Just because it seems as though I haven’t had enough of the whole “likable female lead gets killed” theme so far for 2017…
Oh shit, spoilers: Kristy Swanson plays a completely, totally likable character and gets straight murdered in this movie.
Anyway, like I was saying, this week, we jump right into one of the strangest movies I’ve seen in a while. Okay, that’s a massive fucking lie. Mystics in Bali was one of the most bonkers things I may have ever seen ever. Again, let me get back on track here – this week’s feature, Deadly Friend, is strange not because of how the movie itself plays out or how completely, totally 80s it is, but in how it is a terribly awkward follow-up for Wes Craven after his A Nightmare on Elm Street revitalized the horror genre in the middle of the decade.
You see, Nightmare is what Wes Craven will very likely be forever known for. It’s a slasher movie with a fascinating backstory for the killer, interesting premise, and superb acting from a stellar cast (that, of course, included Johnny Depp). Deadly Friend also features an interesting premise, a solid cast, and a fascinating origin for its killer, but is a completely disjointed movie. It’s based on a novel and Craven made it as a straight sci-fi thriller and a dark love story. Unfortunately, test audiences rebelled against these elements that hadn’t existed in previous Craven films which forced Warner Brothers to order some reshoots and added gore scenes to appease Craven’s fans.
Sorry, dude, it doesn’t matter if you are now a modern master of horror, your fans want gore and your artistic integrity has to take it up the stink hole to deliver it.
From the back of the DVD release, the plot is: “Lonely teenage genius Paul (Matthew Laborteaux), a specialist in brain research, has two best friends: his remarkable robot BB and the beautiful girl next door (Kristy Swanson). When tragedy strikes both his friends, he desperately tries to save them both by pushing technology beyond its mortal limits into a terrifying new realm. Like a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, Paul discovers too late that he has created a rampaging monster.”
As we move through this movie, I’ll talk about the weird tonal shifts, and the weird zigs and zags that the movie takes, and try to put into words how utterly shocking it is that this was a Wes Craven directed film.
The movie starts with a cold open that shows a thief breaking into a van in front of a burger joint. As he rifles through a woman’s purse in the front of the van, he is startled by a robotic voice that makes little “Bee Beedee” noises. When he realizes what’s speaking to him, which still remains hidden to us, he comments “Hey, you’re pretty cute” before a robotic arm grabs him by the throat. The arm continues to strangle him until it realizes the owners of the van are coming back from getting their burgers. The two people who own the van are Paul and his mother. Paul calls the robot “BB” and as much as I wish this was BB-8, it’s not. As they drive away, the thief asks, “What the hell was that?”
I’m fairly sure that the thief is a surrogate for the audience in a meta sort of way. I mean the movie indicates nothing to us that this is a horror movie (until the dun dun dun style music sting when the title is shown on screen), nor does it even really carry over into the thriller genre. The thief was caught doing something bad, was punished, and we have what is told to us to be a cute robot that makes cute sounds. This has more of the feel of a family friendly movie from the decade like Batteries Not Included or E.T. You could have had this very same opening, without horror movie musical stings, in a family movie and it would have fit right in.
Except this is a Wes Craven movie (who isn’t above showing some terribly horrific shit like in Last House on the Left).
This movie is not convincing me it isn’t a family movie.So the movie continues on and we learn that Paul, his mother, and BB are moving to a new home. As they unload, we get our first look at BB – who is every bit as adorable as you might think he is based on on his chirps and squaks, and from the word of mouth from the thief at the beginning.
Also, there’s a trope in this movie that was so common from the 80s that I can’t imagine there was ever a need for open houses or real estate agents. Paul and his mom are moving into a house that they apparently bought sight unseen. I know it’s sight unseen because his mom keeps talking about how beautiful the house is as she is gazing at it from the outside. She also has a piece of paper that had the address on it so they knew which house to drive to and Paul was her navigator during the trip to the home. I’m not kidding, this shit happened in so many movies where a family has moved to a new town. Didn’t anyone look over the house to make sure it wasn’t a shithole? Didn’t anyone look to see if the town wasn’t full of whores on every street corner? Who bought this house? Did BB buy this house for them and they just trusted the taste of the most adorable robots from the 80s?
