The Nightmare Behind The Gayest Horror Film Ever Made
After starring in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, Mark Patton left Hollywood behind. More than 30 years later, the film has become a homoerotic cult classic — and its leading man is coming to terms with what he calls the "ultimate betrayal."
“I need you, Jesse,” Freddy Krueger growls. “We’ve got special work to do here, you and me,” he says, tenderly flicking the hair out of the teenage boy’s eyes. “You’ve got the body. I’ve got the brain.”
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was a far cry from the original. Released in 1985, just one year after the first film, the movie replaced final girl Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) with a male lead Jesse Walsh, played by Mark Patton. Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger was largely the same, but the dynamic between predator and prey had shifted. Freddy and Jesse were intimate — they seemed to share a secret — and the subtext of that relationship gave Freddy’s Revenge a homoerotic undercurrent that eventually made it a cult classic.
That first encounter between Jesse and Freddy is loaded with sexual tension — and according to Patton, what ended up onscreen is actually a toned-down version of what the scene almost was. “[Robert] asked if he could put the blade inside my mouth,” Patton recalled to BuzzFeed News from a quiet Mexican restaurant near the highway in San Diego. It was his makeup artist, Danny Marc, who took it upon himself to help the young actor protect his image. “Danny grabbed me and he said, ‘Absolutely not. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’ And so, I turned to Robert and said, ‘I really don’t feel comfortable with that,’ and he goes, ‘OK.’ So he just did around the lips instead of going in and out. If it would have gone in and out, it would have been really not a good thing.”
However much Englund held back, the damage was done: That scene helps establish the indelible impression of Freddy’s Revenge as the gayest slasher film ever made. And it only continued from there. Jesse’s struggle over his sexual identity is directly aligned with Freddy’s attempt to take over his body. (“He’s inside me and he wants to take me again!” Jesse cries.) Jesse flees from a makeout session with his heterosexual romantic partner Lisa (Kim Myers) and ends up in the bedroom of his hunky friend Grady (Robert Rusler) — directly on top of him. “Something is trying to get inside my body,” Jesse laments. To which Grady replies, “And you want to sleep with me?” And the death scene for Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell) — whom Jesse runs into at a leather bar in the middle of the night — has the sadistic gym teacher strung up naked in the showers, his bare ass whipped by a towel with a mind of its own before he’s slashed to death by Krueger.
Although the film was a relative financial success and propelled the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise along, it was derided by critics and genre fans. Screenwriter David Chaskin spent years refusing to acknowledge any intentional subtext in his script — a position he has since reversed — and director Jack Sholder claimed not to have noticed the movie’s gayness during filming. Watching Freddy’s Revenge now, it’s hard to comprehend that there was ever a debate over the film’s subtext, which becomes just plain text in the more blatantly homoerotic scenes. “I love when [Chaskin] uses the word ‘subtext,’” Patton noted. “Did you actually go to a freshman English course in high school? This is not subtext.”
With the screenwriter and director unwilling to shoulder any of the responsibility, fans began to fixate on Patton’s performance as Jesse, who is more traditionally feminine than the standard slasher film bro. His sexual ambiguity made him the perfect choice for Jesse, but it gave the homophobic detractors of Freddy’s Revenge something to latch on to. And even though Patton has embraced his “scream queen” status — he had just come from signing autographs and panel appearances at San Diego Comic-Con this July afternoon — he remains driven by a need to set the record straight about the film that has haunted him for the past 30 years.
For Patton, whose only major film role before he played Jesse was as a gay teenager later revealed to be a trans woman (played by Karen Black) in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, the persistent criticism of Freddy’s Revenge was its own kind of nightmare: His sexual identity was excoriated for ruining the film — and with it, his career. As the actor tells it, he became pigeonholed as gay long before being an out leading man was a possibility. At the same time, even as the AIDS crisis decimated the gay community, Patton was forced to stay in the closet, restricted by a business he eventually chose to leave behind.
