Fantastic Fest 2019: Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen on their Nightmare on Elm Street 2 Documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street
Starring the “bastard son of a hundred maniacs” (the horrifically burned, blade-adorned fictional sweater-wearing slasher, Freddy Krueger), A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was itself a kind of bastard son, birthed by good intentions but several less maniacs. Released on November 1st, 1985, the sequel was rushed into theaters on the goodwill and unexpected success of its Wes Craven-directed predecessor. Reviews were less than stellar, and it would take the return of Craven in a creative role to right the ship with the third entry in 1987. Nightmare 2 was forgotten and ignored, deemed an outlier in the franchise and something of a film maudit.
Starring fresh-faced Mark Patton (at that point recognizable for his supporting role in Robert Altman’s Broadway production, and subsequent film adaptation, of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), Nightmare 2 follows the teenaged Elm Street resident Jesse Walsh as he begins to succumb to possession by the demon Freddy Krueger. Criticized for deviating too far from the rules established by the first film, the second entry in the Nightmare series has recently been the subject of rediscovery, recontextualized as an essential queer text. More likely to draw the fascination of B. Ruby Rich than Laura Mulvey, Nightmare 2’s reception has seen a complete 180, being heralded as a progressive take on a closeted young man who must overcome adversity to conquer his inner demons.
Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen’s new documentary, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, reexamines both the time period in which the film was released (Ronald Reagan in the White House, the spread of the AIDS epidemic) and the career trajectory of its star, in the closet at the time and soon to be outcast from Hollywood. For decades, Patton has held a particular grudge against screenwriter David Chaskin, who has gone on the record as saying that he wrote Nightmare 2 as a homphobic (rather than homoerotic) movie and that he blames the casting of Patton as making his screenplay as gay as it was ultimately rediscovered to be. Much like the reclaiming of the 1985 film, Patton, now living in Mexico with a husband, spends much of Scream, Queen! seeking to right his image by emphasizing the downward trajectory of his career that came as a result of Hollywood homophobia.
A day before the documentary’s US premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, I spoke with Chimienti and Jensen about their love for Nightmare 2, the role of vulnerable men in slasher films and how it was possible that the makers of the 1985 sequel didn’t realize they were making what some have considered to be the gayest horror film of all time.
Filmmaker: Financially speaking, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was one of the most successful properties of the 1980s. It also excelled thanks to the home video/VCR boom of the period, in effect getting into the hands of a much younger generation not yet old enough to view the films in theaters. Is that how you both discovered the films?
Chimienti: Yes, I had the quintessential 1980s experience of getting to see the film when it arrived on home video. A bunch of us boys had a slumber party that involved scary movies and one of the films we rented was A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. It was the first time I was ever able to watch a scary movie all the way through and, subsequently, I fell in love with the horror genre. To put it bluntly, Freddy Krueger was the “fucking shit” at the time, and from there, we’d be begging our friends’ older brothers to recollect the scenes from the movies they had just seen in theaters that we were too young to attend ourselves.
Jensen: My introduction to the series was a bit different. I didn’t come to the series until the 1990s, when it was experiencing something of a second wave. My older sister would rent them while she was babysitting me and I would watch through the couch cushions when I should have been in bed. At that point in time, Nightmare 2’s reputation was already established as an inferior film, and so I skipped it almost entirely because I had been told that it wasn’t worth my time. The order I watched them in were, I think, Parts 4, 3, 5, 6, then eventually the first one, and the second one some time after that. It wasn’t until the last ten years or so that I thought to even go back and rewatch Nightmare 2.
Chimienti: For the two of us, VHS culture was a huge part of our discovering the films.There were so many horror movies coming out at that time and you would go to the video store and choose which looked the scariest. It was about the experience of pizza and a movie on a Friday night.
Jensen: As a kid of the late ‘80s and early ’90s, there was an internal terror present in being in the horror aisle surrounded by graphic artwork planted on VHS box covers. Most of them promised you the moon and the stars and didn’t deliver at all on what the poster showed, but the Nightmare on Elm Street series, especially the Nightmare 2 poster with Freddy Krueger right on the cover, was always incredibly captivating.
