Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Deadly Friend

In my last post for Wes Craven's Deadly Blessing (1981) I talked about how his career has great peaks followed by recessive periods.  Deadly Friend (1986) is the lead off movie of Craven's second low period.  It's actually his follow-up film to the wildly successful A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and as a follow-up to NightmareDeadly Friend isn't very good.  It somehow manages to look cheaper and have a less focused story, bouncing between teen drama, dark romance, revenge thriller, and science fiction horror film.

Deadly Friend qualifies as a crappy movie, without a doubt, but there's some neat things in it and it can be enjoyable on its own terms.  Most importantly, and comically, the movie exposes the dangerous potential of basketballs.
Deadly Friend opens with a sneaky car thief busting into a van but getting attacked by an unknown something, a "something" that makes weird noises and has a robot claw.  After the opening credits roll, we find out that this "something" is a remote controlled, artificially intelligent robot named BB that was created by and belongs to Paul (Matthew Laborteaux), who is sort of a boy genius.  He and his mother Jeannie (Anne Twomey) are moving into a new neighborhood, and at first some people are freaked out by this yellow robot buzzing around and talking and stuff, but they generally seem to accept it and react to it as they might any other new neighbor.  That's called tolerance.
Right from the start, you know Deadly Friend is going to be an odd movie, what with this yellow robot rolling around and all.  BB is shown to have great strength, but he also mumbles and sputter-talks in a voice (provided by Charles Fleischer, voice of Roger Rabbit) that is like a cross between a Gremlin and R2D2 that comes off more grating than anything.  Paul is obviously a genius in the field of robotic technology, but why did he have to make the robot so gawdamned annoying?
Paul and his mother have moved to this new suburb because Paul the genius has a scholarship at the local university (in addition to taking classes, he also has his own laboratory).  Paul is still a nerdy teenager though, and that's who he still relates to.  Upon moving into the new house, he meets and becomes fast friends with the paperboy, Tommy (Michael Sharrett), who goes by the odd nickname "Slime."  Paul also, in classic teen-drama tradition, falls for the girl next door, Samantha Pringle (Kristy Swanson).  When Paul first meets Sam (as she likes to be called), he notices that she has a bruise on her arm and she seems to be real careful about not upsetting her father, Harry (Richard Marcus), who, as we find out, is an abusive drunk.
Over the next few weeks, Paul, Tom, Sam, and BB become closer friends, as Paul studies at the university and helps Tom with his paper route during his free time.  One day while they're all playing basketball, their ball lands in the heavily fenced off yard of the mean old neighbor lady, Elvira (Anne Ramsey), who comes barging out of her house, threatening the kids with her shotgun, and throwing their basketball inside her place, saying it belongs to her now.

This leads to the group of them attempting to pull a prank on Elvira on Halloween night.  The prank of course goes tragically wrong and Elvira (SPOILER) blows BB up with her shotgun, shooting him to pieces.  Paul is of course devastated at the loss of his friend (and creation;  jeez how much did that thing cost??  Hope he had insurance), as are Sam and Tom, who feels extra guilt, as the prank was his idea.
Time passes, and Sam shares a Thanksgiving dinner with Paul and his mother.  Afterwards, Sam and Paul share their first kiss, as it is readily apparent that they have developed feelings for one another.  Unfortunately, after returning home, Sam is met by her drunk father as he berates her, slaps her, and pushes her down the stairs, severely damaging her brain.  Rushed to the hospital, Sam is put on life support, but the doctors can't help her; she's brain dead.  Claiming she tripped and fell down the stairs, her father requests that she be taken off life support.

Devasated at yet another loss, Paul (showing shades of Herbert West) comes up with a scheme to use BB's microchip brain to kickstart Sam's.  He and Tom steal Sam's body (pretty elaborate for a couple teen boys) and hide her out in Paul's garage.  Sam returns to life, but is basically an animated corpse, slowly remembering how to do things, like walk and move around properly.  As could be predicted, the melding of a robot and human brain does not go well.  Once Sam relearns basic motor functions, she also gains super robot-level strength and a need for revenge against those that have wronged her and BB.  Paul has to deal with the implications of having a murderous, reanimated girlfriend, as well as explain all this to his buddy Tom while trying to hide Sam from his mother and the authorities.  Teenager problems are the worst problems...
Like I said, Deadly Friend is kind of a crappy movie.  I guess the weird tonal shifts in the film are due to the typical bit of studio interference, who wanted to add more shocks and scares.  The original film Craven delivered was more a supernatural science fiction thriller that focused mainly on the dark romance between Paul and Sam and wasn't graphically violent at all.  The screenplay was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who would prove to be versatile with the weepy cry-fest Ghost (1990, for which he won an Oscar) and the mind-fuck freakout Jacob's Ladder (also 1990, criminally not nominated for a single Oscar).

