As our “Nightmare On Elm Street” review series is on hiatus, it’s time to dip into another Wes Craven movie. While we decided that “Deadly Friends”, where someone turns the cast of the popular sitcom into zombie monsters, would have been a much more entertaining choice, we gave this a go anyway.
Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux) is a super-genius – even though he’s a high-school-aged kid, he’s already lecturing at University, and has built a robot called BB. BB is sort of a Johnny-Five looking fellow with a yellow plastic shell, but what sets him apart from other robots is artificial intelligence – at a level which the robots of today aren’t close to having caught up with – and a horribly weird voice. Imagine a cross between Stripe from “Gremlins”, a Minion and a Jawa and you’re nearly there. Paul’s not just a nerd, though, quickly making friends with Tom (in a scene that plays like romance) and Sam (Kristy Swanson, in a scene that plays like friendship). The three humans and one robot get up to all manner of shenanigans in the neighbourhood, with a little developing romance between Sam and Paul, but Sam’s drunk abusive father and Elvira, the evil old lady from across the street (the amazing Anne Ramsey, who could probably play this sort of role in her sleep) put a kibosh on their fun.
I don’t want to just do a recap, because in a sense the movie itself is the least interesting thing about this movie. Elvira destroys BB with a shotgun and Sam’s father, becoming increasingly angry, kills Sam by shoving her down the stairs. Thanks to handy first act exposition, we know that Paul has the tools at his disposal to steal bodies and implant chips into brains, so it looks like Sam is getting BB’s brain-chip implanted. Nothing can go wrong with that plan, as I’m sure the title “Deadly Friend” will have reassured you.
Wes Craven and writer Bruce Joel Rubin (who also penned “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Ghost”) wanted to make a PG-rated science fiction thriller, with the darkness of the central teen romance front and centre. Not a bad idea, and teen movies were big business at the time, but apparently the villain of this particular piece is…well, one person and one group of people.
GROUP – test audience. The studio showed the original cut of the movie to a group of Wes Craven fans, who crapped all over it because it didn’t have any gore in it. Thanks, awful horror fans!
INDIVIDUAL – Mark Canton, head of Warner Brothers at the time. The idea for the beyond-nonsensical ending was his, as was the insistence that Craven and Rubin put loads of gore scenes in.
When you discover all this, and the substantial edits that were done once the movie was out of Craven’s hands, things start to make a lot more sense. BB doesn’t get destroyed til halfway through, leaving an overlong first act, and the romance between Sam and Paul was trimmed down, leaving his decision to risk his entire life and future career for some girl he’s briefly kissed once a rather confusing one. And then there’s the gore. Elvira was supposed to die by being shoved through her own front door, but…her head is exploded when Sam throws a basketball at it. Now, if you’re thinking “the hardest thrown basketball of all time wouldn’t do much more than break your nose” then you’re a smarter person than the former head of a major movie studio. The effect is spectacular, but they really do a poor job of fitting it to the original footage of the killing and its aftermath – perhaps deliberately.
It’s really a movie of two halves. And they aren’t always bad – look at the same year’s “Something Wild” to see a comedy that suddenly lurches into very dark territory, but done well. While I’ve got no idea what Craven’s original cut looked like, it can’t possibly have been worse than this, and the bits of the original version we see really give the indication it would have worked a lot better as a sort of dark comedy where Paul gradually realises his mistake – in the final version, he treats the reanimated Sam as an annoyance from her first waking moment.
Kudos to Kristy Swanson, though, who was 16 when she made this, her feature debut. She plays dead Sam as a cross between a robot and the Bride of Frankenstein, and does a pretty darned good job of it. One gets the feeling she figures out that being brought back to life is a bad idea before he does, too.
“Deadly Friend” never really had a chance, though. It sounds like the reshoots weren’t just cosmetic but completely altered the movie – if you look at the original lobby cards, they have pictures of scenes that disappeared, like Paul’s mum trying to help him with robo-Sam and more about their burgeoning relationship. Plus, Craven was forced to put in multiple dream sequences as soon as the studio figured out who they had directing that little dark romance movie.
You can see bits and pieces of a really interesting movie trying to get out, but it’s buried under unnecessary gore and a shockingly bad ending (why was Paul not arrested for stealing a corpse? How did he get back into that hospital?) Sorry, Wes.
Rating: thumbs in the middle