his agents that he couldn’t credibly play hetero. He wasn’t especially swishy in the role, but neither does he read as a straight male, and — a detail that has provoked laughter both malicious and affectionate over the years — he screams like a girl. Truly, I think Nightmare 2 was destined to go nelly when scripter David Chaskin first decided to make the protagonist a boy to go against the usual grain. The dynamic that results makes it a legitimately unique entry in the canon of American popular horror, and decidedly an outlier in its franchise.
As for the documentary itself, it’s probably more instructive for those who haven’t read a zillion thinkpieces about Nightmare 2 as “the first gay horror film” (Nosferatu begs to differ) or “the gayest horror film ever” (it’s probably not even the gayest horror film of the ‘80s). As in Life After Flash, the recent documentary about Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones, we see the subject attending a bunch of conventions, telling the same stories, answering the same questions, posing for the same photos. Patton, though, likes to tell himself he’s done a small bit for helping gays feel less alone and persecuted, and this is borne out in the film frequently in interviews with an assortment of gay fans ranging from academics to drag queens (not that you can’t be both, of course). For a lot of teenage gay boys who hadn’t been expecting to find themselves at a movie like this, it must have been a vivid trip, and, since director Jack Sholder wasn’t shy about staging the homoerotic violence he ludicrously claims not to have been aware of, it must have put a titillating finger on a not-nice patch of their lizard brains. Watching a brutal, closeted gym coach get his naked, gory comeuppance wasn’t supposed to be a turn-on, but…
Scream, Queen! has a built-in conflict alluded to right from the start. Screenwriter Chaskin had spent years telling anyone who’d listen that he intended none of the movie’s gay subtext and that the casting of Patton, an obvious sissy, made the film seem gay. Once the movie started picking up gay cred — celebrated for its dark queerness rather than attacked — Chaskin changed his tune, and Patton rightly calls him out on this. It’s possible, of course, that neither man has an entirely objective take on the situation — Patton seems to blame Chaskin for the end of his career. The movie leads up to the moment when the two men hash things out, and at least here it doesn’t falter. Ultimately, Scream, Queen! is more useful as a portrait of a survivor of the closet (and of HIV) than as a sort of Room 237-style autopsy of the movie. It’ll probably make you want to rewatch Nightmare 2, though. As long as you chase it with a viewing of The Bride of Frankenstein or the original Cat People.