Craven wanted to abandon the project, but was forced to stay on for the reshoots because he was going through a messy divorce at the time and was also facing a lawsuit, so getting paid became the bottom line.  To this day, Craven dislikes the final film, effectively disowning it.  I can't imagine his original version being much better than the final product, as most of the added scare scenes are some of the best parts of the movie.
Added to the film were some dream sequences, both of them very Freddy Kruger-like in their execution.  In one, Sam's father Harry leers over her while she's in bed.  He's all sweaty and starts laying hands on her before she stabs him with a broken vase, blood spurting everywhere.  Later, Paul has a weird, jolting dream where the burnt-up corpse of Harry pops up out of the middle of his bed.

The Elm St. comparisons don't end there.  The basement of Sam's father's house has a creepy, fiery furnace in it that closely resembles the same thing in the basement of Nancy's house in Nightmare.  Also, the idyllic suburban setting closely resembles the neighborhoods seen in many 80s horror films, including Fright Night (1985), The Gate (1987), and yes, Elm St. as well.
In addition to the dream sequences, they also added some graphic gore scenes, including a tacked on shock-ending that is even more ridiculously nonsensical than the whack-a-doo ending to Craven's Deadly Blessing.  The cheeseball special effects don't help.

The best added scene also happens to be the most memorable scene in the movie.  After Sam has been resurrected, she breaks into Elvira's home and attacks her, killing her in the most ludicrous fashion:  with a basketball.  It's quite the head explosion, really graphic stuff (again, tonally out of place in the film) but then it goes an extra step into goofiness when the body begins to shimmy and shake around with laughable effects.  It really is a must see, truly the one great scene in the movie:
I told you basketballs were dangerous.
The technology of the film is, naturally, very 80s.  Paul shows off BB's "brain" a couple times and it is twice as big as my smartphone.  The special mechanical effects used to make BB happen are decent enough and it's fairly believable that this thing could be moving around and acting on its own.  In one scene, BB goes badass and threatens some biker punks, grabbing one by the crotch.  When compared to other 1986 robots, BB is definitely less deadly than the killbots in Chopping Mall but quite possibly more annoying than Johnny-5 in Short Circuit, if you can believe it.

The most compelling relationship in the movie, to me, was not the Sam/Paul drama, but the Paul/Tom dynamic.  As friends, they're shown to have a true camaraderie, as evidenced in the scene where Paul convinces Tom to help him steal Sam's body from the hospital.  Later, when Tom finds out that Sam has started killing people, he's justifiably freaked out and decides to tell the police.  This doesn't go over well with Sam, who leaps out of a window and attacks Tom.  It's at this moment that Paul first realizes that bringing Sam back from the dead maybe wasn't the best idea (or maybe it's a few seconds later when she's choking him?).
Matthew Laborteaux, who is best known for his role on Little House on the Prairie as Albert Quinn Ingalls, got his start as an actor playing one of Peter Falk and Gena Rowland's children in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).  He plays Paul as kind of a know-it-all super genius, not really smug, just a little over-confident for someone so young.  Despite being shown to care for his mother and friends, Paul is portrayed as having a singular focus on advancing his work and theories.  In this story, he is the Dr. Frankenstein character, obsessed with creating life (first with BB, then Sam).
This was Kristy Swanson's first big role, after smaller parts in Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (both 1986).  After Deadly Friend she would land a lead role in Flowers in the Attic (1987) and would go on to star in Hot Shots! (1991) and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1992).  She's really stiff in this movie, and that's just not due to her acting like a robot.  In general, Swanson's cardboard acting is charming in its own way and she manages to maintain watchability throughout.
Her abusive father Harry was played by Richard Marcus, who I recognized as poor old Nestor from Tremors (1990).  Anne Twomey (Paul's mother) would play Rita Kirson on Seinfeld, the president of NBC who passes on Jerry and George's sitcom, Jerry, after Russell Dalrymple disappears.

The shotgun-weilding, mean old lady Elvira was played by professional mean old lady Anne Ramsey, who would have similar roles in Any Which Way You Can (1980), The Goonies (1985), and Throw Mama from the Train (1987).  Nobody could yell at kids or Danny DeVito the way she could.

Cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop has an impressive filmography that includes John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), and Walter Hill's The Driver (1978).  Deadly Friend would be his last theatrical film and evidence that he had bills to pay or owed someone a favor.
Deadly Friend is a big old mishmash of clashing elements, none of it quite gelling.  More silly than scary, less sick than it is sweet, Deadly Friend is probably the most oddball film in Wes Craven's filmography.  Unfortunately, it isn't his worst film because we live in a world where Scream 3 (2000) and Cursed (2005) still exist.

Craven's post-Nightmare/pre-Scream resume also includes other wildly uneven and questionable product, like Shocker (1989), The People Under the Stairs (1991), New Nightmare (1994), and Vampire in Brooklyn (1995).  I've always been partial to New Nightmare, but his best film from this period is probably the voodoo thriller The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), but I've always been lukewarm on that one due to the presence of Bill Pullman and the severe lack of deaths by basketball.
Careful with those basketballs, kids.

Two things about this trailer:
#1- There is a suspicious lack of BB.
#2- at the 51 second mark there is a "hey, girl."

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