Bringing you the fascinating story behind Wes Craven’s dubious genre mash-up
Wes Craven was never one to rest on his laurels. A creative force who twice redefined the slasher genre, he would make his name as a horror movie director thanks to a series of low-budget films that would win him a generation of loyal fans. After making waves with grungy efforts The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, he would finally burst onto the mainstream with 1984‘s A Nightmare On Elm Street, his most famous character Fred Krueger spawning the kind of franchise that turned faltering production company New Line Cinema into a surging goldmine. So successful was Craven’s creation that New Line was dubbed ‘The house that Freddy built’, but Craven’s artistic foundations were about to come tumbling down.
Craven saw Deadly Friend as a way to distance himself from the genre he had become synonymous with. Originally conceived as a serious sci-fi drama focusing on the macabre romance of its lead actors, his original vision would fail to impress a test audience who clamoured for more Krueger, citing a lack of gore as the reason for their indifference. As he would stress to a then 16-year-old Kristy Swanson during production, this was to be his Starman, a movie John Carpenter made for the exact same reasons following a run of career-defining horror movies such as Halloween.
Craven had a very different vision for Deadly Friend, but in order to meet the demands of its test audience the movie would ditch entire scenes that were essential to character development, replacing them with a series of nonsensical dream sequences designed to tap into the Krueger pipeline. This would lead to a commercial and critical backlash in a year that proved rather unkind to Craven. As well as a failed marriage and major lawsuit, the filmmaker would find himself removed from two major productions that promised to cement his mainstream presence, and though Beetlejuice may have been a missed opportunity, the financial disaster that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was probably a bullet best dodged.
Neighbor: Old man Pringle and Mrs. Parker, both dead. His face was burned off.
Paul Conway: Elvira Parker?
Neighbor: Yeah, I heard somebody say she called the police. Said she saw Sam in her bedroom window. From what I hear, Elvira’s head’s all over the walls in there.
Still, Craven was overwhelmed enough to disown Deadly Friend along with screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, and although the film would quickly fade into obscurity Craven would fail to dodge a critical backlash that put the blame squarely in his lap. Unaware of the movie’s production problems, critics would write the movie off as a Krueger-esque rehash, not as a result of studio interference, but because of Craven’s lack of originality and unwillingness to vacate the shadow of his former success, the very accusations he was aiming to avoid.
It’s easy to see how critics could have jumped to such a conclusion. A loose re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the movie’s content is a mess of stitched-together body parts, beginning as a darkly sweet love story and turning hastily graphic, bookended by seemingly anomalous scenes either at pains to convey the production’s altered tone or simply tacked-on for shock value. Though Craven had clashed with producers before, most notably with New Line’s Robert Shaye over the sequel-setting ‘Elm Street’ ending, this was Craven’s first production for a major studio and his first real struggle with the many-tentacled beast of mainstream Hollywood. In the documentary The Director’s – The Film’s of Wes Craven, the filmmaker remarked, “I’m amazed that anything came out of that film—that it’s watchable whatsoever.”
But on the level of gross intrigue the movie is watchable. In fact, through the forgiving lens of hindsight it is quite the favourable oddity, a movie tainted by so much intrusion that it works on a bizarre level. In spite of an outcry from Deadly Friend enthusiasts demanding that Craven’s original shoot be released as a director’s cut, Warner Brothers seem to have no intention of going to such lengths for a movie that was swept under the proverbial rug more than thirty years ago. There is no way of knowing what Craven’s original may have looked like in its intended form, though writer Ruben claims that the script made then Vice President of Warner Brothers, Lucy Fisher, cry―though she probably wasn’t the first Hollywood executive to shed a tear for the good of the company.
The scenes that do remain, bathed in the dreamy filter of maudlin romance, offer nothing but schlock stripped of Craven’s character development. It’s all very silly and off-kilter, despite our cast’s best efforts. It’s hard to gauge whether it was impressive back in 1986, but the years have not been kind to the movie’s resident Johnny 5, BeeBee, either, presenting viewers with a high-tech contraption that is well past its sell-by-date, and was probably bordering on the kitsch even back then. But in order to understand Craven’s original vision, one has to look to those scenes not included in the final cut, most of them essential to strengthening a central narrative that comes across as hokey and ill-conceived.
Adapted from the novel Friend by Diana Henstell, the renamed Deadly Friend is the story of a robotics whizz-kid named Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux), an overeducated loner who finds solace in his loyal robot until he moves home and falls head over heels with his new neighbour. But sweetheart Samantha (Swanson) — incredibly assured for such a young actress — has her own problems in the form of a physically abusive father, and when he knocks her down the stairs and accidentally kills her, science geek Paul removes the microchip from BeeBee’s circuit board and attaches it to her brain―a risky experiment that brings her back to life, but one that alters her temperament irrevocably.