We also meet one of the neighbor kids, Tom, who is a dummy and kind of clumsy. While he is riding his bike and delivering papers, he wrecks and falls off his bike when he can’t stop staring at BB. Paul reveals that he built BB with a brain that he gave the initial programming for but that he can also learn on his own as well. Also, Paul is a genius who is working on a college level program studying the human brain instead of being a normal high school kid.
Paul is shown his lab at the college where he will have a ton of bells and whistles. At home, he and BB are doing some yard work. While BB mows the lawn, Paul’s neighbor, Samantha (Kristy Swanson in her very first movie role), sees the robot and starts up a conversation with him. You know, as you would usually when you see a robot mowing your neighbor’s lawn. Much like any of us would, he falls in love with Sam at first sight (because Kristy Swanson is just super keen). Paul notices that Sam has a bruise on her arm and her dad seems like a real dickbag. In fact, when her dad comes out to spy the situation in a threatening way, BB immediately recognizes him as a son of a bitch. Sam meekly declines Paul’s offer to hang out and hurries back inside. Later, Tom explains that her dad is indeed a problem for Sam (and he does mention that she has “great tits” – I have to say, this guy gets it). He also points out that Paul’s neighbor across the street, Elvira (played by Anne Ramsey), is a real turd too. She has tall fences that surround her house and is not too fond of anyone being on her property. In fact, when Tom, Paul, and BB stay too long in front of her house, she comes out to yell at them. She even threatens them with a double barrel shotgun when she sees BB.
But after they leave, they aren’t done with the dregs of this idyllic town. A gang of motorcycle thugs come along and pick on Paul and make fun of BB. That is until BB grabs the main punk by the nuts after they throw Paul to the ground. Again, even with the music stings telling us that BB is problematic with his over protection of Paul, I still don’t buy this is really a thriller or a horror movie. I mean, grabbing a bully by the nuts is pretty great, and kinda funny because, you know, nutshot and shit. Even crazy Anne Ramsey just seems like a weird old bag like Mrs. Deagle from Gremlins. That night,we have another meet-cute with Sam when she brings a box of cookies over for Paul. She even has a cute line about wanting to make something for him but not knowing how.
Goddammit, this movie has failed to be anything but a charming little family flick with scary music.
This doesn’t last long as Sam’s dad comes over looking for her. In front of Paul and his mom, her dad scolds her for coming over and “bothering” them, even making her apologizing for doing so. Here’s where things really start to turn away from that charming little film and starts to head into Wes Craven Land. That night, Sam wakes up to see her sweaty dad in her room and accuses her of saying bad things about him. She stabs him with a broken vase and while blood sprays out of his body, he laughs and says no one will stop him and the so forth. Sam wakes up revealing this is all just a nightmare. A nightmare that probably happened on Elm Street.
However, life goes on. Paul is teaching kids about BB’s brains. Paul, Tom, BB, and Sam are playing basketball. Paul and Sam seem to be really getting along in ways I can only imagine happens when guys and girls like each other a lot. Guys. I really need a robot friend who will kill people for me. And a girlfriend. Oh god, I need another human being and/or robot to spend my life with.
So, so lonely…
*Ahem* Erm… Sorry about that. Um. I think I meant for that to be another part of another thing that I’m, um… Working on?
Oh, whatever. BB accidentally sends a basketball into crazy Elvira’s lawn and she catches Paul trying to hop the fence to get it back. She takes the ball and tosses it inside claiming she is going to keep it because that’s what old hags did in the 80s. They had no time for neighborhood kids or their property. BB is none too pleased with this and stares down Elvira’s house and we know he gets mad because his vision turns red.
