Bringing you the fascinating story behind Wes Craven’s dubious genre mash
Wes Craven was never one to rest on his laurels. A creative force who twice redefined the slasher genre, he would earn a reputation as one of horror‘s most innovative directors thanks to a series of seminal films that won him a generation of loyal fans. In 1972, Craven’s controversial exploitation vehicle The Last House on the Left, a grungy retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring fuelled by protracted scenes of rape and torture, was almost universally condemned by critics and promptly banned in several countries, but the film was much more than a mindless punt at commercial infamy.
Released towards the end of the Vietnam War, Craven’s inhumanly violent debut spoke to a generation ravaged by the horrors of conflict, images that were beamed directly into living rooms across America. Soldiers had been dehumanised to the extent that rape and torture became everyday occurrences, a cycle of anonymous revenge wiping out generations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The emergence of ritualistic killers such as the Manson family, resulting in America’s infamous Satanic Panic, also introduced indiscriminate acts of violence to the mainstream. The supernatural villains of yesterday were quickly becoming a thing of the past, replaced by tangible threats that were much closer to home. If critics were horrified by what they saw in The Last House on the Left, it wasn’t because Craven had produced something worthless. It was because the film’s events were just a little too close for comfort.
Produced by future Friday the 13th creator Sean S. Cunningham, The Last House on the Left was a huge financial success, the film’s widespread controversy bringing in approximately $3,100,000 on a budget of only $87,000 — a tidy sum for such a low-risk production. Craven would continue to plug away on meagre budgets for more than a decade in the tradition of contemporaries George A. Romero and John Carpenter, 1977’s similarly infamous The Hills Have Eyes, a film that saw a band of cannibalistic savages terrorise an everyday suburban family, managing an incredible $25,000,000 on a budget of only $700,000, but it was 1984’s sleeper hit A Nightmare On Elm Street that announced the indie filmmaker as a major Hollywood player.
Craven had already proven his filmmaking nous, but in an era of commercially astute masked killers it was a marquee attraction he craved, and in Robert Englund’s horrifically scarred child killer, Fred Krueger, he dreamed up one of the most iconic. Like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees before him, Krueger spawned the kind of undying franchise that transformed a faltering production company into a surging goldmine. So successful was Craven’s creation that Robert Shaye’s New Line Cinema was dubbed ‘The house that Freddy built’, but Craven’s artistic foundations were about to come tumbling down.
Galvanised by a once in a lifetime concept that prolonged the lifespan of the moribund slasher, A Nightmare on Elm Street proved Craven’s most successful film by some distance, raking in a whopping $57,000,000, which for a movie that cost less than $2,000,000 was an achievement for all involved, not least the creative force responsible for such a game-changing slice of money-spinning magic. A Nightmare on Elm Street would prove just as successful on home video the following year, Jack Sholder’s much anticipated sequel Freddy’s Revenge already set for release. After years of pushing the Elm Street concept without so much as a bite, the character’s creator was suddenly hot property, and with the inimitable Krueger becoming horror’s newest poster boy, it was only inevitable that a major studio would come calling,
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.Neighbour
That studio just happened to be Warner Brothers, who were eager to collaborate with Craven on his latest project, a silver screen adaptation of Diana Henstell’s 1985 science-fiction novel Friend. Craven and writer Bruce Joel Rubin, who had been brought in to lighten the load while the filmmaker fulfilled directing commitments on The Twilight Zone TV series, envisaged the film as a serious sci-fi drama that focused on a tragic love story. Craven may have made his name through horror and exploitation vehicles, but he felt he had more to offer, seeing his first big studio outing as a chance to broaden his horizons and distance himself from a genre he’d become hopelessly synonymous with. As he would stress to a then 16-year-old Kristy Swanson, this was to be his Starman, a movie John Carpenter made for the exact same reasons following a run of career-defining horrors such as Halloween.
Craven’s intentions were doomed from the outset. Warner Brothers initially backed their prized director’s thematic deviation, but when the original cut failed to impress a test audience clamouring for more Krueger, citing a lack of gore for their indifference, the project slipped almost completely out of his grasp. Craven had made waves as something of a guerrilla filmmaker, going against convention by delivering unique movies that gained traction off the back of commercial dissidence, but now he’d been shackled by the harsh realities of studio commercialism. He had made his name as a horror director, and horror was exactly what audiences, and by proxy Warner Brothers, demanded.
Initially titled Friend, Artificial Intelligence and A.I., the film was eventually burdened with the more commercially savvy Deadly Friend as a way to capitalise on the 80s horror boom, an indicator of the production’s shifting tone. In order to meet audience demands, the studio 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. Craven, who was already busy penning the first draft of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, was forced to return during post-production, delivering a series of rushed sequences at the behest of Warner Brothers, who had already demanded that Rubin shoehorn in six additional gore scenes, making much of what they had already shot nonsensical and irrelevant.