This may seem like a concept that is destined for the ridiculous, but handled correctly movies with such a fantastical premise can really connect with an audience. Shelley’s Frankenstein is two-hundred years old and is still relevant in regards to theme, but ‘handled correctly’ is the key phrase here, and thanks to the studio’s bloodlust and lack of creative nous the story has no real time to flourish, resulting in a mishmash of random ideas designed to titillate rather than educate.
For one thing, Paul and Sam have so little onscreen time together that Paul’s extreme solution comes across as deranged and unearned. According to an essay entitled Deadly Friend: An Autopsy by Joseph Maddrey, the original cut gave us a strengthening bond based on shared experiences such as the absence of parents (Sam’s mother and Paul’s father), which helps explain the motivations behind Sam’s reanimated monster, while moral issues were also raised by Paul’s professor. Without these developments, Paul seems less like a hopeless romantic forced into extreme and dire measures, more a creepy pervert with an idiot’s logic, particularly when he begins to cover up his zombified lover’s murderous misdeeds.
Perhaps Craven’s vision would have worked given the opportunity, but as an audience we can only deal with what is put in front of us, and as a humorously bizarre B-movie Deadly Friend is something of an illogical triumph. In the revamped theatrical cut, potentially grounded moments of real-life turmoil suddenly descend into comical innuendo, Sam’s vengeful finale completely at odds with the story’s original concept. In the movie, BeeBee is blasted to smithereens by grumpy suburbanite Elvira (Anne Ramsey). The original idea was to have BeeBee show a little more resolve in the face of its aggressor, leading to an eventual battle of will between Sam’s dead brain and the robot’s microchip when a reanimated Sam seeks vengeance on those who had wronged her, but in the end Sam becomes the kind of senseless, nondiscriminatory killer who is barely deserving of our empathy.
Then there are the movie’s dream sequences, which inevitably drew the kind of Krueger comparisons Warner Brothers craved. One such sequence sees Sam’s father leering over his sleeping daughter in a moment that hints at abuse of a sexual nature, causing Sam to impale him with a broken vase. Instead of dropping down dead, Mr Pringle (Richard Marcus) goes into overactor mode, cackling malevolently and covering Sam in geysers of blood through the kind of phallic device that screams ejaculation. Another dream sequence is straight out of Elm Street, even down to Charles Bernstein’s score, which, although not as stark as his ‘Nightmare’ classic certainly hovers around those ethereal realms. In this particular scene Paul is startled to see a figure crawling beneath his bed covers. The movie intimates that this is Sam but we are shocked to realise it is actually her dead father. Not only does he cackle Krueger-style, he is sporting the freshly burnt face that led to his death―a murder that took place in . . . you guessed it, a boiler room.
Even more bizarre is the dream sequence which constitutes the movie’s absurd false ending. I say this is a dream sequence because it is the most logical way to come to terms with it, though there is no real evidence to back up this notion. This, more than anything else, is an indicator of the extent of studio interference Craven was forced to suffer. Not satisfied with the community-killing consequences of his initial experiment, the ending in question sees Paul return to the morgue for a second time with the intention of once again reviving his poor love. Luckily for her, or not, or . . .well, it all gets just a little confusing as a second, skeleton-like robot hatches from Sam’s skin and presumably snaps him in two, leading to a bizarre end credits track that features BeeBee rapping.
Tom: Hey, 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!
Not Craven’s best idea . . . in fact, not Craven’s idea at all, or anyone involved in the creative process for that matter. This see-it-to-believe-it ending was actually the brainchild of Warner Brothers president Mark Canton. In an interview with Fangoria at the turn of the ’90’s, screenwriter Bruce Rubin was quoted as saying, “That robot coming out of the girl’s head belongs solely to Mark Canton, and you don’t tell the president of Warner Bros that his idea stinks!” Nor were they quick to dissuade him from having Sam dive through a plate glass window or senselessly run at the cop who would ultimately gun her down and put an end to her protracted spell of undead torture.
To be fair, this is all pretty memorable stuff, and in its own inimitable way so is the movie. Deadly Friend may be famous for its audacious exploding head sequence (if you haven’t seen it, please do so), but there is plenty more fun to be had with this cruelly abandoned ode to the 80’s―a breathtaking example of corporate power wielding its creative miseducation. Craven and co. may have died a slow death during production, and this largely forgotten oddity has since failed to get the Blu-ray treatment in an era when any old crap is worth a punt. But in the end, Craven never really left the shadow of his most famous, razor-fingered creation, and as a wiser man I’m sure he didn’t see this as a negative. Why would he?
A decade after Deadly Friend, Wes would make fresh waves with innovative slasher homage Scream, a self-refelxive masterpiece that would spawn a franchise for a whole new generation, while Rubin would go on to win the Best Screenplay Oscar for supernatural romantic drama Ghost (1990). As for creative renegade Mark Canton, he is still rich beyond his wildest dreams, so everybody wins. The only thing missing is a lovely new Blu-ray of an irresistibly kooky affair and the Craven director’s cut we all deserve to see. In the end, one can only dream, even if those dreams are misplaced and devoid of all logical purpose.