31 (More) Days of Fright: Deadly Friend

Fun fact: this film popularized the dance move, ‘The Robot.’

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is one often referred to as the director of Scream, Last House on the Left, and Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven’s worst film, Deadly Friend. Follow me as I decide whether this is a fair assessment. Deadly Friend was rented by Toronto’s extensive video emporium, Bay Street Video.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: child abuse.

A thief in a hunter’s cap breaks into a Volkswagen bus parked outside of a burger joint at the opening of 1986’s Deadly Friend. His attempts to rob the bus are prevented by B.B., an anthropomorphic yellow robot who mumbles robotic gibberish and says its own name a lot. B.B. chokes the thief and forces him out of the van, then locks the door. The van’s driver, single mother Jeannie Conway (Anne Twomey), and her genius son who built the robot, Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux), re-enter and drive off, none the wiser there was an attempted to break-in. They soon arrive at their new house in the town of Welling.

The first person they meet in their new town is Tom ‘Slime’ Toomey (Michael Sharrett), the paperboy who lives down the street. He is suitably impressed by B.B. and can’t believe that Paul actually created this fully independent feat of artificial intelligence. Tom asks Paul if they’ll be in the same class at school, but obviously not! This guy built a fully functioning robot in 1986; he’s going to the prestigious Polytech University. A professor there, Dr. Johanson (Russ Marin) shows him the personal lab they’ve reserved for Paul’s A.I. experiments.

In the distant future of 1986, even real estate agents will be replaced by robots.

Paul soon meets the girl next door, Samantha Pringle (Kristy Swanson), while B.B. is mowing the lawn. They chat a bit about Paul’s robot creation, and Paul can’t help but notice the bruises on Samantha’s arm. Her menacing dad, Harry (Richard Marcus), soon appears on the porch and Sam runs back home. Paul later inquires with friend Tom about his neighbour Samantha, to which Tom crassly responds “great tits” (his nickname is ‘Slime,’ after all) but warns that her father is very strict and doesn’t let her date. Paul, Tom, and B.B. then pass the house of Elvira Parker (the incredible Anne Ramsey), which Tom notes is locked up tighter than Fort Knox. She doesn’t want anyone near her property (which makes it difficult for his work as newspaper delivery boy).

You know it’s a good dirt bike gang when 75% of the members look like Rowdy Roddy Piper.

While Paul assesses how quickly B.B. could break the combination lock on her front gate, Elvira walks out with a shotgun and warns the boys and robot to steer clear of her place. (Tom, amazingly, is pretty blasé about being threatened at gunpoint.) The boys and B.B. then encounter a local dirt bike gang, up to no good. They push B.B. around a bit, call it a tin can, but B.B. then clamps onto the ringleader’s crotch with its metal hands and squeezes. Only when Paul instructs does B.B. release him. The gang jets away on their dirt bikes.

Samantha drops by the Conways’ house that evening, bearing the gift of store-bought cookies. Paul, clearly delighted by the attention, invites her in and gives her a tour of his science-themed bedroom. (Posters of Newton and Einstein are given great prominence.) But before long, Sam’s dad shows up, insisting she return home and stop bothering the Conways. That night, Harry Pringle shows up drunk and sweaty in his teenage daughter’s bedroom. He implies that she’s been fooling around with Paul, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Harry holds down Sam, so she breaks a vase on her nightstand and stabs her father in the chest. Blood spurts through the vase flute all over Sam and the bedspread, but Harry just laughs. “You can’t hurt me,” he insists. And then Samantha wakes from what was a telling nightmare. (Phew!)

Chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool. Shooting some b-ball outside with a tool.

At Polytech, Paul is busy lecturing students nearly twice his age on artificial intelligence. Later, the three human friends and B.B. shoot some hoops, but when they pass the rock to the robot, B.B. launches it onto Elvira Parker’s front porch. Paul offers to hop the fence, but Elvira steps outside just as he’s scaling the chain link. She takes the ball and tosses it inside. B.B. stares menacingly at her door long after she leaves.

Back in Paul’s Polytech lab, he’s progressed from robots to doing brain surgery on cadavers. He finds that running electrical impulses through the corpse’s brain causes it to twitch. Dr. Johnson, understandably, looks at Paul with grave concern. Shortly before Halloween, Paul and his mom have some good old-fashioned fun, carving a jack o’lantern. Sam arrives at the door with a nosebleed, and requests some ice. While Sam insists she often gets nosebleeds, Mrs. Conway knows her dad is abusing her. “He’s my father,” Sam explains ashamedly. “Sometimes I wanna’ roll a truck over his face, but he’s still my father.”