With the destigmatization of queer representation over the last 30 years, perception of Freddy’s Revenge has shifted: The heavily coded queerness that was once a mark against it has become a charmingly dated relic of another time, and a selling point for cult connoisseurs. So, too, has Patton’s relationship with the film and its fanbase changed. But as he struggles to move forward, he is left trying to balance his appreciation of the film’s belated fandom with the pain he still feels over what he considers a three-decades-old betrayal.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 performed well at the box office, earning a domestic gross of nearly $30 million (about $68 million, adjusted for inflation). Initial reviews, though largely negative, did not point out the film’s homoerotic slant, although Variety called Patton’s Jesse “strange enough to constitute an outsider presence,” a descriptor that certainly signifies queerness.
There is some debate over where the first direct mention of the film’s gay subtext appeared. Patton and Sholder cite the Village Voice, while Chaskin believes it was actually the gay publication The Advocate. The article in question called Freddy’s Revenge, by Sholder’s recollection, “the gayest horror film ever made.”
Sholder remembers being amused by the piece, which was read to him by Sara Risher, then the head of production at New Line Cinema. For his part, Chaskin deliberately remained silent.
“I feigned ignorance,” he wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “My movie was being outed and I didn’t know how I felt about that.”
The truth of where the article was published is largely insignificant, but the confusion speaks to a recurring theme of discordance in the history of Freddy’s Revenge, with Patton on one side, and Sholder and Chaskin on the other. While there’s no doubting the oppressive homophobia of 1980s Hollywood, the specific circumstances surrounding the film are often a matter of "he said, he said."
There is, for example, the question of whether there was concerted effort by the studio to keep anyone else from commenting on the queer subtext after the article's release. Chaskin said he didn’t know, though he did note that he was “questioned by a couple of [New Line] execs who were genuinely quite surprised by the review and palpably worried about how it might affect box office.”
By contrast, Patton insists that Chaskin, instead of merely staying quiet, repeatedly placed the blame for the queer interpretation of the film on Patton’s “too gay” performance, rather than on the script. In his email, Chaskin maintained that although he is sympathetic to Patton’s perception, it’s simply not the way he remembers things.
"[Chaskin] really did systematically fag-bash me for 30 years, and it hurt."
“I don’t recall any interview where I would have used the words ‘too gay’ but if I implied something like that and/or said anything to cause Mark grief, I certainly apologize,” he wrote. “It was not my intention.”
Amid the back-and-forth, one thing is clear: The queer subtext of Freddy’s Revenge became the movie’s most notable characteristic. Deliberately or otherwise, Patton’s association with what came to be known as the “gayest horror film ever made” — while he was being told to keep his sexuality a secret — left lasting scars. His experience with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 indelibly tainted his perception of Hollywood. Ultimately, it made it that much easier to leave the business behind.
“I don’t ever want to be unkind to anybody, but the truth of the matter is, [Chaskin] really did systematically fag-bash me for 30 years, and it hurt. He sabotaged me. And that’s why I quit,” Patton said. “Nobody ever affected my confidence — the boys that threw rocks at me, nobody — but this man did.”
Patton was tormented by his classmates from a young age. Growing up in Kansas City in the 1960s, he stood out and soon realized he was gay. The way he remembers it, he never really had to come out, because he never stood a chance of staying in. Everyone noted his difference, though it wasn’t something he spoke about openly. Patton was picked on mercilessly — his classmates threw around “fag” with regularity.
“I figured, if they could see that about me, then all the other things they said about me must have been true also,” he said.
Patton found respite in his high school’s theater department, under the guidance of drama teacher Mildred Fulton, whom he calls “the person who changed my life.” Fulton recognized Patton’s unique talent — and his inability to fit in with his small-town surroundings — so she took a special interest in Patton. His senior year, while Patton was looking at colleges, Fulton pulled him aside and gave him a radical suggestion, a move he believes “could have gotten her fired.”
“She gave me two copies of After Dark, which was a gay theater magazine from New York,” he recalled. “She said, ‘I think you should get on a plane and go to New York and be an actor, because you have everything you need to do it right now.’”
Patton also found unlikely support from another source: his father. A truck driver and master sergeant in the Marine Corps, Patton’s father was, as he recalled, a “tough man.” But while their relationship was not perfect, he was fiercely protective of his son. He also supported Patton’s interests, letting him pick out his own Christmas presents after he was disappointed by Army clothes and footballs one year.
