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Deadly Friend (1986)
21st Nov 08
Buffy : The Zombie Robot Years
Being the director of balls-to-the-wall masterpieces like Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes buys you a lot of forgiveness. This is why most genre fans can overlook the fact that, every few years, Wes Craven turns out something as embarrassingly amateurish as The Hills Have Eyes Part II or misguided mainstream sludge like Vampire In Brooklyn. Given that this guy made A Nightmare On Elm Street, we can even forgive him for the useless, sub-Scooby Doo shenanigans that defeated Scream 3 and for that slushy Meryl Streep music teacher movie. As long as no one mentions Cursed, the guy is well and truly forgiven for any cinematic eyesores he has unleashed on the world.
Deadly Friend, Craven’s most tonally bizarre movie until his awkward Eddie Murphy vehicle, was once considered to be one of the director’s key turkeys. Clearly intended as a change of pace for the pigeon-hole-fearing filmmaker and based on a sentimental novel (titled, simply, “Friend” and written by Diana Henstell), it ended up as a gaudy horror movie courtesy of mucho studio interference. Its subtlety levels are apparent from the goofy false scare in the very first scene, and its ending may just be the most laughable thing ever seen in a theatrically released horror movie (that’s including Courteney Cox’s haircut in Scream 3 so you know it’s a hardcore statement) but time has been surprisingly kind to Deadly Friend. Of course, the kindness of time is considerably enhanced by a healthy supply of weed and some Absinthe shots, so being prepared is key…
Disconcertingly, this Wes Craven movie opens like it might be the director’s foray into mid-80’s Spielbergian territory. Has the guy who helmed the gruelling “piss your pants” scene in Last House and who convinced us a baby might be eaten onscreen in Hills gone completely soft?! Maybe there was a misprint in the credits and we are actually watching a film directed by John Craven, child-friendly host of TV’s Newsround?!!
The nominal star in the early-going is B.B., a clunky, bright Pacman-yellow robot who talks like a drunk E.T. (the E.T. parallels are more apparent when B.B. joins the young ensemble for some Halloween trick or treating) and moves with all the grace of Stephen Hawking on crack. This was around the time of Short Circuit and Chopping Mall , so robots (both cutesy and homicidal) were in, though the movie’s main plot plays a bit like a horror movie spin on the previous year’s Weird Science (itself an updating of Frankenstein). For those who spent the 80’s yearning for Johnny Number Five to come face to face with The Terminator (the proper Terminator, not the pacifist fucker in the sequels), stick with Deadly Friend for some form of fantasy fulfilment.
Science geek Matthew Larboteaux - one of the dorkiest of 80’s horror heroes and proud wearer of the sweater equivalent of an STD - moves into a generic suburban Spielberg-type neighbourhood with the robot and his mom. We initially appear to be in family film territory. There’s slapstick with his new best buddy (bizarrely, this continues even when the movie has wracked up a body count and is bidding to be serious), cutesy robot humour and a score (by Charles Bernstein) that goes all soppy when abused hottie-next-door Kristy Swanson (never cuter) appears. A broad boo-hiss baddie is presented in the form of typecast Anne Ramsey as the shotgun-wielding, uber-paranoid neighbourhood harridan whose understandable destruction of B.B. triggers the central plot.
B.B.’s “death” coincides with Swanson’s fatal, dad-induced stairs-plummet and budding genius Larboteaux revives both of them by planting the former’s “brain” into the latter’s considerably more fanciable body. Voila! He has himself a remote controlled girlfriend who looks like Kristy Swanson! (We know what you’re thinking : are such things on sale and are they cheaper than a lifetime supply of Ro-Hypnol?) Too bad she’s also a pallid zombie / robot / cheerleader hybrid with revenge on her mind. (Although Larboteaux controls her with the remote and stores her in a tool-shed at home, the script sadly skirts the pervier implications of our hero’s actions and desires).
Credibility takes an early bath in Deadly Friend. You could argue that this happens when a babe like Swanson shows genuine interest in a guy who has posters of Einstein on his bedroom walls (at least his buddy has Pat Benatar posters in HIS room!) and who hangs around with a talking, over-size tin-can. But it really loses its grip on reality somewhere around the time that Larboteaux manages to “sneak” into an under-populated hospital to steal a freshly expired patient from her bed, fleeing the scene unnoticed in a domestic vehicle the size of the average bus. (He then hides Swanson in his house from his mom for the rest of the pic, somehow).
But then, who really cares about believability when a movie is this peculiar in terms of tone and structure? Though apparently conceived as a sincere, tragic teen romance and though rife with wacky robot shenanigans, the film keeps acting like someone behind the scenes was constantly sending memos through to Craven saying “Hey, can you make this more Wes Craveny?”. Hence, we have gratuitously shoe-horned nightmare sequences turning up unannounced like outtakes from A Nightmare On Elm Street. One of Craven’s violent, villainous father figures (a creepy, sweaty Richard Marcus) briefly becomes a cackling, blood-squirting pseudo-Freddy in an early dream sequence and then, after his death, emerges deep fried and very Krueger-like from Larboteaux’s mattress.
The aforementioned memos may have also said “Hey, this movie needs at least one really ridiculous yet brilliant moment of over the top splatter even though it will feel totally out of sync with the rest of the story! Blow up some heads, man!” Hence we have the jaw-dropping, show-stopping moment in which Swanson hurls a basketball at Anne Ramsey’s head, causing it to splashily detonate before her blood-squirting headless body staggers around for a few seconds (longer in the recent uncut DVD release). The old-school FX are terrific and the scene deserves to be up there in any Greatest 80’s Gore Moments countdown. Bravo! Does anyone else remember replaying it endlessly when it was a big-box Warner Home Video release?
As for the rest of the flick…well, it plays its zombie-robot-cheerleader stuff commendably straight even though Swanson, lunging toward deserving victims with rigor-mortis arms like some kind of 80’s distaff Karloff, is a snigger-worthy, absurd “monster”. This absurdity goes into very enjoyable overdrive in the final 20 minutes, with the introduction of some silly over-age bullies (were they late for the Grease casting call?) and scenes of Swanson leaping out of second floor windows and hurling grown men through the air (on obvious wires).
The final scene, the zenith of all this absurdity, screams “tacked on final jump-scare” and outdoes even the daft end of the otherwise sublime Nightmare On Elm Street for fade-out silliness. A malevolent version of B.B. (don’t ask why) bursts out of Swanson’s rubbery skin when Larboteaux - hasn’t he learned anything?! - breaks into the hospital to steal her again. At least the end of Elm Street had the excuse that we could have still been in surreal dream land… this last scene appears to be really happening in this, the real world! Then again, such insanity may well have stopped that losing-will-to-live feeling that was hard to shake off while watching that Craven / Meryl Streep music teacher movie we mentioned earlier. (Shudder…)
Say what you will about Deadly Friend but it’s many shades more entertaining than a long list of supposedly “good” 80’s movies we could name here. Chariots Of Fuckin’ Fire and Gandhi may have won the Oscars, but did they have anything as sublime as Anne Ramsey’s basketball decap or the awesome, repetitive synth theme - punctuated by blasts of B.B. saying his name - that plays over the end credits? Nope. Mr Craven, you are forgiven. Now lower those trousers so we can administer appropriate punishment for making Swamp Thing.