Deadly Friend (1986)

Fun, relatively-forgotten Franken-horror from Wes Craven…

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Wes Craven finally scored a monstrous hit after ten years in the game with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film that kickstarted a phenomenon. What to follow it with? A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 seemed to be the most bankable option, but he passed on that, opting instead for two films that turned out to be right old flops – 1985’s The Hills Have Eyes 2 and the following year’s Deadly Friend, a sort-of rehash of the whole Frankenstein story but with exploding heads and toy robots thrown in. Deadly Friend isn’t regarded as a classic of either horror or of Craven’s output. It’s easy to see why – it’s not very scary, it’s silly, illogical, you name it. As the new film from the director of Elm Street, it must have been quite the disappointment. These days, it’s quite a chuckle. I love 1980’s horror, even the bad stuff, so I’m automatically disposed to give horror from this era a free pass. Saying that, Deadly Friend is not bad – it’s just utterly ridiculous.

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Pau (Matthew  Laborteaux) l is a preciously ingenious teen who has just arrived with his mum in their new home town and who has created a robot called BB with artificial intelligence. The first we see of BB is of his pincer as he strangles some scumbag who tries to break into the family car in the opening sequence. Despite this unnerving introduction, BB is actually quite an affable robot buddy who enjoys a game of basketball and likes to hang out with his new found friends. He squeezes the nuts of the local bully when the local gang harass Paul and his mate Tom. He can also crack the safe locks of security gates by going through every possible combination in superfast time. Most impressed is Paul’s next door neighbour Sam (Kristy Swanson, the original Buffy!), who also takes a shine to Paul himself, despite the clear disapproval of her abusive father. Unfortunately things take a turn for the worse, first of all when BB is blown to bits by paranoid neighbour Anne Ramsey (that’s Mama Fratelli to you) and then when Sam is thrown down the stairs by her bastard father and dies as a result. Paul then steals Sam’s body from the local hospital and inserts BB’s circuit board brain into hers, resulting in a reanimated friend who moves like a reject from the Thriller video audition. She also ends up murdering all of the film’s arsehole characters, and Paul realises that he has created….a MONSTER!!!

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This was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who would go on to write Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder, and apparently he wasn’t happy with the way this film turned out. It’s weird, because the film almost plays out like a PG-13 horror (complete with obligatory single use of the word ‘fuck’) but then has a bunch of gory stuff added in, presumably at the behest of the studio. Not that Craven has ever been averse to gore, but there’s something extra teen-friendly and almost sweet lurking underneath the surface of Deadly Friend – maybe this was an attempt to create a relatively family-friendly lark that ended up getting showered in blood. The result is a fun little horror with some fun bloodshed thrown in – the most legendary/notorious example is when a character’s head explodes after being hit with a basketball. It’s utterly ridiculous, but kind of unforgettable too. The headless body even starts walking around for a few seconds afterwards! There’s also some nasty business involving a body and a furnace (what is it with Craven and furnaces?), as well as some dream sequences which are pretty effective, if also completely bleedin’ pointless. We also get an ending which aims to go for the same head-fuckery of Elm Street’s ending, but while in that film the last-minute shock worked in a film about dreams,  Deadly Friend’s ending makes absolutely no sense. If the ending is a dream, then fine, but it’s not clear what it is supposed to be. Of course, if this was a David Lynch film, we’d be applauding the skewered logic, but here it comes off more as a throwaway shock. Still, I do find the imagery of this ending quite imaginative and spooky, despite the rubbery effects and yes, the fact that it MAKES NO SENSE!!!

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The acting is amiable – Laborteaux is a likeable lead, the good guys are nice, the bad guys are horrible and everything plays out just nicely. Credit should be given to Swanson, who is the brightest thing in the film and a really quite sympathetic tragic figure. Once re-animated, her performance does teeter on overly robotic (she threatens to overdo the jerky hand thing), but her expressively sad eyes make her possibly the most melancholy killing spree-inclined robot in cinema history. The scenes between Sam and Paul are really quite sweet, and their penultimate scene together is quite touching. Seriously!  I did want them to have a happy ending together, but it wasn’t to be. I think if I’d have watched this film back in the eighties I would have had a goofy schoolboy crush on Swanson. BB is voiced by Charles Fleischer (that’s Roger Rabbit to you), and before the credits I thought it was Frank Welker doing the voice because he reminded me of Slimer from The Real Ghostbusters. Like Roger Rabbit, his vocal quirks become very annoying but unlike RR, BB gets blown apart a merciful thirty minutes in.

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So if you’re feeling charitable, Deadly Friend is an enjoyable lark – its current status as relatively obscure in the annals of horror is admittedly well deserved, but those who have a soft spot for 80’s horror will find plenty to be amused with here.

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