When I first watched this film, I didn't notice the gay subtext. That's an embarrassing admission, since there's more of it than text. Once you've noticed it, you'll be unable to see past it to the rest of the movie. They should study it at film school. Apparently the director claims he never intended any such subtext, which is rather like Russ Meyer pretending surprise at claims that his films contain buxom women.
We start with Freddy taking some teenagers for a ride, which starts out perfectly normal and keeps getting ever stranger in what might be the most memorable sequence in the whole franchise. It ends with a visual image that might have been lifted from Dante. Now that's what I call a bad dream. It's great. It's scary but also just plain fun and it's clear that after the dust had settled on this not-very-well-acclaimed movie, the suits looked back at that opening sequence and chose it as the franchise's future. It's also pretty much the last thing in this movie which isn't gay. Our hero, Jesse, is a sensitive misunderstood boy who'll spend the entire film being unable to communicate with his lethally uncomprehending parents. (Even the actor playing him, Mark Patton, is homosexual.) Jesse has two important relationships:
1. Lisa, a girl he's seeing but also not seeing. She likes him, but she's having to make all the running. She looks like Meryl Streep but with less acting ability. The person Jesse's closer to is:
2. Grady, a well-muscled lad who doesn't wear pyjamas and whose first scene involves him and Jesse pulling down each other's pants on the school playing field. You wanted female nudity? You're watching the wrong flick, dude. Admittedly all this is because Jesse annoyed Grady and they're having a fight, but even so we're barely five minutes into the film and that "no gay subtext" claim is already looking dubious. What's more, this happened during gym class and the coach takes a dim view. "Assume the position." Eh? What's that? Oh, press-ups. Thus the male bonding begins.
"How much longer do you think he's going to keep us out here?" asks Jesse.
"Could be all night," replies Grady. "The guy gets his rocks off like this. Hangs out around queer S&M joints downtown. He likes pretty boys like you." He then starts asking about Jesse's bedroom behaviour as they move on to shower and locker room conversation. "So, you live around here or what?"
What's more, every word of that was true. Later on, Jesse visits a fetish nightclub (no, really) and there meets the coach in leather bondage gear. Coach ends up hogtied in the showers, getting his bare buttocks beaten with a towel before Freddy gets nasty. Krueger has plans. "I need you, Jesse. You've got the body."
"Something is trying to get inside my body," is how Jesse himself describes it later.
No, I'm not exaggerating. It's gayer than Tom of Finland. Ironically though the bit which convinced me it's deliberate had nothing to do with the shirtless men prancing around in each other's bedrooms because our effeminate hero couldn't get it on with his girlfriend and he's running in terror from a man who wants his body. No, watch Jesse tidying his room. In his closet is one thing: a board game called Probe. Wow. Are you kidding me? Couldn't he find his copy of Fondle My Hairy Nutsack? There really is a Parker Brothers game called Probe, introduced in the 1960s, but its presence here suggests either that the production team were deliberately playing with the subtext or that we're looking at quite the coincidence.
However all this subtext is also what makes the movie interesting. I can see why a mass-market studio horror movie wouldn't want to admit to being a metaphor about the denial of your homosexuality, but without that all you're left with a pretty thin film that did well at the box office but isn't loved by the series's fans. Everything up to the pool sequence is terrific. Until then, everything was clear. Jesse has a girlfriend, but thanks to Freddy's influence he's changing into another person with a secret night life who isn't interested in girls at all. The blood, knives and slasher murders could be interpreted as the consequences of repression and denial.
However Act Three is where it all goes wrong. Here the text and subtext are at open war with each other and it's always your ending that the audience will take away with them. Freddy takes over completely and runs riot until Jesse is saved through the love of a woman! Yes, that's what we're meant to believe. No, it doesn't work, either subtextually or as the dumb climax of a horror flick. Lisa's looking for Freddy because she loves him. Think about that for a moment. "It's all right, no one's going to hurt you," are not lines you normally say to a child-murdering killer who's been chasing you with knives. Yes, of course it's really Jesse she wants, but that's a finer distinction than you'd think. Admittedly put that way it sounds quite interesting and you could undoubtedly take those ideas somewhere fascinatingly deranged, but to do so you'd have to get infinitely more fucked-up than this predictable vanilla ending. I don't even particularly buy it as the One True Love it needed to be, since Lisa never comes over as anything more than a girl who's chasing a boy. Still more problematically, she'd always been: (a) very much a supporting character, and (b) if you've been following the subtext, fundamentally part of the problem rather than the solution.