“[My father] told me to befriend myself,” Patton said. “He turned me to a mirror and he said, ‘Always be on his side. If you have to be on somebody’s side, be on his side.’”
That advice, coupled by Fulton’s recommendation, directly inspired Patton to leave his hometown behind and pursue acting in the big city as soon as he graduated high school at 18.
"Everything that was a negative where I came from suddenly became a positive."
“I did learn to take my own side,” Patton said. “That’s what I decided in Kansas City. I thought, There’s something wrong with them, there’s nothing wrong with me. When I get out of here, I’m gonna be fine.”
New York was a major adjustment from Kansas City and the life Patton was used to. When he arrived, he had nowhere to go, so he followed a flight attendant to Grand Central Station. Despite the overwhelming nature of Manhattan — and the fact that he was directionless, with only $137 to his name — Patton instantly fell in love.
“I was ignorant, and I think my ignorance actually served me very well,” he said. “I really wasn’t smart enough to be afraid.”
Patton quickly found work in New York for two reasons: One, he had an advantage when it came to commercials, because he could convincingly play younger but didn’t need a tutor on set; and two, he took any job he could get, whether or not it was glamorous or even onscreen. “If it was carrying a cable, I would carry that cable because I knew it would help me in the end,” he said.
Work aside, living in the big city was transformative for Patton on a personal level. The parts of himself he’d been urged to repress in Kansas City — his intrinsic queerness — were suddenly being embraced.
“I had this experience of breathing the first relaxed breath that I’d ever had when I got to New York,” he reflected. “Everything that was a negative where I came from suddenly became a positive: the way I talked, the way my ass looked, the way I walked. [I realized] there are people who appreciate people like me. I felt safe, like nobody was going to beat me up.”
That sense of security was regrettably short-lived. The more successful Patton got, the more he learned that his sexual identity was still perceived as a hindrance. It had always been a fine line to walk: While going to gay bars wasn’t something you had to hide in 1970s New York, “you didn’t go into an audition and talk to the casting director about being gay,” he said.
When Patton made his 1982 Broadway debut in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean — playing the same queer character he would play in the film adaptation later that year — The Advocate requested an interview with him. Patton was told by his manager to turn it down.
“I got the lecture from my manager on the type of clothes that I should wear and that I needed to take a girl to the opening night,” he said. “Then I learned how the game begins.”
"Being gay was a definite negative, and it was a definite deal breaker."
Things only got worse in the ’80s when Patton started traveling to California to embark on a film and television career. He wanted to become a movie star, so Los Angeles was the place to be. But the reality of the closet there made it “90 shades of horrifying,” he said.
“It’s a vicious, cutthroat game,” Patton said. “At the time, being gay was a definite negative, and it was a definite deal breaker. It was a card that people could play on you, and they would play it.”
It was in that environment of debilitating repression that Patton won the part of Jesse in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. While he recognized that, on the page, the character read as queer, he also knew this was the sequel to a hit horror film. Jesse was the starring role in a mainstream movie, a gig that Patton realized could be a major moment in his career.
“It was the kind of movie that could turn you into Johnny Depp,” Patton said of the actor who made his film debut as Nancy’s boyfriend Glen in A Nightmare on Elm Street. “I was living in Los Angeles, and I was living that dream. I was on that track. I could see it happening for me.”
Whatever thematic resonance Patton picked up on when he first read the script, nothing could prepare him for what Freddy’s Revenge became. He said that while working on the film, he observed changes that were being made to the script and the movie’s overall direction — changes that he believed were underlining the film’s queerness.
“It just became undeniable,” Patton said. “I mean, when you’re looking at dailies and I’m lying in bed and I’m a pietà and the candles are dripping and they’re bending like phalluses and white wax is dripping all over... It’s like I’m the center of a — what do they call it? — a bukkake. Like I’m a bukkake video.”
This wasn’t just unsubtle; it was completely in-your-face. It was camp. And given what Patton sees as intentionality on behalf of the filmmakers, he perceived the bait and switch to be a stab in the back. “That was the ultimate betrayal,” Patton said. “The pit just kept getting deeper and deeper. And more and more gay.”