Filmmaker: Personally speaking, I didn’t see A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 until I was probably eleven or twelve years old, and I’m unsure if even I picked up on the subtext (if you can call it subtext) at first viewing. It probably registered on a subconscious level, but it’s amazing to revisit the film and see how apparent it is now. Were the film’s gay elements apparent to you at the outset?
Chimienti: Not really, no. Even in 1985, ’86, ’87, no one was talking about it being gay. They were just saying, “Eh, it’s okay,” and this was coming from a bunch of guys whom were probably just dismissing it because they wanted to see sexy girls on screen. I was used to being the black sheep at the time and I enjoyed the film. But no, it wasn’t until I got older and the internet came about that the gay elements of the film started circulating.
Jensen: In 2010, the feature-length documentary, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, was released and informed everyone that Nightmare 2 was considered the gayest horror movie ever made. I had not realized that! I had to rewatch it for myself. At this point, I was an adult and an out and proud gay man, and watching the film again (and understanding those struggles) helped me identify the narrative of Nightmare 2 as the fear of coming out, of realizing you’re an Other, and trying desperately to suppress that.
Filmmaker: There are numerous documentaries about the making of popular horror franchises (often included as special feature add-ons on a home video release), but Scream Queen is the first I’ve seen that does something other than fan service. It’s a reappraisal and recontextualization of one specific film and its lead actor. At what point did you realize this was going to be the story of Mark Patton?
Jensen: First, some backstory: Roman and I are both freelance filmmakers (I mostly edit and he does sound) and we had met on this random gay-dating-reality-show we were both working on. One day, I overheard Roman telling someone, “I’m going to make a documentary about A Nightmare on Elm Street 2.” My ears perked up. I ran over to him and lifted up my shirt to show him my “Freddy telephone” tattoo, and told him, “I’m your guy. I am going to be a part of this.” I didn’t really care what the story was, but I knew that I was going to go along for the journey.
We traveled to Florida to shoot a Nightmare 2 cast reunion taking place at a nearby convention center. I spent my time filming Mark interacting with fans, all the while hearing stories of how people connected with the film and how emotional of an experience it was for them. At this point, I didn’t know anything about Mark’s life until the end of the weekend, when we interviewed him in his hotel room. There I heard the backstories. I started tearing up while filming and realized that our documentary was going to be bigger than we had anticipated.
Filmmaker: As your film notes, slasher films typically come complete with a Final Girl, that is, a heroine who survives her horrific ordeal and defeats the masculine villain by film’s end. Nightmare 2, however, has a Final Boy (played by Patton). Does the casting of a male in that role, of victim-to-victor, automatically feminize them?
Chimienti: It absolutely feminizes them, and part of our society’s problem is that that’s how we’ve been set up to perceive vulnerability. In a horror film, it becomes a matter of if men are allowed to be weak. There are plenty of horror movies (like Witchboard or Shocker) that feature male leads, sure, but the guys aren’t screaming or being tormented and chased. They’re like, “Oh, my God, you killed my girlfriend,” but they’re not being kept haunted in the corner, left to yell and scream endlessly.
Jensen: They’re not paralyzed with fear. The toxic masculinity we were forcefed in the ’80s, of Rambo and The Terminator movies, informed us, “Here’s a super masculine, macho man who is the hero of the film from beginning to end,” and a lot of us queer kids just didn’t think of ourselves as that kind of action hero. In fact, we were rather vulnerable. The allure of slasher movies was then that the heroes didn’t know that they were the heroes at the beginning of the story. They had to go through the process of being terrified and getting to the point of, “I’m going to stick up for myself” and they survive as a result. That’s what we were all latching on to.
Filmmaker: And your film makes clear that as much as the film is a frequently cited (and praised) example of gay horror, it also attracted endless homophobes attacking it online. Horror fans can be both progressive and…something else.
Jensen: There’s a lot of gatekeeping within the horror community. Certain rules are set and you [have to follow them], i.e. the original film of a franchise is always the best, the sequels are always inferior, all remakes are terrible, etc. Anything that goes against the grain of what is tried and true is typically dismissed.
