#12 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.
The contentions around this film’s post-production are a bit notorious. After a negative test screening full of Wes Craven’s fans, the studio looked at the film that Craven had created, a light-hearted tale of a young man, a young girl, and a robot, and decided that it wasn’t bloody enough for his fans. So, they forced him to go and shoot several new, very bloody scenes to insert into the film to give it the R-rating Craven’s fans expected. The original vision was lost, and only a compromised vision remains. Considering my experience with Craven’s films up to this point, I’m not really convinced that the original vision was some lost gem, though.
Paul (Matthew Laborteaux) moves to a new town to attend Poly-Sci University (might as well have called it College State). He’s young, makes a friend of the local paperboy who’s still in high school Tom (Michael Sharrett) and meets his neighbor, the pretty and young girl Sam (Kristy Swanson) whose father Harry (Richard Marcus) appears to be some kind of tyrant over her, jealous of her few interactions with the outside world. Paul is in town to continue research on his pet robot BB, a self-learning robot that has strong grips with its metal pincers and speaks only in babbles. A quartet of friendship develops around them (despite the initial wariness Sam has about even being seen with anyone, she keeps hanging out with the other three out in the open), and on Halloween they end up trying to get into the locked gate of Elvira (Anne Ramsey), a nasty old woman who just wants to be left alone (seriously…just leave her alone) by convincing BB to unlock her combination lock that keeps her gate shut. Elvira reacts badly and shoots BB with a double barreled shotgun.
On Thanksgiving, Sam’s father finally reacts to Sam being out with other kids by pushing her down the stairs which knocks her head against the wall, making her a vegetable. Picked up and taken to the hospital, her father gives up all hope and decides to pull the plug. Paul, though, has an idea. He’s going to us the remnants of BB’s brain, insert it into Sam’s brain, and hopefully bring her back to life. Recruiting Tom’s help, they retrieve her body, and Paul goes all Frankenstein, instilling some kind of robotic life.
Up until this point, aside from one dream sequence where Sam dreams of shoving a thin, broken, glass vase into her father’s chest which leads him to stand around, laughing at her, and covering her with his pulsing blood, it seems to have been largely the movie Craven originally intended. It’s…overcomplicated, a bit overstuffed, and not all that consistent regarding Sam’s situation. It’s lighthearted and nice, though, which helps it along. Once Sam becomes BB it takes on much more of the reshoots, and they’re kind of hilarious. They change the film around them, making it something more of a pitch-black dark comedy than a lighthearted (but weird) romance. The shockingly brutal nature of the violence ends up so discordant with the rest of the movie that the moments become completely comical in effect. Suddenly seeing Sam (not just with robot brains but robot strength for reasons) throwing her father into a furnace or throwing a basketball so hard at Elvira’s head that her head explodes is just totally out of step with the kinder, gentler film around them. It’s really hard not to laugh at the outrageousness of it all.
And I would guess that that’s how Craven tried to save the film despite the calls for bloody violence. He knew the violence was going to change the film, but he couldn’t bring the whole thing in line with the violence using just a few weeks of reshoots. So, he made the violence completely outrageous to give it something else, in this case, a dark comedic tone.
The greater problem with the movie, I think, is the weirdness of the base story. Turning Sam into a robot that takes vengeance out on the two people that harmed the two versions of herself is one thing, but Paul falling in love with what is essentially a human robot is odd, especially when Kristy Swanson is just looking blankly all over the place for about half the movie. There’s also a small subplot with a local bully (well, the guy is an adult, so one might say violent deviant) that BB crushes his privates with one pincer that shows up later and Sam throws around like a rag doll. I’m not sure what this is really supposed to do. I’m also not really convinced that Tom adds much of anything. A lot of this might be leftovers from the source material, the novel Friend by Diana Henstell that the screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin kept in.
Without the bloody violence, this might have been a weird but passable entertainment. With the bloody violence, it gains the dimension of the guffaw which neither elevates nor degrades the rest of the film. It’s an odd duck in this final form, though I would be somewhat curious in the original (which seems to have been lost).
6 thoughts on “Deadly Friend”
Heard of it, but never saw it. It’s starting to look like Wes Craven’s filmography isn’t much different from, say, Nathan H. Juran’s.
20 Million Miles to Earth > The Last House on the Left
No disrespect intended to Mr. Juran, he made some wonderfully entertaining movies. I just meant that I don’t think he had a particular style, or themes that he regularly explored–just tell the story and step back.
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This movie really affected me as a lovelorn teenager. I had a thing for Kristy Swanson like you wouldn’t believe back in the 80’s. So for me, then, I really bought into the romance angle. Paul loved Sam, even if their romance didn’t get beyond the wanting phase. I also grew up with girls who, like Sam, were tightly controlled by their parents (like I was), so I sympathized with her also.
I did get the Frankenstein angle and bought into it, and reanimating the dead never goes well, but I was really shaken by the ending. ‘Deadly Friend’ and ‘Spellbinder’ both literally shocked me. So I have strong memories of this movie.
Somehow, I missed the comedy aspects. The basketball head explosion, in retrospect, is very silly. But at the time it was just ‘a kill’ and I didn’t think much about it beyond that. It wasn’t the early kills that were the real horror to me, though it signified to me, if not Paul, that Sam was ‘not right’ anymore. He couldn’t control her. He could just love her and want to help her, without being able to do so. I bought that tragedy.
The real horror comes at the end, machine-Sam murdering Paul after all he felt for her and all he tried to ‘help’. Like the very end of A Nightmare on Elm Street, it has a feeling of…unreality. Of a nightmare, in both cases, where everything goes wrong.
I dunno. I still consider Craven to be a bad filmmaker and I have very strong words for Scream, coming up. But he did create scenes that stuck with me and affected me when I viewed them. So he’s not completely incompetent. Just mostly. Maybe he understood emotion, if nothing else. And possibly, literally, nothing else.
Craven must have felt some kinship as well because he grew up in a repressive household as well. I do lean towards the idea that the original, unbloody version of the film would have helped. They certainly had to cut stuff out to fit in the dream sequence and exploding head. Maybe I would have felt more with that kind of focus restored.