Deadly Friend (1986)
It's been a dark and stormy week here in Dead River, perfect for the beginning of the Halloween season. Mumblings about the possibility of power outages from the storm has Dead Riverians scrambling to the store to stock up on bottled water, non-perishables and bourbon rather than plastic skeletons. That's all right, though, as whenever Dead River gets a heavy rain they usually uncover some real ones. Still, you can feel the beginning of the Halloween season. I think the rain has finally washed away Otis Calhoun's withered jack o' lanterns from last year, but I just saw him drive by in his Dodge Charger with a passenger seat full of fresh pumpkins. And there's a whole aisle at the Winn-Dixie devoted solely to children's costumes, candy corn and plastic skulls that scream. I even found a Medusa head that gave me the creeps. I think that snake hairdo reminds me of that perm I got at Lurleen's Beauty and Gun Shop.
So let's let the Halloween festivities here commence! I've got a 24-pack of Mountain Dew ready and I'd like to keep the Wes Craven love going and start off the 31 Days of Halloween with DEADLY FRIEND (1986).
Did I mention before I have a thing for sarcastic mad scientists? I've personally got an eye on Dave Spencer, at the Dead River Medical Examiner's office because in addition to being a snarkmeister, his high school science fair project involved a re-animated frog with a taste for human flesh. Anyway, DEADLY FRIEND is based on the novel FRIEND by DIANA HENSTELL but DEADLY FRIEND had a notoriously troubled production and apparently the more interesting aspects of HENSTELL's novel were left on the cutting room floor by those money-grubbing greed swine at Warner Brothers. So while the novel is an engaging pre-teen update of FRANKENSTEIN and doomed romance, the movie version is more like a psychotic episode of SMALL WONDER.
So, let's compare, shall we? FRIEND introduces the reader to 13-year-old genius Paul Conway, relocating from Boston to the town of Welling, Pennsylvania with his single-mother, Jeannie. Paul has had his fair share of trauma: the move is not only the result of a divorce (in which dad has opted for a new wife and new family) but also a fiery lab accident in which Paul was partially responsible for another student's death. Paul is also a kid who has difficulty friends: he is alienated from his peers not only by his advanced intelligence but his social awkwardness and feigned arrogance as a defense mechanism. He was also mocked in Boston for his weight, earning the nickname "Piggy." Paul is such a smartypants, though, that he built and programmed a robot named Beebee, who has been his sole friend and companion.
In DEADLY FRIEND, Paul is about 16, chiseled handsome and trim (played by MATTHEW LABYORTEAUX of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRE and the terrific A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE) but still moving to Welling with his single mother and sickeningly cute robot. However, there is no backstory about the divorce. No grief for an ended marriage from Jeannie, no conflict about now having to raise a challenging son on her own, no feelings of rejection from Paul about his father's abandonment, no grief and guilt about the lab accident in Boston and no angst about making friends and being able to fit in. Everything here is all sunshine and lollipops. Sure, there are some lunkhead bullies on motorcycles but they're only in two scenes so they're not much of a threat. The move in the film is not so much to escape demons of the past, but to pursue an educational advancement for Paul: he's been accepted into a college program at Polytech and kindly Dr. Johansen will be his mentor. I understand too why the film would opt to add a few years on to the pre-teens in the novel as I don't want to be in the same room as a bunch of thirteen year olds, much less direct them. However, I think that age does add something to Henstell's novel as the middle-school years are even more emotionally turbulent than high school years.
In the film, Welling is a nondescript suburban any-city USA type place. In the novel, Welling seems perpetually dreary and its constantly raining. The townspeople are provincial, suspicious and downright mean. Paul is dismayed by the open hostility with which he is greeted with by the adults. Their children are not much better, merely miniature versions of their ignorant parents. Being in Welling only increases Paul's feelings of rejection and alienation. Not only is he an outsider, he's openly hated. And hey, a city-to-small-town move for any kid - particularly when that move is a result of death or divorce - is traumatic. After my parents divorced, I had to move from Houston, Texas (population 2 million) to a small university town in the Southeast (population 57,000) where most of the townspeople resembled academentia versions of the villagers in WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. To phrase it eloquently: that shit sucked.
In the novel, Paul's mentorship with Dr. Johansen offers no reprieve as despite being a man of science, Johansen is just as willfully ignorant as the other Welling residents. He resents Paul's intelligence and perceives Paul's ideas about life and death as sacrilegious. Also, while Movie Paul benefits from a college curriculum, Novel Paul is enrolled in a Welling private school (where his mother teaches) where he is not only ostracized, but is completely bored and unchallenged by the curriculum.
Fortunately, Paul is able to make one friend, a fellow outcast Tom Toomey, nicknamed Slime and ostracized because his father is the local funeral director. However, Tom Toomey's quirkiness is deleted from the film and he is simply a paper boy and archetypical comic-relief-buddy whose father is a security guard at the local hospital.
And in both the book and film, Paul falls in love with tomboyish sweetheart, Samantha Pringle (played very well in the film by KRISTY SWANSON of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and the original BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), the girl next door. However, their budding relationship is hampered by Harry Pringle, Samantha's domineering, physically (and the film version implies also sexually) abusive alcoholic father.