Chimienti: I also think there’s an older group, an older order, that’s dying out, and Mark Patton has flipped the script on how people talk about Nightmare 2. The one thing I know about bullies is that they bully because they can. As soon as you stand up and say, “You pick on gay people because you think they’re weak,” or “you dismiss Nightmare 2 because you think it’s gay,” then they [back down.] There’s a lot of gay people that aren’t afraid of what detractors will say, and when you stand up and say, “People love the film and I have a whole army ready to stand behind that claim,” people suddenly stop parroting the words that were previously fed to them. People are comfortable saying, “You know what? I like Nightmare 2 and I like that women like to watch a movie where it’s not always about women being scared. It’s okay to have a male perspective on the matter.” People are tired of the stereotypical way they’ve been fed horror films.
For the record, there’s no reason why any heterosexual male can’t identify with the Jesse Walsh character. I know so many boys that were new in a school or didn’t fit in with the regular crowd and were treated much like Jesse is in the film. Ultimately it’s a story about being left-of-center, and being gay is not neccessarily the only way that can come across.
Filmmaker: You’re right, but it’s still astounding to think that the filmmakers didn’t know they were making a gay horror film. I mean, New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye makes a cameo dressed in tight, revealing leather, serving drinks at a gay bar!
Chimienti: That scene with Bob Shaye is a highlight for me because the conversation he’s constantly pivoted to over the years has been, “Did people know [it was a gay horror film]? Did the filmmakers do this on purpose?” Then you go back and watch the film and realize that he himself makes a cameo wearing a leather harness as a bartender in this weird bar, and yet he’s asking if this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers?
Jensen: One thing I discovered in the art direction of that bar scene is that when they introduce Jesse entering through the curtain, in the left corner of the frame is what appears to be a Tom of Finland poster on the wall. There’s a sexy, muscle man poster right there. Now, no one is going to catch that if they’re not actively looking for it, but after watching the movie for several years, I’ve come to realize that this was obviously intentional.
Chimienti: With that said, you have to understand that the way straight males viewed gay men at that time isn’t necessarily the way they view them now. Gay men were considered freaks and weirdos. So while it’s tempting to rewatch the film and pick up on all these hints and assume everyone was “in on it,” I think a lot of this has to do with serendipity.
Filmmaker: The film builds to a cathartic confrontation between Patton and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 screenwriter David Chaskin. How long did it take to get that sit-down meeting confirmed? By that I mean, did you craft your film’s narrative toward that meeting, hoping it would eventually take place, or did you keep shooting for several years praying that eventually Chaskin would agree to participate?
Jensen: Narrative wise, we were always organically building to that [confrontation], but when we began the project, no, we didn’t realize we would be interviewing David Chaskin. He was scheduled to be at that Nightmare 2 reunion event in Florida that we show in the documentary, so there was hope that we could film the encounter there, but of course, Chaskin didn’t show up. We were deflated and had no idea how we’d conclude our film.
Chimienti: We were in a tough spot. Mark had these unresolved issues and was still trying to find solace. We had ideas of what we would end the film with, but it all depended on where his story landed. We worked really hard to make the face-to-face meeting happen, but if it hadn’t, we would’ve retained faith in the story itself, as sappy as that sounds.
Jensen: Once the meeting was confirmed and scheduled to take place at Chaskin’s house in upstate New York, we showed up early to shoot a solo interview, to get his side of the story without having Mark in the room. The plan was to then bring Mark in and record their face-to-face meeting as it occurred. Keep in mind that this was in January and it was freezing and we had to keep Mark hanging out in the car while we set up our cameras and lights and spoke with Chaskin. It was like an hour-and-a-half interview, but in the middle of all that, a hail storm hit, and we had to stop recording and wait it out.
Now it’s been three or four hours and Mark is still waiting outside in the car. The tension is brewing. We then bring in Mark for this face-to-face encounter that’s been thirty years in the making. We have them sit down, they start speaking, and once we get to the meat of their conflict, our tape runs out. Chaskin and Mark are asking each other some pretty incendiary questions and then bam: we have to stop recording and change tapes.
Chimienti: They had to sit there, glaring at each other.
Jensen: Exactly, for about three minutes. It was tense. We had three cameras, one for each of the men and one for the master shot of the two of them in the same frame.
Chimienti: But the entirety of the film shoot remained untraditional. Outside of that encounter, there were several instances where I would be holding the boom pole over my head while I’m interviewing someone and yelling at people to change the lights and Tyler is running around manning multiple cameras. We had to do things on-the-fly. The David Chaskin interview was a little different because we could prepare for that, but almost everything else was a happy accident.
