Last year, streaming service Shudder gained critical and audience acclaim for its in-house documentary Horror Noire, which centered Black voices both in front of and behind the camera. Earlier this year it debuted Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, a deep dive into slasher sequel Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 that tackles, with and unflinching stare and unrelenting empathy, the multiple ways that queerness and horror converged during the 1980s.
The basic narrative around NOES2, including a segment in the full franchise documentary Never Sleep Again where both writer and director vehemently denied that the film’s rampant homoeroticism was intentional, is well known around horror fans, but Scream, Queen! digs deeper by centering the film’s star, Mark Patton. The phrase “it ruined [their] career” is the pithy epilogue to many failed films, something the average listener wouldn’t think about beyond assuming it meant the star in question just couldn’t hack it as an actor. In Patton’s case, though, playing the lead in NOES2 really did transform his life’s trajectory.
Queen unpacks the subtext, spending at least half of its runtime laying out exactly what Patton had to lose as a then-closeted actor whose character was more or less “seduced” by nightmare killer Freddy. Patton was told by his agency he could only ever hope to “play gay” in any future projects. Despite playing a variety of “all-American” characters on stage and in ads up to that point, after the film he was considered tainted. Contemporary dismissal of the film included slur-laced dismissal of his personhood; tabloid reporters snuck into his partner’s hospital room to snap photos of him on his deathbed as Patton himself grappled with the discovery that he was HIV-positive. The dehumanizing onslaught eventually led him to move to Mexico for over a decade, retreating from the public spotlight before becoming an activist.
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Scream, Queen! also takes the opportunity to become a historical text, laying out a basic history of the AIDS epidemic and its devastating effects. But while it can serve as an educational tool for anyone, several behind-the-scenes choices also speak to a special care for the queer community, from hiring an LGBT historian to tapping fellow HIV-positive horror actor Cecil Baldwin to narrate the film.
The driving force at the heart of the film is Patton’s hurt at director Jack Sholder and David Chaskin for shifting the stigma of their film’s queerness onto him, thus effectively putting a target on his back for decades. The film dignifies that hurt and Patton’s quest for answers, with Patton’s costars (including franchise header Robert Englund) speaking in his defense. Recent quotes from Chaskin about how he refused to acknowledge the subtext because “it was more fun not to” appear on screen alongside the stories of Patton’s trials. It is quietly, powerfully validating in a way I have rarely seen pop culture history done, and certainly not pop culture history. The film gives Patton his catharsis, but doesn’t demand that it be the same as the audience’s, in the end delivering a film that can stand alongside the excellent Disclosure, and which might be otherwise unmatched since 1995’s The Celluloid Closet. For queer horror fans — any horror fans — it’s a must.