Nevertheless stick with it to the end and there's a kicker. She saves him... or so everyone thinks! Theoretically that last-minute twist saves the subtext, but unfortunately it's presented as nothing more than the usual horror shock ending, and not even a good one. The problem is that the subtextual interpretation puts Freddy into a role incompatible with the expectations of horror-going morons and so the film bottles out of following through on its own message. You certainly could have presented the scripted ending in a mannner consistent with the gay subtext, although then the subtext-impervious fanboys would have probably felt even more cheated.
Even as it stands, it's still more interesting than its stablemates, though. It feels more like a proper film than the first one, for instance. Its characters have a personal journey instead of just shit happening to them. The original didn't really give any of its teenagers goals or an inner life beyond "I don't want to die". It's also clear that they made this film before Freddy Krueger had fossilised into his own genre. At this point no one's entirely sure what an Elm Street movie is and the result is something you wouldn't associate with this franchise. I like that. The default setting for this series offers very little to a storyteller, dealing as it does with a killer you can't fight whose trademark schtick is doing whatever the hell he wants. This however is a haunted house film! Amityville? The Exorcist, even? For once, it's all about the house, which is a notion that would mostly disappear from the series after this. Freddy's simply its ghost, which is a mix of genres I really like. It's playing with all the toys of the haunted house genre, but with that Elm Street surrealism and a focal point in Freddy Krueger. Haunted house films can tend to become a shapeless mush, but Freddy gives this one personality and his own kind of energy.
He himself is great, incidentally. He's not a comedian yet, but is instead still disturbing. The bit where he deliberately puts his hand on hot metal... brrrr. The killings are also nastier for being less fantastical. They hurt more. Freddy bites someone, for instance, and not in a Looney Tunes way but as if I'd bitten you. His big scene is of course the pool party, where he lets rip in a way never seen before or since. Wow, he's vicious.
Then there's the possession angle, which again makes things more personal than usual. I like this film so much that I have trouble seeing how it can be so disliked even if you went in looking for a Nightmare on Elm Street retread, but an example of what it is I think it's genuinely strong. They should have been more careful with their audience expectations and called it The Haunted House That Took My Anal Virginity.
There's some mysterious stuff. I think I've figured out the demon animals. Cats, dogs, rats... it's all about going against nature. The exploding killer parakeet's weird even for an Elm Street movie, mind you, albeit less hilarious than I'd remembered. However I still haven't worked out the close-ups of food or the dishes being struck by lightning, although the latter might be part of the "Freddy = heat" thing. They burned him to death, remember? He's a hot ghost. Things sizzle when he's around.
Importantly this film is also richly surreal, with even what might have been a Dali homage with melting records and bedside lamps. As with the first film, it's far from clear where the dividing line lies between dreams and reality. You'd swear that something is being meant as straightforward reality until the transgressive shit starts happening, or was it real after all? Did Freddy make that happen? Dunno, but am I meant to be getting scared about another movie's Columbian Red-Tailed Boa? Does no one realise it's a common pet snake? Anyway, one particular image here was something I'd never seen before and very much doubt I'll ever see again. It's not just about the special effects, but the imagination. That's all terrific stuff.
This film certainly isn't a masterpiece, but it's seriously underrated. The acting is no better than you'd expect of an Elm Street movie, but it's okay. The lead actor has a few iffy line readings, but he sells me on his emotional journey. I believed his fall into Freddyland. Overall, this is a proper film with a subtext and a story I can take seriously, but also all the energy and sadistic surrealism you'd associate with the Elm Street franchise. Just don't forget that despite appearances, for once it's not The Freddy Krueger Show.