The Film: Deadly Friend (1986)
The Principals: Matthew Laborteaux, Kristy Swanson, Michael Sharrett, Anne Ramsey. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin; based on the novel “Friend” by Diana Henstell. Directed by Wes Craven
The Premise: Paul Conway (Laborteaux) and his mother (Anne Twomey) have just moved into a sleepy suburban neighborhood. Paul is teenaged, but he’s a super genius so he’s studying/teaching neurology at the local college. Like any super genius worth his salt, Paul built a semi-sentient robot named BB (voiced by Roger Rabbit himself, Charles Fleischer). Paul is pretty charming and outgoing for a super genius robot-building nerd, and quickly makes friends with high schoolers Tom (Sharrett) and a classic girl next door, Samantha (Swanson). All is wonderful for Paul, except for two other people in the ‘hood who end up causing devastating problems. One is Elvira Parker (Ramsey), the local cranky shut-in, who sadistically destroys BB with a shotgun when she catches the kids trying to retrieve their basketball from her yard. The other is Samantha’s drunken and abusive father, who accidentally kills Samantha while beating her one night. Now Paul has lost two important members of his entourage. But he is a super genius, let us not forget. What others would see as a double-whammy of unfixable sadness, Paul sees as a classic “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” moment. So Paul does what any nerd would, he steals Samantha’s corpse, implants BB’s processing chip in her brain, and keeps her hidden in the shed. Samantha is brought back to life, but unfortunately seems more BB than Samantha. And BBSamantha is easily pissed off and driven to homocide.
Is It Good: Ha ha. No. Not it is not. And not only is not good, it is unquestionably on the top ten list of Worst Movies Ever Made By Supposedly Great Filmmakers. Quite possibly even in the top three. People gave Spielberg shit for 1941, but that was more of a disappointment, simply failing to match the level of expectations people had/have coming off of Jaws and Close Encounters, and using a script from Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and John Milius. Considering that it is sandwiched between those two films and Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., 1941 is definitely an over-confident mess. But it seems like the over-confident mess of a filmmaking superstar. Deadly Friend is a whole different story. First, let’s take a closer look at that poster to contextualize ourselves…
“From the director of Nightmare on Elm St.” This is 1986. Two years after A Nightmare on Elm St. Fourteen years after Last House on the Left. Now, obviously no closeness or distance of time to a great film can prevent a dud film from happening. Even the most brilliant of the brilliant are gonna have a misstep, and even the longest of creative droughts doesn’t always prevent another big win from occurring. I contextualized Deadly Friend in Craven’s career purely because the film seems to indicate that Craven has no idea how to make a movie. Something one might expect to see as a first effort. It’s not just that it is a bad movie. It is incompetent.
Wes Craven is something of a contested genius — the debate being whether or not he’s a genius at all, or simply a hack who got lucky a couple times and doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as genre filmmakers like Carpenter and Romero. Personally, while Craven never had the kind of golden era winning-streak that I think is necessary to be considered an indisputable great filmmaker, he has crafted too many good films (Serpant and the Rainbow, Scream, Hills Have Eyes, to name a few more) for it all to be some accident; an argument more fairly aimed at Tobe Hooper. Just Nightmare on Elm St alone makes him an important horror icon. But Deadly Friend most certainly points to some flaws or inconsistencies in the man’s instincts. I don’t know the backstory on Deadly Friend, what limitations and such Craven may have been under, but it really doesn’t matter — the film is incompetent past the point where studio demands can be used as an understandable excuse.
Problem numero uno: tone. Deadly Friend is the kind of inherently silly concept that desperately needs to be pushed into one of two directions to be effective. Option 1: It should have been a kids film. Frankly, considering the time period, the script seems more appropriate for the kinds of family friendly spookfests that were being produced for The Disney Sunday Movie series, not for the big screen. For the most part the film is family friendly; light humor, PG language, no nudity, plus BB conjures natural comparisons with Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. But then the gore happens and it is huge, gonzo, excessive, and totally out of no where; sort of making it the Drive of family horror movies. Option 2: It should have been a true R-rated movie. A simple TV edit, snipping out the gore, brings Deadly Friend down from R to PG without any language bleeps or trimmed scenes. That is rarely a good sign for a lowbrow horror movie. The base conceit of the movie is a weird one. Paul loves Samantha. Conceptually, you would assume Paul would put Samantha’s brain into BB’s body, allowing her to live on and talk to him. But Paul instead puts BB’s brain into Samantha’s body, letting his robot live on. (Paul didn’t know that would happen, but this is a movie. I’m talking about the writing. They can make whatever they want happen.) The subtext then is that Paul is just interested in Samantha’s body. Considering that she can’t talk, he’s essentially made himself a fuck doll. A fuck doll that he doesn’t fuck and that we never even see in her underwear. With the concept they chose and the type of R-rated gore they wanted to have, this should have been a film tonally in the vein of Frankenhooker or possibly Re-Animator. What Craven made was a Goosebumps film with some wildly out of place moments of gonzo gore.
The film was off to a terrible start already, before a single frame of film was shot. And its execution did it no favors. I like Kristy Swanson. She is just fine as Samantha. But holy shit, once she becomes Robot Samantha she turns into a so-bad-its-good enthusiast’s wet dream. Her performance is just staggeringly ridiculous. And Craven is 100% to blame for that. Honestly, you could convince me that this entire movie was one big “fuck you” to Swanson from Craven, retribution for something she did to him in real-life. Because I cannot conceive how anyone could watch what Swanson does in the film and say, “Cut. That was great. Moving on, and Kristy, do it just like that in every scene.” Most insane is that there is a guy on the film credited as Swanson’s mime instructor, which means it was all intricately planned! The blank stare and puppy-like head tilts are one thing, but the funniest decision was for Swanson to keep her fingers in a Vulcan-V position at all times, presumably because BB only had two fingers. God, I’m laughing just thinking about it. And her hilarious death scene, in which she thrusts out her Vulcan hands and charges the cops. Like’a’so…
Robot Samantha makes no sense as a character. Why does having BB’s brain cause her to move like a robot? She’s still made of human body parts, even if BB is used to having gears and pistons. Even more nonsensical is why she sounds like BB and sees in BB’s crappy Monster Vision, and where her robotic super strength comes from — apparently having a single computer chip in your brain can do all sorts of crazy shit to your body.
Craven gives the film a running motif of dream sequence fake-outs to help beef up the “horror movie” element of this horror movie, and presumably to make it more of a “Wes Craven” film, so his new fans created by Nightmare on Elm St won’t be entirely baffled by what they’re watching. None of these scenes are “good,” but they are Deadly Friends‘ only saving grace. Despite my legitimate bad-mouthing here, this is a spectacular so-bad-its-good film; all the more so because it comes from a filmmaker generally considered talented. From the ridiculousness of BB to the even intenser ridiculousness of Robot Samantha, to the strangely homoerotic dialogue and relationship between Paul and Tom, to the suburban biker gang, to the great moment where Paul decides that hiding a corpse under a pile of coal next a furnace is a more logical plan that just sticking the corpse in the furnance, the film is relentlessly laughable. And the basketball decapitation that does in the late-great Anne Ramsey is so monumentally stupid-brilliant that it manages to actually make me glad the film wasn’t aborted in pre-production, as it otherwise deserves. Ramsey’s death fails to make the movie any better, but it at least makes it worth your time to sit through. The youtube clips and animated gifs of her death will surely outlive the film itself.
Is It Worth Seeing: If you love laughing at horrible movies with your friends, this is a must see.