Filmmaker: What kind of archival research was done on the project? You dig deep to find the unending ephemera of Freddy merchandise (pinball machines, clothes, records, hotlines), but you’re also presenting the larger American culture of 1985, a time when President Regan literally namedropped A Nightmare on Elm Street in one of his speeches to attack the leftist opposition.
Chimienti: We have a friend, Leo Herrera, who is an LGBT historian, and he had been working on his own project called Fathers, a piece that encompasses historical footage pertaining to the gay community. We asked Leo for help and he was able to assess the things we needed and help us locate accordingly. We found that it’s not easy to find some of this stuff from the 1980s. If you step into the 1990s, however there’s an abundance of footage, especially when it pertains to events on the political spectrum. But for Tyler and I, working on a documentary very much about the 1980s, we were often left with radio recordings to work off of.
It was important to capture the decade’s conservative side, as that’s something society has forgotten about as it continues to be blinded by nostalgia for the era’s movies and toys and cartoons and water slides and other cool shit from back then. We’ve forgotten about the conservative movement that infiltrated our government and harshly colored the landscape gay people were living in.
Jensen: I’d venture to say that it was due to those conservative times that these slasher movies struck a chord. A lot of people thought, “fuck all of this. I’m going to go watch something horrific that would be rejected by the people in power.”
Filmmaker: Much of your conservative uprising archival footage is transmitted through the literal framing device of an antiquated television set. Allowing world affairs into your home via the television set may seem old fashioned, but it provided a cultural gateway for millions of families not too long ago—I imagine for your families as well?
Jensen: Absolutely. I grew up in Minnensota and the television served as our window into a world outside the suburbs (and we certainly didn’t have much access to local queer culture). That being said, the images of queer people that came through the television set at the time were very limited and negative. One of the more emotional moments of making this documentary came when we talked to Mark’s assistant, Bill, and he gives the play-by-play of what it was like to be a closeted teen in the 1980s. You had this secret inside of you and the only representation of queer culture came through nightly broadcasts claiming that every gay person had AIDS and died horrific deaths. You’d ask yourself, “Why would I want to subscribe to this life? Everything I’m being told about it relates to death and dying. I can’t tell anybody I’m gay because then it’s the end: I’m gay, and then I die.”
Chimienti: And regarding the actual television set we used in our documentary, we always wanted to find the clunkiest, oldest, largest TV we could, something that really brought us back to the ’80s.
Jensen: There’s an Easter Egg in those television “framing device” scenes. On top of the television is a photograph of my friend, Jaime Carrera, dressed in drag. He and I used to make a lot of films together in Minneapolis. He’s unfortunately no longer with us, but we bonded over the Nightmare on Elm Street films, because when we were young gay men, our older sisters would rent the films and we’d watch them together. It was a bonding experience, and so the TV scenes in the documentary are actually quite special to me.
Filmmaker: Whatever backlash it initially recieved, it now seems apparent that Nightmare 2 paved the way for gay representation within the horror genre. Have you seen It: Chapter Two by any chance?
Filmmaker: That film features a supporting character (played by Bill Hader) who remains agonizingly in the closet, not to mention an opening murder scene that touches on smalltown homophobia (and Pennywise’s first victim is played by the publicly out filmmaker, Xavier Dolan). Do you view this as a progression initially started by Nightmare 2?
Chimienti: Absolutely. You can look at it this way: how quickly should things progress? Does it need to take a long time or can it happen in a few months? In our case, when we began making this documentary (we started in 2015), you would Google “‘Nightmare on Elm Street 2’ and ‘Mark Patton’” and terrible things would come up, i.e. people making gay jokes and saying hateful things in Amazon reviews and YouTube comments. It was all cynical. But it turned around rather quickly. I think essentially what happens is when you really challenge the narrative set forth by the internet, it becomes like wildfire. I think that our documentary and Nightmare 2 have helped clear the path for these kinds of characters. It’s only the beginning though. I’m hoping that by this time next year, we can have a Get Out for the gay community—something that is a little bit more straightforward and honest about the gay subtext. The horror genre is the perfect place for it because it’s always looking for the next scariest thing, and that requires an underlying story that people can relate to. The horror community is looking for something new, and if it’s going to start anywhere, it will probably be there.