Although Patton had aspirations of being an out working actor, he knew the reality of Hollywood in 1985 was more complicated than that. The gayer Freddy’s Revenge got, the more anxiety he felt. “I was concerned about my career being destroyed,” he said.
Chaskin denied that any of the changes made during production had anything to do with its gay content. “I was working at New Line throughout the production and was, therefore, on call for any rewrites and revisions,” the screenwriter explained in his email. “I knew about every page change and never heard about any suggestions of that kind.”
But Chaskin went on to note that in terms of the gay themes, “very few people on the production ‘got it.’” It’s possible that some of the additions to the film that Patton interpreted as homoerotic — and that the movie’s large queer fanbase has come to accept as such — were not directly intended to be. Patton concedes that most of the people involved with the film were truly unaware of what was going on. (“They were just dumb straight guys who didn’t have a clue,” he said.)
For his part, Sholder now acknowledges the subtext, though he said he was, like the rest of the creative team, ignorant to it at the time. In a phone interview with BuzzFeed News, he credited his inability to pick up on those themes to the tight production schedule and the fact that his attention was on the “five single pages of special effects, out of which I knew how to do about three.”
“I mean, clearly [there’s] the gay S&M bar, and the ass-whipping and all of the other stuff, and some of the lines that people have picked up on, like, ‘He’s inside me,’” Sholder said. “I honestly never got to that level of subtext with it.”
Producer and New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye, who has a cameo in the film as the leather-clad bartender at the aforementioned S&M bar, still doesn’t see the subtext. “No, I don’t, and I don’t look at it very often in retrospect,” he told BuzzFeed News over the phone.
“This is all kind of hindsight, but it may be that the fact Mark was a closeted gay at that point, or at least as far as the film business went, that that was part of what was coming through there,” Sholder suggested of why Freddy’s Revenge read as queer. “It never even occurred to me that he was gay — although he wasn’t too great in the makeout scenes, so I should have picked up on it.”
Sholder said he was drawn to and zoned in on Patton’s “vulnerability,” but that he didn’t know anything about Patton’s sexuality until shortly before production wrapped on Freddy’s Revenge. When asked directly if he believes casting Patton contributed to the gay subtext of the movie, Chaskin wrote, “Of course. But not because he’s gay!”
“Mark is a talented actor who seems to know his craft. His interpretations of Jesse were choices that he made (I assume, in consultation with Jack; I wasn’t there for rehearsals),” he elaborated. “I have to believe that he ‘got it’ and that was how he decided to play it.”
"He made himself into the hero, which is what he has done all along."
Now that the tide has turned toward widespread acceptance of gay representation, Chaskin is upfront about the queer undertones he deliberately wrote into his script. As far as his motivation for “queering” A Nightmare on Elm Street, he said he was responding to the social and political climate for gay people in the 1980s. Without directly bringing up the issues of homophobia and the AIDS epidemic, he wanted to explore and respond to the gay panic that was gripping the nation.
“Homophobia was skyrocketing and I began to think about our core audience — adolescent boys — and how all of this stuff might be trickling down into their psyches at an age when raging hormones often produce dreams and urges that make them (if only unconsciously) begin to question their own sexuality,” Chaskin wrote. “My thought was that tapping into that angst would give an extra edge to the horror.”
Only Chaskin can know what was going through his head when he wrote Freddy’s Revenge, but Patton does not buy the screenwriter’s version of events. After being confronted with Patton’s claims, Chaskin also reached out to Patton directly to make amends for these perceived slights. In a follow-up email to BuzzFeed News, Patton said, “David apologized to me in the most general way about offending me in the press and on film, but cannot recall ever having said I was too gay.”
“I am pointing out to him that he lied about the film for 30 years,” Patton continued in his email, “and each time, when asked for a comment about negativity, mentioned my sexuality in some way.”
