Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Census Bloodbath: You've Got A Friend In Me

Year: 1986
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Matthew Labyorteaux, Kristy Swanson, Michael Sharrett 
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

At first, I didn’t include Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend on my list of flicks to watch for Census Bloodbath. It certainly seemed to have elements of a slasher film, but from the descriptions I read, it seemed too on the fringe to really count. Well, now that I’ve seen it, I know that that’s just it’s nature. It’s on the fringe of almost every genre that’s ever existed, being as it is a 6-car pileup between Weird Science, Doogie Howser M.D., The Last House on the Left, Gremlins, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. So I might as well throw it in. You know I love me some Wes Craven, and this is our last chance to include him in this project.

And at the very least it has a higher body count than Road Games.

In Deadly Friend, Paul Conway (Matthew Labyorteaux) is new in town, having moved to be a guest lecturer and student at the local college, even though he’s only supposed to be in 10th grade. You see, he’s one of them 80’s Teen Supergeniuses™, and he has created an artificially intelligent robot named BB who babbles incessantly like a Mogwai and is essentially a member of the family (funnily enough, an original title for this movie was going to be A.I.). For about half an hour, it’s basically a five pound Disney Channel Original Movie stuffed with ten pounds of 80’s teen movie tropes (the reclusive old lady next door, the herniated cuteness of BB, the preposterously evil bully roaming the streets… I could go on for hours).

Then the Craven kicks in (as does the studio interference, forcing the teen romp into a more hardcore horror framework that would allegedly appeal to Elm Street fans). Sam is killed by her abusive alcoholic father, so Paul implants her brain with BB’s chip to bring her back to life, whereupon she goes rogue and begins summarily murdering pretty much everyone in town who has crossed BB in some way.

Literally all of whom appear in the same, brutally efficient exposition scene.

Deadly Friend is certainly not Wes Craven’s worst film, but it’s probably his most inconsistent. Even more than Shocker, which must have taken a Herculean effort. It was one of his earliest attempts to break away from the horror genre, and clearly two hits a decade apart didn’t gather enough steam to allow him to break that barrier. Deadly Friend runs face-first into that barrier and crashes to the ground in a pile of broken springs and frayed wiring.

However, though the individual parts never ever ever congeal into something resembling a coherent whole, some of them are pretty damn solid. Two nightmare sequences that were shoehorned in during reshoots showcase Craven at the top of his game, creating genuinely disturbing, uncanny imagery by blending the underlying themes of the story with a bloody, phantasmagoric atmosphere. They have jack-all to do with the plot, but if I had to choose between a mediocre 80’s movie or a mediocre 80’s movie where an abusive father is stabbed with the stem of a vase and spurts blood all over his daughter’s face, I would choose the latter ten times out of ten.

Unfortunately, these are the only remotely scary or affecting scenes in the entire film. The resurrected Robo-Sam gets to perpetrate a fun kill (most of the deaths are dishwater dull, but one briefly transforms the movie into a cavorting Evil Dead nightmare – more on that later), but Kristy Swanson doing the robot doesn’t exactly make for an iconic movie villain.

She definitely doesn’t get to sit at Freddy and Jason’s table in the lunchroom.

There are also a couple sequence that take a stab at family comedy and actually draw blood. A well-timed exterior shot echoes a similar scene from Elm Street but with an added punchline, and a scene where Paul slips his mom a mickey is twisted and hilarious in the way that only 80’s teen movies could be.

And there really is a strong chemistry between Paul and his paperboy friend/accomplice Tom (Michael Sharrett, who looks like a young Zac Efron if he’d eaten a bagel at any point in his life). Their Ferris-Cameron relationship is well-realized and dynamic. It’s a little bit harder to buy their friendship with Sam, but there’s a warmth on the screen that carries the film a long way.

Unfortunately, none of this comes together into a plot that has any real meaning or even a particularly legible storyline. It’s a half-assed attempt to be a Frankenstein tale for the John Hughes set, and its dismemberment by the studio renders it totally out of control. I’m not saying it would have been a masterpiece if Craven had had final cut, but it certainly wouldn’t be so damn sloppy.

The tone whips from fluffy 80’s cheeseball to slimy domestic terror way too fast, characters vanish from the film for unforgivably huge chunks, and the resolution is both astoundingly dour and irritatingly idiotic. While there are some delicious courses in this cinematic meal, it’s hard to enjoy your filet mignon when someone is pelting you with black licorice and lima beans the entire time.

Killer: Robo-Sam (Kristy Swanson)
Final Girl: Paul Conway (Matthew Labyorteaux)
Best Kill: As immortalized by YouTube, Kristy Swanson uses a basketball to explode an old lady’s head.


Sign of the Times: Paul’s room is decorated with a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven… and a Bruce Springsteen poster.
Scariest Moment: Take your pick of the two flatly horrifying dream sequences.
Weirdest Moment: When the credits roll, they’re accompanied by a song that may or may not have been performed by BB the robot.
Champion Dialogue: “Sometimes I wanna roll a truck over his face.”
Body Count: 4
  1. Sam’s Dad is burned against a boiler and has his neck snapped.
  2. Elvira Parker gets her head exploded with a basketball.
  3. Bully is thrown through a car windshield.
  4. Sam is shot.
TL;DR: It’s a shambles, though at the very least it’s a diverting one.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1035

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