Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, July 19, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1986)

10. Deadly Friend

I have an inordinate amount of affection for “Deadly Friend.” It’s not a great movie. It might not even be a good movie. And yet I find myself returning to it more then any other film in Wes Craven’s career. Unlike other not-good movies that I love anyway, the exact reason why I keep returning to Paul, Sam, and B.B. alludes me. Each viewing is like a puzzle, examining the flawed single pieces and trying to figure out why they come together to form such an appealing whole.

Based on the honestly not-bad young adult novel “Friend” by Diane Henstell, “Deadly Friend” follows young Paul Conway and his mother moving to a new town in Pennsylvania. Paul is a young genius and has built a fully functional robot best friend named B.B. Though he’s close to B.B., Paul has a hard time forming bonds with people. That is until he meets Sam, the lovely girl next door. Unfortunately, events align to rob Paul of the two people he loves most in his life, causing the young scientist to take things into his own hands and reveal himself as a modern Dr. Frankenstein.

“Deadly Friend” is a compromised picture. This was the first attempt by Wes to move away from the horror genre. Originally conceived as a more family friendly boy-and-his-robot story, released perhaps not coincidentally the same year as “Short Circuit” and probably inspired by “Gremlins,” the first cut tested soft. The studio demanded that this Wes Craven movie actually become a Wes Craven movie. The director shot and inserted a handful of gory sequences to transform the picture into a proper horror film. This schizophrenic birth is blatantly obvious in the final product. “Deadly Friend” shifts back and forth between cutesy kid antics and over-the-top horror gore set pieces.

The kids’ movie roots are still evident, most obviously in the character of B.B. The robot pushes suspension of disbelief too far. First off, we have to buy that Paul invented artificial intelligence in his garage. B.B. has a distinct personality, can learn, and is completely autonomous. B.B. speaks in his own language, an annoying collection of bleeps, grumbling, and repetitions of his own name. B.B.’s audio is provided by Charles Fleischer, better known as the voice of Roger Rabbit. So keep your ears open for a familiar sounding trill. The character’s design is overly cute, with his yellow chrome, glowing eyes, and smiling face. When the robot is called on to be dangerous or show rage, the cute design distracts. B.B. also has super-strength, which the film displays in the worse possible way, with a piano being stop-motion tossed across a room. All of these wacky robot shenanigans contrasts badly with the serious subject matter of child abuse.

It’s very clear where the harsher horror elements have been hastily inserted. There’s an opening jump scare, making this seem like a very different type of film and further attempting to establish adorable B.B. as a creditable threat. There are two nightmare sequences that were obviously inserted to cash in on “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The first one begins with a disturbing suggestion of sexual abuse, which makes it careening into campy, over-the-top gore even more off-putting. The second has a nice build-up, panning from the outside of the house to the bottom of a bed. However, the eventual pay-off is silly and, once again, unrelated to the film’s actual themes. The first murder in the film builds all right and makes good use of a basement’s shadows. Sadly, an actor’s ridiculous death face ends the whole thing in laughter.

If the movie is remembered for anything, it’s for the infamous exploding head. It’s clearly the center piece of the film. The scene involves a slow build-up. The frightened old woman sees the resurrected Swanson in the neighboring window. It’s a potentially interesting moment that doesn’t quite work. Slowly, the movie piles on the atmosphere. We see close-ups on the lock coming undone. The open gate blows in the wind. A door creaks open. A basketball slowly bounces into frame. It’s the film's only moment of genuine suspense. A jump scare deflates a lot of that tension. But then again, the exploding head. The graphic gore doesn’t match the film’s overall tone. An exploded head and decapitated body twitching around, blood spurting everywhere, really doesn’t fit. The effects are obvious but awesome. The scene encapsulates all of the film’s problems but, taken on its own, is amazing.