Unfortunately, many of these articles seem to have been lost to time, and Patton is keeping the materials he does have close to the chest for use in the documentary he’s producing about his experiences, Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street, which is due out later this year. Perhaps because he’s dealt with conflicting accounts of his history as he remembers it, Patton is more determined than ever to tell his story on own terms. Based on his documentary research, which he declined to share, Patton believes that Chaskin has repeatedly contradicted himself in interviews at the time of the release of Freddy’s Revenge. “When he was backed into a corner about it being a gay movie, he [claimed he] wanted to liberate his gay friends,” Patton said. “He made himself into the hero, which is what he has done all along.”
Sholder, who has by now heard both sides many times, maintains that while he’s compassionate toward Patton’s point of view, he believes it’s time to move on.
“Mark has this whole sort of conspiracy theory about David and that he said one thing and then he changed his mind,” Sholder said. “It doesn’t mean very much to me except insofar as I like Mark and I sympathize with what he’s been through and what he’s done with his life, and so I kind of understand where it’s all coming from. But I was hoping he could finally let it go.”
Right after the film came out, of course, the wound was still fresh, and after making a couple of television appearances in 1986, Patton then went off the radar for nearly 25 years. It wasn’t that he wasn’t being offered parts, he said, but that he was emotionally drained by what happened with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and fed up with the homophobic culture of 1980s Hollywood.
“It was a definite choice that I made to stop acting,” Patton said. “It wasn’t by attrition. It was just — I needed to stop.”
The real turning point came in 1987 when he was offered the role of a gay character on a TV pilot. It would have been a significant step forward for Patton, not to mention for LGBT representation. At the time, queer characters were primarily limited to Very Special Episodes — and even then, their presence was a rarity.
"Hollywood looked like a ghost town. You’d see people and three months later they’d be dead."
Meanwhile, Patton himself was still being instructed to stay in the closet. “I was sitting at a table with 14 gay men who were telling me things like, ‘Will your girlfriend feel OK about this? When people ask you, “Are you gay?” will you feel comfortable saying that you’re not?’” he recalled.
This wasn’t the first time, of course, that Patton had been pressured against coming out. But the timing of the conversation — at the height of the AIDS epidemic — was what pushed him to his breaking point.
“Hollywood looked like a ghost town. You’d see people and three months later they’d be dead,” Patton said. “I thought, My god, half the world is fucking dying and these people are sitting here having this conversation. I didn’t get into [acting] for this.”
Show business had once been Patton’s refuge, and his early experiences as an actor in New York marked the first time he really felt comfortable with himself. It wasn’t just Freddy’s Revenge that cast a shadow on show business: Patton finally saw on a larger scale that, for the time being, the entertainment industry and the closet were inextricably linked.
“I found safety in the theater, and I came out in the theater,” he said. “This is a place I came to feel safe. I didn’t come here to build a prison to live in. And that — in my mind, that’s when the key locked and that’s when I ended.”
In some ways, Patton has moved on with his life. After leaving Hollywood, he moved back to New York, where he embarked on a career as an interior decorator. That eventually took him to Palm Beach, Florida. He branched out into architecture and, nine years ago, moved to Puerto Vallarta with Hector Morales Mondragon, now his husband. The two own a successful gallery and store. “When we moved to Mexico and I’m living on a dirt road, I thought, Well, there’s the period on that,” he said of his acting career.
But it wasn’t long after his relocation that the producers of the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy found Patton with assistance from a private investigator and gave him a call. Although he was reluctant to step back in front of a camera, particularly to discuss A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Patton was swayed by the effort taken to locate him. Although he has some regrets — “I had no idea I was fat until I saw the thing,” he said — the documentary gave him a public profile for the first time in decades.
Since then, Patton has reconsidered his decision to give up acting. He is slowly easing back into the entertainment industry, a different environment now than it was when he turned his back on it in the late ’80s. And he’s finding a balance between the life he’s made for himself and his first passion. He’s already filmed one movie in Berlin and appeared in three others last year.
“I’m a real believer in, if it comes your way and it’s really cool, just say yes, because the opportunities that I’ve been afforded in life are opportunities that a lot of people work for forever,” he said. “And if you don’t like it, you can stop. I’ll go back and sell my purses in Mexico and I’ll be fine.”