In both novel and film, Harry Pringle is a slimy ol' bastard. Sam is less his daughter and more his caretaker and personal punching bag. However, Novel Sam is already a disillusioned and cowed middle-aged woman in a little girl's body. Both Novel Sam and Movie Sam express ambivalent emotions about her father and abuser, but Novel Sam also grieves over the abandonment of her mother. If you were going to leave, why couldn't you take me too? she begs to a missing mother and will never receive an answer. Novel Sam knows her future is grim, but her friendship with Paul and care from Jeannie allows her a sliver of hope. It's no wonder Novel Sam and Novel Paul develop such an attachment for one another; they have already experienced a lifetime worth of rejection and loss before the eighth grade.
And am I the only one who got the vague suspicion that Novel Sam's mom may not have left voluntarily but may have been buried in the backyard by Harry?
Wes Craven has always excelled at presenting some genuinely frightening Primal Father Figures and Harry Pringle is no exception. As played by RICHARD MARCUS he's like a sweatier, nastier BRUCE DERN in full-on psycho mode.
Even worse, in the novel, the townspeople are all complicit in Sam's abuse; they know perfectly well what is happening but until the arrival of the Conways, not a single person offers to help her. When Jeannie expresses horror that no one has done anything about Harry Pringle abusing his daughter, Slime says, "He doesn't abuse her. Just hits her once in a while."
In the movie, Sam, Paul and Slime/Tom venture out together on Halloween and Beebee is blown to smithereens by neighborhood mean-ol'-witch Elvira Parker (played in the film by the amazing ANNE RAMSEY of THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN fame). In the novel, Beebee is destroyed by Harry Pringle on a drunken rampage. The destruction of Beebee has more power in the novel than the film as it's a culmination of the hostility with which all the residents of Welling direct at Paul and Beebee. He is not like them so they wish to punish him and probably destroy him. And since Beebee is the only companion Paul can truly rely on in his unstable universe, Beebee's "death" is equivalent to the death of a best friend or since he's Beebee's creator, even the loss of a child. In the movie, it's still cruel but the action of one nasty woman. And Movie Paul does not seem to have the emotional reliance on Beebee that Novel Paul does so the act does not feel like a devastating one.
In both book and film, Sam has Thanksgiving dinner with the Conways only to return home to be beaten to death by Harry. And in both, Paul can't handle the loss of his first love and decides to put his scientific prowess to use and resurrect her using technology he used to build Beebee. Novel Paul as in inhabitant of an unstable, chaotic universe cannot bear another loss; everything and everyone he has is taken away by someone else. While everything else remains out of control for him, he believes Sam's fate is the one thing he can control. In the movie, without the emotional core presented in the novel the horror just plays out as hollow.
Wes Craven's films usually do an excellent job of exploring the unpleasant emotions we try to repress so I have a feeling the film's emotional core ended up on the cutting room floor at the hands of some scissor-happy numb-brained studio execs.
Likewise, the re-animated Sam in the novel is both grotesque and beautiful. She's still a lovely blonde, violet-eyed girl, but her hair is intermingled with wires and though her brain has been revived, her body continues to decay, even being gnawed upon by rats. In the movie, Sam is pasty-faced and has dark circles under her eyes, but I look like that without being revived from the dead.
Both Sams are clearly not the same girl and go on a murderous rampage throughout the town, despite Paul's efforts to care for her. Since the townspeople were all complicit in Sam's abuse in the novel, they all bear responsibility for her death. This gives the mayhem some extra power. Sam's undead revenge is probably the strongest part of DEADLY FRIEND as revenge is a powerful motive and the mayhem is well orchestrated. Harry Pringle's murder is one of the more effective scenes in the film and you will never hear me complain about seeing someone decapitated with a basketball.
Both FRIEND and DEADLY FRIEND are about the inability to accept death and how science can never control nature; nature simply will not be controlled. You can revive the body, but a body without a soul is a terrifying thing. Both are also about the attempts of male institutions (in this case represented by science) to exert control over the female body, which like the forces of nature, cannot be entirely controlled.
Sam is a true victim of a cycle of violence. Abused, controlled and eventually murdered by her father, she is returned from the grave by Paul, who in his obsessive love for her, becomes as controlling as Harry. He denies her the peace of death, preferring to keep her alive more for his own selfish needs then her benefit, keeping her locked up so that he can care for her like she's an ill-behaving pet. Sam, in turn, (and as a robot-zombie no longer plagued with feelings of learned helplessness or a conscience) becomes a violent abuser herself, lashing back and killing those who have tormented her. Eventually, she even turns on those who have been kind to her as 1) she's a robot-zombie and 2) hurt people hurt other people; even if she had not been transformed into a science experiment, as a victim of chronic abuse with no stable, loving figures in her life, it is likely she would have been unable to trust others and fallen back into the familiar patterns of receiving abuse and lashing out.
I told Dave Spencer that if I died, to leave me be and that if he revived me I'd just come back as some rampaging murder-machine who decapitates people with basketballs. He said that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.
And what about the ending? FRIEND, like all doomed romances, ends with tragic self-destruction. DEADLY FRIEND features a tacked-on shock ending from those yacht-owning tax-dodging snakes at the studio. It's sad, I get the feeling that there's a pretty good movie somewhere in DEADLY FRIEND, but the film's heart lies cut out on the editing room floor. In a sense, the film is like Undead Sam, a body without a soul. But hey, KRISTY SWANSON sure does a mean robot walk, doesn't she?