Deadly Friend (1986) review

Deadly Friend posterDirector: Wes Craven

Starring: Matthew Laborteaux, Kristy Swanson, Michael Sharrett, Anne Ramsey, Anne Twomey

“Wait, she’s dead? Hey, what the hell are you doing? You didn’t say anything about a dead body, we were supposed to save her life.” (Tom, Deadly Friend)

I never get tired of saying this, but God bless the 1980s. No other decade could give you a film with a plot that begins with “a boy, his mum and his robot move into a new house” and not have that be the oddest thing about it by the time the credits roll.

Deadly Friend is the work of director Wes Craven, fresh from finding new success with A Nightmare On Elm Street. It’s one of the oddest horror films you’ll see, but that’s perhaps not Craven’s fault. You see, he didn’t want to make a horror film at all.

Based on the novel Friend by Diana Henstell, Craven originally wanted to make an unconventional romance movie that showed love could conquer all despite obstacles placed in the way: in this case, a reanimated girlfriend.

Apparently being reanimated means you just go a bit fucking nuts with eyeshadow
Apparently being reanimated means you just go a bit fucking nuts with eyeshadow

However, after shooting the film and putting together the first edit, Warner Bros showed it to a test audience full of Wes Craven fans, who promptly rejected it because it wasn’t a horror movie.

Slapping the word ‘Deadly’ on the title, the studio insisted that Craven add gory deaths and horrorise it, much to his objection.

Eventually Craven obliged in order to ensure the film was completed, but once it was released he disowned Deadly Friend and no longer likes speaking about it. Which is a bit of a shame because I fucking love it.

The plot is almost Shakespearian. Paul, his mum and his robot move into a new house (see, I wasn’t joking), and almost immediately Paul meets a new friend, Tom.

Well if this isn't the weirdest new LA Lakers signing I don't know who to believe
Well if this isn’t the weirdest new LA Lakers signing then I just don’t know who to believe

Tom is stunned by his new chum’s robot, codenamed BB, and rightly so. This isn’t just a trumped-up Rocky IV effort who can only do a few things and say “happy birthday Paulie”, after all.

No, BB has the ability to learn and adapt to the world around it, thanks to Paul’s completely believable and revolutionary studies of the workings of the human brain, which he’s somehow been able to emulate digitally.

Before long, Paul meets Samantha (Kristy Swanson, the original Buffy) and instantly falls for her. Her life isn’t perfect, though, as the bruises on her arm and her not-very-friendly dad suggest.

For a while Paul, Samantha and Tim are the best of chums, hanging around and getting into all manner of humorous scrapes: mostly involving Elvira, their evil neighbour played by Mama Fratelli from The Goonies.

"Do the truffle shuffle again ya chubby little dick, I dares ya"
“Do the truffle shuffle again ya chubby little dick, I dares ya”

And, yes, as cinema law dictates, the inevitable romance between Paul and Samantha begins to blossom and all appears to be rosy.

Things go notably baps-up, however, when Paul loses two important people in his life. First, BB is blown to bits with a shotgun by the aforementioned evil neighbour. Cue an amazingly over-the-top grieving scene.

Then, Samantha’s dad gets a little too angry with her and kills her. Yes, a film about a lovable robot suddenly takes a dark turn as a 16-year-old girl is murdered by her abusive father. Fun!

Refusing to accept the death of his new girlfriend, Paul decides to do the only natural thing you would do in that situation: put BB’s sentient CPU into Samantha’s brain to bring her back to life.

"Trust me, I'm a doctor... a doctor of LOVE! HAHAHAHA! Seriously, I have no fucking clue what I'm doing here"
“Trust me, I’m a doctor… a doctor of LOVE! HAHAHAHA! Seriously, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing here”

After this, Paul decides to… wait, what? Hang on a fucking minute. After she dies, she’s brought back to life by a bunch of microchips? Put that bong down, Craven. You’ve had one too many hits of that shit.

Regardless, the CPU works for some reason. Samantha comes back to life, albeit acting like a robot, busting exactly the sort of silly moves you’d expect to see in an improv class when the instructor shouts “QUICK you’re a robot”.

Oddly, the chip not only gives her a robot’s brain but also robot vision and massively increased strength (even though she still has human organs). Suddenly she’s able to leap cars with a single bound and all that malarkey.

Her newfound super strength also leads to what has to be one of the silliest scenes in film history, in which she throws a basketball at a key character’s head with such force that said head explodes in a shower of gory mush. Cue a comedy headless corpse running around.

OH CHRIST, THAT'S HORRIFYING. The statues in that cabinet are ugly as fuck
OH CHRIST, THAT’S HORRIFYING. The statues in that cabinet are ugly as fuck

Matthew Laborteaux is fairly forgettable in the ‘lead’ role of Paul but it’s Kristy Swanson who steals the show. Her ‘girl next door’ nature makes her pretty bloody loveable and when she eventually becomes a human AI bot, you let her get away with the cheesy robotics routine because you’re just glad to see her alive (well, of sorts).

The whole thing is then not-so-neatly wrapped up with an ending that, without spoiling it, makes absolutely no sense and has clearly been designed with one ‘final scare’ in mind: though much like Craven’s similar twist ending in A Nightmare On Elm Street, it’s more like a final guffaw.

In fact, the whole thing has a generally similar vibe to the first Nightmare. Not explicitly in terms of the plot, of course, but there are plenty of similarities that make it clear we’re dealing with the same director.

Samantha’s house looks very much like Nancy’s in A Nightmare On Elm Street, and the score from Charles Bernstein (the same composer) occasionally dances around similar motifs. There’s even a scene set in a basement in which a furnace lights up, just like in Freddy’s debut feature.

Fun fact: Having a robot brain apparently also means your eyes act like digital cameras for some reason
Fun fact: Having a robot brain also means your eyes act like digital cameras for some reason

Craven may not have liked it, but Deadly Friend to me encapsulates the 1980s and everything they stood for.

It’s got brilliantly bloody deaths (especially in the US DVD, which restores a lot of the cuts the MPAA cuts made for its original release). It’s got an idyllic suburban setting at a time when American society was feeling more positive and confident at its ability to succeed in life.

And it’s got a pet robot, just like every family in the ’80s was certain they’d all end up with before too long.

Naturally, it doesn’t come close in terms of quality or effectiveness. But in terms of sheer entertainment, especially when watching with a group, Deadly Friend is a great laugh and well worth tracking down.

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Deadly Friend‘s rating earns it a place in the hallowed That Was A Bit Mental Hall Of Fame. Click here to see which other films have made the grade.

Its plot also makes it eligible for the site’s special Proper Mental section, in which only those films with the maddest plots are featured.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?
Criminally, Deadly Friend has yet to see a DVD release in the UK. Americans can get the standalone DVD but if I were you I wouldn’t bother, as it’s also available cheaper (for some reason) as part of a four-film set along with Eyes Of A Stranger, The Hand and Someone’s Watching Me. This set can also be imported through Amazon UK if you have a multi-region DVD player.

SHOW ME THE TRAILER:
Note: it’s worth bearing in mind that the trailer paints the film in a completely different light. Selling it as a pure horror movie, it completely ignores all the robot stuff and pretends Samantha is just evil. Interesting stuff.

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