Matthew Labyorteaux, looking much older then his fifteen year old character, is technically the lead actor. Labyorteaux occasionally underplays it. He doesn’t show much grief when loosing the love of his life nor is their any wonder when he realizes his plans to recreate life are successful. Sometimes, he goes in the opposite direction. Watching his beloved pet robot killed in front of him would surely be a traumatic experience. However, Labyorteaux cries of agony are deeply overdone. The general melodramatic presentation of the scene doesn’t help any. Even then, Labyorteaux does get a moment a two, especially in the film’s second act.

He has top billing but Kristy Swanson is the star. Swanson has a naturalistic charm that makes her a deeply convincing girl next door. She seems like a perfectly normal, adorable teenage girl. Her wide, expressive eyes is used fantastically, especially in the latter portion of the film where Swanson only has her face to act with. The two teen leads have strong chemistry together and it’s mostly Swanson’s doing. A moment when she comes to the house, nose bloodied, is great. Sam shrugs the abuse off and stands by her father, even if he is a bastard. Though it starts out appropriately awkward, their love is sincere and pure. Another fantastic, small moment is when Sam celebrates Thanksgiving with Paul and his Mom. The romance between the two teens is the heart and soul of the film. Maybe the sweetest moment in the movie comes after Sam’s resurrection, when she has realized what happened. The two teens sit across from one another, desperately wanting to hold each other but unable to. The movie attempts to capture romantic longing and teen angst throughout but only that moment is truly successful. Over all, far too much of the Sam and Paul’s budding relationship is glossed over.

It’s a good thing that the two leads are strong because the supporting cast is seriously thin. It’s not the cast’s fault but rather the script’s. Sam’s father is immediately, obviously evil. A scene of him glaring at an empty liquor bottle is especially heavy handed. Even after accidentally injuring his daughter, he shows no guilt or remorse. It doesn’t help that Richard Marcus seriously overplays it. Similarly, Anne Ramsey is nothing but cartoonish. She is obsessed with protecting her property and calling the cops on the teens, a complete cliché. Even Michael Sharrett as Paul’s other human friend is problematic. Sharrett does okay in the part but the subplot doesn’t add up to much. Sharrett is mostly in the movie to help out during the hospital heist sequence, a moment that is far too madcap considering what’s at stakes. That character’s arc is eventually handled in a sloppy, unsatisfying manner, the typical cliché of male friends coming to blows over a girl.

Aside from the moments of gory violence, Craven has difficulty creating decent suspense in “Deadly Friend.” A moment when Sam returns home to a seemingly empty house builds decently and plays off of Swanson’s natural vulnerability. Once again, it dissipates into a lame jump scare and broad characterization. There’s a long moment involving sleeping powder in a coffee mug. I’m not sure if that sequence is going for laughs or thrills. Only his visual presentation is strong, making good use of shadows, open space, and scene transition.

The tonal issue affecting “Deadly Friend” eventually causes the film to almost collapse in the last act. Like electricity and radiation in the past, it’s decided that microchips can do anything. Once Sam and B.B. are occupying the same body, Swanson starts to move in a stiff, robotic fashion. Her motionless facial features are fine, eerie even. However, the way she holds her arms and hands is really goofy. The premise becomes impossible to take seriously during the finale, when you have a small teenage girl leaping through windows, battering boys her own age, and lifting adult men over her head. To make matters worse, Sam eventually starts speaking with B.B.’s silly, computerized voice. The inept visual robs the scenes of any emotional impact they should have. Even the final, poetic image of Paul holding Sam’s lifeless body is ruined by the pointless, senseless pre-credits scare. It doesn’t make any sense, goes against the characters as we know them, and features a rather silly looking robot mask. Even Charles Bernstein’s score is conflicted, jumping back and forth from whimsical strings to throbbing synth.

I think what fascinates me about “Deadly Friend” is its potential. The story tackles teen romance, child abuse, family, loss, grief, and re-purposes classic horror concepts in a modern setting. The movie is a prime target for a remake, one that could better synthesize those themes into a more cohesive whole. It’s hard to say if Wes Craven’s originally intended version of “Deadly Friend” would be a better movie. The version we have is something of a spectacular mess, several beautiful elements shining through the tonal inconsistency. [Grade: B]

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