Aside from acting, Patton has made numerous appearances at horror conventions, something he never would have considered prior to Never Sleep Again. It was through conventions and the horror community at large that Patton realized the positive effect Freddy’s Revenge had on so many fans, particularly queer people who so rarely see themselves represented in horror.
But since Patton had purposely extricated himself from Hollywood — and distanced himself from any discussion of Freddy’s Revenge — he was surprised to learn that the movie had transitioned from disappointing failure in the eyes of Nightmare fans to a cult gay classic. And he was even more surprised to find out that he’d become an under-the-radar gay icon — after all, his other major role was as a queer teenager in a movie co-starring Cher. Patton described fan interactions with gay men who tell him, “You were the first person I ever saw onscreen that I felt would love me back.”
And his seeming disappearance only added to the intrigue.
“I didn’t think I was famous. I just thought I was a has-been and a failure,” Patton said. “I didn’t realize I was considered iconic.”
It has been a complicated journey toward accepting his celebrity, particularly as it’s linked to a painful past experience. But as Patton has embraced his fandom, he’s found comfort in the role of advocate. Between Freddy’s Revenge and his re-emergence in Never Sleep Again, Patton was diagnosed with AIDS, which he calls a “life-changing experience.” And it’s one he almost didn’t recover from: At the time of his diagnosis, Patton had “pneumocystic pneumonia and cancer and tuberculosis, weighed 130 pounds, and [had] no T cells and a viral load of 4 million.”
“I was dead,” he said.
Patton’s ex-boyfriend had died from AIDS-related complications in the ’80s, and Patton had gotten tested repeatedly at that time. His results were always negative, so he stopped thinking about it.
“I just thought, I’m one of those people,” he said. “All those boys think they’re ‘one of those people’ and they’re generally not.”
Patton has seen a general cultural ignorance toward the reality of HIV, which is part of why he has chosen to speak about his status, especially at horror conventions where such things are rarely discussed. “I always start my pitch with, ‘I’m gonna talk about Freddy Krueger for 57 minutes, and then you have to give me three minutes about AIDS,’” he said of his convention speeches.
"I tapped into a wall of rage that was so huge that I didn’t know was there."
“It behooves the older generation who knows these things to tell them to younger people and say, as recently as 1985, as recently as 1990, it wasn’t like this, and you need to know that,” Patton said. “I feel that’s a part of my job. I’m a witness of something. I witnessed AIDS. I witnessed the devastation of that. I witnessed real homophobia. And I’m just telling my story.”
Since resurfacing, Patton has received offers from publishers and producers who are interested in having him tell his story. While exploring the idea of writing a book about his experiences, he discovered how deeply Freddy’s Revenge still affected him. “I thought I had put it to rest,” he said. “When I began to really research, I tapped into a wall of rage that was so huge that I didn’t know was there. I had many dark nights of the soul, pacing my bedroom going, Why in the fuck am I doing this?”
Patton ultimately landed on the Scream, Queen documentary, with the assistance of executive producer Roman Chimienti, a diehard fan of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2.
As Patton put it, the documentary is his “catharsis.”
It’s not as straightforward as he’d hoped, perhaps. After giving an on-camera interview for Scream, Queen, Sholder took Patton aside and suggested it might be time for him to “get over this.”
“I felt that he had a lot of anger, and it seemed like he directed a lot of it at the writer,” Sholder said. “I thought that Mark had maybe blown this thing a little out of proportion. The experience obviously had way more personal meaning for him than it had for me.”
And Chaskin, though also sympathetic to Patton, maintains that he never intended any harm in his script, or in comments he made about Freddy’s Revenge in subsequent years. When asked specifically, per Patton’s claim, that he had exploited the homophobic atmosphere at the time for the film, Chaskin wrote, “When you put it that way, it sounds almost diabolical.”
Once the documentary is released, perhaps Patton truly will be able to put Freddy’s Revenge behind him for good. As it stands, he continues to waver, presenting the portrait of someone who has seen it all and lived to tell about it, but also someone who continues to wrestle with the wrongs done to him — and the men who say those wrongs may have never taken place.
“There’s a real power in not giving a fuck,” Patton said, with something resembling a shrug. “I don’t care what anybody thinks of me anymore.” ●