Later, Paul shows his professor that he has some success partially reanimating a dead man’s foot while he’s poking about the guy’s brain. Later in the evening, Sam comes over with a bloody nose and Paul’s mom tries to help by telling her they can help her lock up her dad. Sam says that despite all this, he’s still her father and she just can’t do that to him.
On Halloween, Sam, Paul, BB, and Tom decide to prank Elvira by picking the lock on her fence and running up to the door and ringing her doorbell. BB is able to pick the lock quickly, When BB acts too aggressive about approaching the door, Paul shuts him down saying that he’s been acting way to strange lately. Sam volunteers to go up to Elvira’s door and ring the bell. When she rings the doorbell a loud alarm goes off and all the outside lights turn on. Sam, Paul, and Tom hide in a bush when Elvira comes to the door packing her shotgun. When she calls out for whoever is outside to respond, BB springs to life with red lights and moves into attack despite Paul frantically trying to shut him off again. Elvira, empties her shotgun on BB and destroys him smiling at the trio freaking out over his destruction.
Paul is pretty bummed out that BB is gone, but he and Sam are straight up in love and that should probably ease some of that “crazy old bat destroyed your robot” blues that Paul’s gotta be feeling. They spend what I believe is Thanksgiving together and when he walks her out, he kisses her goodnight. This all seems to be generally pleasing to Sam so, yeah, charming little love story going on here. But oh fuck… Sam’s dad knows she wasn’t home. He, like any good father with a decent set of morals, responds to finding out about her being over there by mercilessly beating her and causing her to fall down the stairs and bash her head on the wall, giving her incredible brain trauma that puts her into a coma. Her dad says to the neighbors he had told her time and time again to pick up her stuff off the stairs or she wouldn’t have tripped. Paul and his mom know better. But don’t worry, I’m sure Sam will be fine! She’s gotta be! It’s cute as a button Kristy Swanson! She’ll be okay… right?
That’s a big negatory. In surgery the doctors can’t stop the hemorrhaging on her brain. They mention it seems like a little more than just a fall that caused the injury, but when no vitals come back, they have her on life support but she is brain dead. Upset, Paul rushes off to be alone. While looking at a picture of Sam and BB, Paul hatches a scheme. He goes over to Tom’s place and gets him up out of bed to ask him for help. It’s in this scene the greatest cameo that has ever happened takes place…
So the big plan is to have Tom spend the night at Paul’s, and for them to drug Paul’s mom with a sleeping pill to make her pass out so they can take Tom’s dad’s keys (he’s got a skeleton key for every door in town thanks to the job he has that I can’t remember currently) to get Sam’s body before the docs pull the plug so Paul can save her.
Sounds pretty easy to me!
Unfortunately, Paul expected the plug to be pulled at 10pm, but it got moved to 9 and it is already 8:30. Thankfully, the sleep drug works right then and they head out. Now while this whole heist of Sam’s body takes place, the music that plays is lighthearted and fun like Steven Speilberg made this movie. Thanks to Sam’s asshole dad’s urging, they are moments too late and her plug is pulled. Paul still takes her body anyway. Tom’s pretty freaked out by the failure of getting her body before she died, but Paul yells at Tom asking him what was he supposed to do. Paul is clearly pretty unhinged. At his lab at the college, Paul installs BB’s main processor into Sam’s brain. When Paul turns on the processor nothing seems to happen at first, but she does eventually move her toes before her leg jumps up scaring Tom into passing out.
Okay, so now we’ve hit the exact halfway point in the movie and the stage of the movie that plays out for the final half – the version of this movie that is a straight up monster flick homage to Frankenstein. However, I still say this is still NOT a horror movie in the traditional, Wes Craven style. He’s trying something different. Sadly, and I’ll go into a tad more detail about this when I sum up everything at the end, it really feels like studio meddling took away what it was that Craven wanted.
