Somewhere along the way, the idea that Wes Craven was a genius became accepted fact. While I enjoy A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes just fine, so many of his films fall apart and feel wildly uneven.
Case in point: 1986’s Deadly Friend.
The film was intended to be a science fiction film, based on the novel Friend by Diana Henstell. After Craven’s original cut was shown to a test audience, the audience felt let down that there weren’t any nightmare scenes or gore shocks. So the studio imposed reshoots and a new edit, ending in a film that veers from the wacky comedy hijinks of a robotic best friend with an old woman’s head being exploded with a basketball. Nearly any plot development was lost and we’re left with a main character who feels like an utter creep. A second set of test audiences hated the graphic violence and gore. You just can’t win.
That said — Wes Craven’s output is often marked by explanations of studio interference and bad test screenings and screwed up budgets. I understand that Hollywood is rough and the ghetto of horror movies — which he yearned to escape — doesn’t matter all that much to the bean counters. But seriously — there are more excuses than successes in the oeuvre of Craven.
Teenage science genius Paul Conway (Matthew Laborteaux, Little House on the Prairie star and former U.S. Pac-Man champion) and his single mom have just moved to town. Paul’s got one friend so far, newspaper boy Tom Toomey (Michael Sharrett, Theodore Rex and Savage Dawn). In one of their first conversations, they discuss withdrawn next door neighbor Samantha Pringle (Kristy Swanson, the future Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but mainly discuss her breasts. Yes, the boys of 1986 didn’t even hide what sexist jerks they were.
Samantha and Paul get close when she’s not being beaten into oblivion by her dad Harry (Richard Marcus, who played Dr. William Raines on the TV series The Pretender). But there’s a silver lining — they all have a robotic friend named B.B. that Paul built when he isn’t taking over the college classes he’s attending early or doing autopsies. And oh yeah — B.B. is voiced by Charles Fleischer, whose sub-Robin Williams mania only really worked in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Here, his voicing of B.B. will instantly remind you of Roger while grating on you with each successive second of screen time.
Other than the abusive dad and a motorcycle gang, the kids’ main enemy is the old lady who lives next door, Elvira Parker (Anne Ramsey from The Goonies and Throw Mama From the Train; it seems this was the role she did best, a harridan who makes people want to kill her). Instead of a tender Home Alone explanation of why she hates kids, she’s a one-note villain: she steals basketballs and fires shotguns, including a harrowing scene (or joy-inducing if you’re as annoyed by this robot as I was) where she murders B.B. with several blasts of hot lead.
After a Thanksgiving night first kiss with Paul, Sam’s dad gets so upset that he ends up shoving her down the steps to her death. She soon expires, leading Paul to go insane and try to bring her back to life with the chip he saved from B.B. This leaves us with Sam as a proto-goth robot zombie with superhuman strength.
What follows is pretty much why this movie is well-known — you’ve probably seen the animated GIF of Elvira’s head being splatted by a basketball — which is wall-to-wall mayhem. People get thrown through cop car windows, Sam dives from a second-story window and lands on her feet to no one’s surprise at all and the end if laughably tacked on, trying to be an ersatz Carrie, with her face graphically splitting open to reveal the visage of B.B. before she kills Paul. Also — the requisite studio asked for dream sequences are here and ready to bleed all over your eyeballs.
PS — that ending is also totally a studio conceit. Writer Bruce Joel Rubin told Fangoria, “That robot coming out of the girl’s head belongs solely to Mark Canton, and you don’t tell the president of Warner Brothers that his idea stinks!”
Seriously — executive vice president of Warner Brothers Mark Canton went mathematic on this film — demanding additional gore scenes be added to the film, each progressing in visceral excess. For his part, Craven would distance himself from the film, feeling that his vision had been compromised. Dude — you were making a movie about a girl being turned into a robot. He dreamed of crossing over like John Carpenter did with Starman. At the risk of being a jerk, I’ll just say what I’m feeling: Wes Craven was no John Carpenter.
Maybe I should be a little nicer. After all, Craven was dealing with anywhere from eight to twenty different producers on this film, as well as a divorce and being pulled from Beetlejuice and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Wow — I would actually love to see what Craven would have done with that one! He was also in the midst of a plagiarism lawsuit, as someone claimed that he had stolen the idea for A Nightmare On Elm Street from them. Craven claimed that he worked on Deadly Friend because his agent said to him, “You should do a studio film, because otherwise you’ll be stuck doing small films for the rest of your life.”
As for Rubin, he’d deal with similar studio interference on a later project, Jacob’s Ladder. Ah, Hollywood.