To achieve this, Swanson’s Samantha, initially written as a fragile victim at the mercy of a community of human monsters, was senselessly transformed into a textbook stalk-and-slash killer, offing a series of characters without any real rhyme or reason, something that was completely at odds with the original concept. As Craven would outline when discussing his initial vision, “The scares don’t come from [Samantha], but from the ordinary people, who are actually much more frightening. A father who beats a child is a terrifying figure. That’s the one person you’re afraid of in the movie. The idea is along the lines that adults can be horrible, without being outside what society says is acceptable.”
Warner’s theatrical cut would reflect poorly on Craven in a year that proved rather unkind to the filmmaker. As well as a failed marriage and a major lawsuit, he would find himself removed from two major productions that promised to cement his mainstream presence. The playfully cynical Beetlejuice, a movie that eventually went to an up-and-coming Tim Burton, may have been something of a missed opportunity, but the financial disaster that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a production that hammered a rather large nail in the coffin of The Cannon Group’s ill-judged mainstream aspirations, was probably a bullet best dodged.
Craven was overwhelmed enough with his first big studio endeavour to disown Deadly Friend along with screenwriter Rubin, the film quickly fading into obscurity, but Craven would fail to swerve the kind of critical backlash that put the blame squarely in his lap. Unaware of the film’s production problems, critics would write Deadly Friend off as a Krueger-esque rehash, not as a result of studio interference, but because of Craven’s perceived 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 theatrical cut of Deadly Friend is a mess of stitched-together body parts, beginning as a macabre 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. Craven had clashed with producers before, most notably with New Line’s Robert Shaye over the sequel-setting ending to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Shaye was a friend with a similar passion for movies, the two reaching an agreement that left the movie open to a sequel without completely jeopardising Craven’s vision, but major studio politics are typically far less open to compromise, his first real struggle with the many-tentacled beast of mainstream Hollywood a suffocating one creatively. In the documentary The Directors – The Films of Wes Craven, the filmmaker would admit, “I’m amazed that anything came out of that film—that it’s watchable whatsoever.”
A damning assertion, but in a weird and wonderful way, Deadly Friend is infinitely watchable, the kind of cinematic car crash you can watch on repeat in slow motion, one tainted by so much senseless intrusion it works on a grossly bizarre level rarely glimpsed on a big studio budget. How many films reduced to B-movie inanity can boast a $20,000, fully operational robot so sturdy in construction it was able to lift up to 7,500 pounds in weight? Of course, this was the 80s, a time when naïve technological speculations determined that bigger was better, and you’d be hard-pressed to find something so lavishly kitsch, a banana-yellow eyesore with eyes constructed from 1950s camera lenses, a garage remote control unit and a radio antenna taken from an old Corvette.
Despite an outcry from Deadly Friend enthusiasts demanding that Craven’s original vision be released as a director’s cut, Warner Brothers seem to have no intention of going to such lengths for a commercial catastrophe that was swept under the proverbial rug more than thirty years ago, and that’s assuming the original footage even exists at all. There’s no way of knowing how well Craven’s original vision would have aged in its original, intended form. Rubin certainly thought highly of it, claiming that his initial 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 the cast’s best efforts. 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.
Deadly Friend is the story of a robotics whizz-kid named Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux), an overeducated loner who finds solace in his loyal robot, BB, 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 BB’s circuit board and attaches it to Samantha’s brain ― a risky experiment that brings her back to life, but one that alters her temperament irrevocably.
This may seem like a concept destined for the heights of absurdity, but handled correctly movies with such a fantastical premise can really connect with audiences. Shelley’s Frankenstein is two-hundred years old and still relevant thematically, 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, our ill-fated couple have such little onscreen time together pre-accident 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, issues of morality also raised by Paul’s concerned 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, 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 descend into comical innuendo, Sam’s vengeful finale malapropos to the original character. In the movie, BB is blasted to smithereens by grumpy suburbanite Elvira (Anne Ramsey). The original idea was to have BB 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 wronged her, but in the end Sam becomes the kind of senseless, non-discriminatory killer who is barely deserving of our empathy.
Then there’s the movie’s dream sequences, which inevitably draw 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 extreme overactor mode, cackling malevolently and covering Sam in geysers of blood through the kind of phallic ornament that screams ejaculation. This is Freddy through and through.
Another dream sequence is straight out of the Elm Street handbook. Even Charles Bernstein’s score, less affecting than his ‘Nightmare’ classic, inhabits that same ethereal realm. In this particular scene Paul is startled to see a figure crawling beneath his bed covers. The movie implies that this is Sam offering a little undead titillation, but we’re shocked to realise that it’s actually her dead father. Not only does he cackle Krueger-style, he’s sporting the freshly burnt face that led to his death ― a murder that took place in… you guessed it, a boiler room.