Paul and Tom sneak the barely resurrected Sam into the tool shed. His mom wakes up from being drugged all night to ask what the boys were up to and is mostly out of it. Paul thanks Tom for helping him out – which seemed to be forced upon Tom after he took the blame for BB’s destruction. Yet, Tom is acting a bit weird and quiet about all he’s been involved in. In the attic, Paul works with the resurrected Sam to check her motor skills, etc. It’s also during this scene that I can’t help but think that a lot of Gen Xers’ robot girl fetishes were born. I mean, you can like that if you want. I’m not one to take away your kinks or nuthin’.
But you’re fucking wrong and gross, you weirdos. (*Never mind I revealed that Alyssa Milano in a blonde pixie cut spoon-feeding gruel to a grotesquely fat man gave me a raging boner back while I watched Double Dragon. But that’s not a weird fetish at all, pervs.)
Alright, now Sam is able to stand, walk and recognize her house and her dad. She’s also creepily staring out windows at people that BB recognized as bad people (Sam’s dad, Elvira, etc). She’s almost obsessed with watching them. Also, it’s now public knowledge that her body has gone missing from the hospital.
The next morning after Paul found Sam up and walking around, she’s gone missing. She has sneaked into her old house and started a fire in the basement. It lures her dad into the basement where she attacks him all robot-zombie-Frankenstein style. She first breaks his hand and then burns him against the boiler in the basement before finally breaking his neck. It’s here where you realize that the adorable Kristy Swanson will straight waste fools with her fucking bare hands! Paul discovers that Sam has killed her dad and hides the body to prevent everything from being revealed.
But that’s not what you come here to see in this movie. The real draw to Deadly Friend is Anne Ramsey’s comeuppance. It starts by her seeing Sam looking out the window of Paul’s room and trying to call the police for them to investigate, but when they don’t respond, well… Remember when she took the kids’ basketball? Let’s just say that will return to the fray.
I wish I could put into words what it is that happens to her, but you really just need to see this to fully get the true majesty of this moment in film history:
Oh holy goddamn that is fine art right there. Kristy Swanson’s reaction to it all is utterly amazing as well. It’s like she is surprised that throwing the basketball at her head caused that. Then, when the body starts running around, she can barely contain the “holy fuck is this for real?” expression. Then as the body lays there dead on the ground, she’s almost smiling as if she knows she is in one of the very best moments in all of film history. Seriously. This is the best thing I’ve ever seen. Even better than Alyssa Milano in a blonde pixie cut spoon-feeding gruel to a grotesquely fat man. I mean, that one scene gave me a boner. This one just makes me feel like I can love again.
Paul continuously has problems keeping Sam in rooms that he places her in. She’s always wanting to roam about or be near him. When he asks her why she’s out and about, she gives him this look that is so sweet and trying to understand why he doesn’t want her at his side all the time. She almost emotes more as a robot girl than she did as a real girl. Actually, you almost feel bad for her because she’s both BB and Sam thrust into the same body and brain and both are only doing what they feel is right by protecting and loving Paul and getting revenge on those who hurt them.
Paul can only hold onto things for so long. Robot Sam’s constant curiosity leads her into Paul’s bedroom where she discovers that she has been brought back as a weird amalgam of Sam and BB. She starts struggling with her emotions, but worse, her murders are being discovered and Tom’s own worry over being found out that he has been involved in all that’s happening is causing extra stress on everything. Not only that, his mom discovers that he’s not been to class even though she’s been bringing him to school herself. Both Paul’s world and his very psyche is breaking apart. After Tom sees Sam in the state she’s in, he threatens to call the cops which leads to a fight between the two friends. When Tom tells Paul and his mom that he’s going to be the one to stop everything, Sam flies out the window to attack Tom. When Paul pulls Sam off Tom and slaps her, she attacks Paul before running away. When she speaks for the first time since being resurrected, she speaks in BB’s voice and says his tagline “BB”.
