Deadly Friend (1986)

A genius teenager with a cute but highly intelligent robot.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for one thing you can end up in the wrong movie.  Before you know it, the crazy neighbor has blown away the robot, and the cute teenaged girl next door has been killed by her abusive father.

So naturally, in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ad moment gone wrong, the boy combines the two!

This is a Wes Craven film, made not too long after Nightmare on Elm Street, so naturally there are some gruesome dreams and more serious elements like child abuse.  On the other hand, we start out with a slightly more disturbing version of the sort of cute robot movies being made at the time (I’m reasonably certain that Johnny Five never stopped a motorcycle gang leader by grabbing him by the…ummm, “cojones”).  The two do not exactly seem to gel, and we never really get any hint of anything remotely resembling an explanation for why putting a cute, friendly robot CPU in the head of the equally friendly nice girl next door is suddenly going to lead to a series of messy murders.

But I guess it wouldn’t be an Eighties horror film without a serial killer.

I am a little surprised to note that Short Circuit came out the same year, as I more or less assumed Wes was deliberately referencing it.  Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall also came out in 1986, so I suppose robot movies must just have come into fashion. Or, in other words, blame Star Wars.  The robot itself seems to be remote controlled and mechanical rather than a guy in a suit:  it actually looks quite good and resembles some of the real life machines that have been built.

Anne Ramsay, who made a career out of playing utterly detestable characters, plays the crazy neighbor, and loses her head in one of the film’s messier, basketball-related moments.

However the most bizarre bit of gore comes at the very end, when we get a totally unexplained transformation:  it is a stunning bit of effects work, and quit effectively done, but makes no sense.  Certainly nothing up to that point in the film even hints at such a possibility.  Unfortunately it is jarring and wrong and just doesn’t fit.    It would have made more sense to have it revealed as a dream, only to have him wake up to find Sam there, saying “I’m back.”

But, from all accounts, Mark Canton, the head of the studio, came up with the idea.  Naturally, no one dared say no to him.  

They should have.

From what I’ve found, this is more or less what happened with the rest of the film:  Warner Brothers insisted on the “Wes Craven” stuff, with the dreams and the gorier murder scenes, and drastically changed what Wes thought would be his Starman, a career changing atypical film, a supernatural love story, that would show he could do something other than Freddie Krueger.

Well, that didn’t work.

There is a certain lack of internal consistency here that is typical of the horror films of the era which had SF elements:  horror relies on atmosphere and effect, while science fiction expects things to fit into a rational pattern.  The studio’s demands do seem to be one of the main reasons for this inconsistency, although I get the impression that the original version would undoubtedly have had many of the same difficulties.  This remains a problem these days, particularly with films that are specifically aimed at the horror market.  Many of the more recent SF horror films (particularly the Indies) have at least tried to bring a little more consistency to the combination, but it requires a lot of discipline and attention to detail — and a lot more work — to do this.

I suspect Deadly Friend will be more pleasing to horror fans than SF fans, although I’m not sure how they’ll react either.  Wes made better films than this:  some of its elements just don’t either fit or make much sense.  Perhaps he just tried to do too much, combining such disparate things as cute robots, teen romance and the slasher film.  It’s a brave try, but he doesn’t quite bring it off.

No wonder it is one of his least remembered films.

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