To make matters worse, Warner Brothers also had the Motion Picture Association of America to contend with at the height of horror movie censorship, meaning the film was subjected to substantial cuts after the fact. Craven had initially intended for the film to carry a PG rating, and now he was faced with fighting to retain the kind of violence he was dead against from the outset. Worst affected was the film’s most memorable, exploding head kill, one created using real cow brains picked up at a butcher’s shop.
“On Deadly Friend, we had a scene where a nasty old lady gets her head knocked off with a basketball,” Craven would explain. “The actual scene as it was originally cut was fabulous. She was running around the room like a chicken with its head cut off for ten, fifteen seconds. It was bizarre and wonderful and they cut the shit out of it. So I compiled what we called our “Decapitation Compilation,” all the films that I knew of that had decapitations in them that had an R, and sent it to them. They immediately sent it back saying they just base it on what they feel in the room at the time. And we had like eight or ten films in there, like The Omen where the guy gets his head cut off by the sheet of glass, and it didn’t matter to them. There is no consistency. And because they’ve been pressured legally they won’t even say anything very specific about what you have to cut – mostly what you get is a note. They’ll tell you, ‘This part of the movie, between footage 300 and 650, is too intense so cut down the intensity.’ You look at them like, that’s what I’m doing, I’m trying to make an intense scene. And they say, ‘Yeah, but it’s too intense and if a child should happen to walk in the theater it might damage him.’ What child? It’s the phantom child! It’s very difficult, especially as a filmmaker in this genre. It’s the last few moments of your making of this particular film and you’re crunched for time and money and suddenly you have to stop what this group of people think, and you have to change it. You’re already in your mix so every change is gruesomely complicated. It goes on and on.”
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!Tom
Most misplaced is the dream sequence which constitutes the movie’s absurd false ending. I say dream sequence because it’s the most logical way to come to terms with it, though there’s no real evidence to confirm it as one. This scene, more than any other, is an indicator of the extent of studio interference Craven was forced to endure. 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 tragic 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 BB rapping. That’s right, they even throw in a rapping robot in an utterly delirious and inexplicable send-off. It’s all so silly and misguided.
Not Craven’s best idea . . . in fact, not Craven’s idea at all, or anyone else involved in the creative process. This see-it-to-believe-it ending was actually the brainchild of Canton himself, who got so wrapped-up in altering Deadly Friendly he seemingly took on the role of uncredited writer. In an interview with Fangoria at the turn of the 90s, 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 ultimately guns her down and brings an end to her protracted spell of undead torture. Ultimately, the film ditches any semblance of logicality for pure, nonsensical chaos.
To be fair, it’s all pretty memorable stuff, and in its own inimitable way so is the movie. Deadly Friend may be famous for its ludicrously graphic, exploding head sequence, one clearly tacked-on for the baying gore hounds (if you haven’t seen it, please do so), but there’s plenty more fun to be had with this cruelly abandoned ode to 80s horror, a breathtaking example of corporate power wielding its creative miseducation. Craven and his crew 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 seems worth a punt. Despite his best efforts, Craven never really left the shadow of his most famous, razor-fingered creation, and as an older, wiser man, I’m sure he didn’t see this as a negative. With all the success it brought him, with all the projects it enabled him to get off the ground, why should he?
Marketed as a straight-up horror movie with none of Craven’s original tone or intentions, the filmmaker’s first major studio foray represented his first commercial failure, failing to break even with a paltry $8,988,731 on a budget of $11,000,000. The fact that the trailer would focus on the movie’s kill scenes without a single shot of BB, instead implying that the film would be something along the lines of A Nightmare on Elm Street, must have been a painful sight for writer and director, and a disappointing one for audiences sold a creative fugazi.
A decade after Deadly Friend‘s release, Wes would make fresh waves with innovative slasher homage Scream, a self-deconstructing masterpiece that would revitalise the genre, spawning a franchise for a new generation, and Rubin would go on to win a Best Screenplay Oscar for supernatural romantic drama Ghost (1990). Rubin, in particular, was grateful for his time on Deadly Friend, not least because the $36,000 he earned saved him from financial ruin during the months-long Writers Guild strike. As for creative renegade Mark Canton, he is still rich beyond his wildest dreams, so everybody wins. The only thing missing is a lovely 4k transfer of an irresistibly kooky affair, and the Craven director’s cut we all deserve. With Deadly Friend but a distant memory, one can only dream of such a development, even if those dreams are misplaced and devoid of all logical purpose.