When Paul chases after Sam, he gets found by the head biker thug who picked on him earlier. They fight which only leads to Sam coming to Paul’s aid. She kills the punk by tossing him into a police car that has come to try to stop her. She runs away again with Paul chasing. She escapes back to Paul’s tool shed who tries to calm Sam down by saying he can get them help. As she looks at Paul, her vision switches from BB’s digitized vision to normal, human vision showing that maybe Sam is taking over. The police find her and Paul tries to stop the police from firing on her. Her vision switches back and forth and she is able to call out to Paul in her own voice, but as BB takes over one last time to defend itself, she rushes a police officer and gets shot and killed.
Paul, totally off the deep end, and hoping to fix his past mistakes, or at least improve upon them, goes into the morgue and tries to get Sam’s body yet again. However, this time, she attacks him and as she strangles him, her skin comes off her bones to reveal she has turned into a scary robot thing. She beckons him to come with her before snapping his neck off camera and saying “BB” once more, but in Kristy Swanson’s voice.
While watching this movie, you can definitely find the good in it. You can see how this might have actually been considered a sweet little movie that has this super dark undercurrent to it if it could have only been what it should have been. I like Paul’s relationship with Sam and BB, and, as I mentioned just a moment ago, I like how Kristy Swanson plays this little lost puppy dog of a resurrected “monster”. In a lot of ways, it draws heavily on Frankenstein. At least in the sense that you have Paul who uses his brilliance in the wrong way (albeit after being pushed over the edge by losing both his best friend and his girlfriend), and then you have an almost sympathetic monster. The evidence of that being the main thrust of the movie is still there.
However, this is a time in movie making that can almost be referred to as the “Post-Heavens Gate” era in which studios no longer wanted to give free reign to filmmakers to make the movie their artistic scope wanted. It’s clear that, by 1986, Warner Brothers new they had two fan favorites already in Gremlins and The Goonies. They had Wes Craven ready to make his follow up to the immensely popular A Nightmare on Elm Street. They opted to cash in on what they felt people wanted instead of making the movie that would have probably made less money but in the long run been better liked and remembered.
You can tell what was changed or added because of that drive to take a more formulaic approach to Craven’s movie. We have a cute couple – make it more like Gremlins. We have friends who bond despite some bad dudes around (and Anne Ramsey). – make it more like The Goonies. The guy who made this made A Nightmare on Elm Street – have some freaky nightmare scenes tossed in to add some horror.
It’s also apparent that tonal shifts in the movie, particularly comparing the first half to the second, was a result of this direct meddling. There are images used on the back of the DVD box itself of Sam wearing Paul’s mother’s silk dress. I’m guessing there was an entire sequence of her possibly figuring out that Paul wanted Sam more than BB and therefore one personality was trying to be more alluring. I’m guessing it was all part of something that plays to the whole switching of her vision from BB’s perspective to Sam’s at the very end of the movie. Shit, there is a shot of Sam feeling the dress at one point after Paul placed her in the attic as if she already had interest or curiosity in it. It’s featured in a lot of shots even. There are other images that seemingly would have been taken from scenes showing the blossoming romance between Paul and Sam that were not in the final product.
In addition, the final scene in which Paul is trying to take Sam’s body again and is ultimately killed doesn’t seem to really fit with how the main story ended. There was no indication that he was going to try a second time. Yeah, yeah, I suppose can say he was off his rocker and that could be something he’d try again, but the pull out after she’s killed feels like the end of the movie and we’re all of a sudden thrown into one more scene of a coroner who doesn’t seem all that floored by the fact that this is the second time this girl has died AND SHE HAS COMPUTER BITS IN HER HEAD.
In a movie that could have paid homage to monster and mad scientist movies of the past, like Frankenstein, in and of itself became a Frankenstein project by taking elements of other things to try to build something that appeased audiences that wanted more of what they had just seen instead of seeing something that possessed a fresh take on old themes.
What we’re left with is very likely less what Wes Craven really wanted and more of this odd little footnote from a master of horror that is largely forgotten.