On Halloween itself, that gang decides to play a prank on Elvira. (My personal advice would be to never play a prank on someone so ready with a shotgun, but whatever.) B.B., using its computer brain, tries every lock combination until the gate swings open. They run inside, but Sam (the only one of the group dressed in costume – as a Greek goddess) sets off flashing alarms on the front porch. The human kids run and hide behind some bushes, but B.B. is not so fast (or inconspicuous). Elvira spots the mobile yellow Dumpster almost immediately and opens fire with her shotgun. She blows the robot apart as Paul howls in agony. Elvira smiles a lopsided grin and returns inside.

Harry Pringle, jockeying for Dad of the Year 1986.

Afterward, Paul is inconsolable in class. The Conways have Sam over for Thanksgiving and give thanks that her dad is passed out drunk on the couch. That night, Sam and Paul share a tentative first kiss. It will be (spoiler alert!) Sam’s last kiss, as well, as she returns home to find her dad is no longer asleep on the couch. On the second floor landing, he confronts Sam about her absence and slaps her. He then verbally abuses her and punches his daughter, which sends her flying down the stairs. Sam never gets up; her eyes flutter and blood dribbles from her mouth.

Paul and his mom see Samantha being loaded into an ambulance. Her father, Harry, insists that she fell on junk she left at the top of the stairs. Dr. Johanson and the other doctors at the university hospital do their best to repair her damaged brain, but there’s no way to save her. Sam is put on life support, but shows no signs of improving. Paul confronts Dr. Johanson; he’s simply not trying hard enough, Paul insists. Johanson says Sam is a lost cause; her dad has instructed them to pull her life support at 10 PM the next night if her vitals show no sign of improving. Incensed, Paul runs back to his room and hatches a monstrous idea. He pulls out the microchip that contains B.B.’s artificial intelligence and wonders.

Paul ensnares his friend Tom into his scheme. He needs Tom’s help, and his dad’s keys. (After all, Tom’s dad – conveniently – works security at the hospital.) Though Tom initially refuses, Paul reminds him that the prank on Elvira was Tom’s idea; it’s kind of his fault B.B. no longer exists. Tom stays over at the Conways that night for a sleepover. (Who has non-sexual sleepover in high school?) Paul then drugs his mother’s coffee (!) and waits for her to nod off. Unfortunately, they learn that the timeline has accelerated: they’re pulling the plug on Sam at 9 PM instead!

Luckily, Mom falls dead asleep soon after, so the boys steal her van and drive to the hospital. Paul dons a medical smock and grabs a laundry cart. He instructs Tom to stay in the utility room, where he is to turn off the power at a minute to 9. That’s when Paul will – in the dark – abscond with Samantha. However, a few things go wrong with this plan: (1) Samantha’s dad instructs the hospital staff to turn off the life support several minutes earlier, and (2) Tom panics and pulls the power while Paul is still in the elevator. Nevertheless, Paul still races out of the hospital moments later with Samantha’s body in his laundry cart. The only difference is that she’s dead. Her heart stopped minutes ago.

“It’s my creation … Is it real? It’s my creation …”

In the van, Tom and Paul argue. Tom didn’t agree to stealing corpses; just run-of-the-mill kidnapping. Paul is insistent: though Samantha is technically dead, there are still things they can do to revive her. They head to Paul’s lab at Polytech and conduct a little experimental brain surgery. Paul inserts the self-contained, battery-powered computer chip from B.B. into Sam’s brain. He tries to use the remote to boot Samantha up, but nothing happens. Then, a breakthrough: her leg kicks wildly. Tom, at Paul’s side, promptly faints.

Very early the next morning, Paul and Tom secret Samantha’s body in Paul’s shed, and cover her up in a sleeping bag. They then return inside and see Mrs. Conway still asleep. She can’t be awakened. “I think you killed her,” Tom cries. But not even the very dark Deadly Friend is dark enough to have Paul inadvertently kill his own mom. She eventually rouses. Tom, feeling uneasy about the night’s events, tells Paul they’re now even.

Paul visits the cyborg Samantha in the shed and wakes her up. She is breathing, and Paul begins to teach her how to sit up and move like a human being (more or less) again. But soon the police are buzzing around the Pringles’ house, investigating Sam’s missing body. That night, Paul is awakened by a crash. He runs to the shed and sees that Sam, now with dark circles around her eyes, has learned to stand. She watches her father through the shed window. (The robot Sam, it should be noted, holds her hands like the clamps of B.B. and cannot speak a word.) Paul, realizing Sam’s cybernetic anger, tires to restrain her and eventually has to power her down.

Samantha, using Pris from Blade Runner as makeup inspiration.

The next morning, Mrs. Conway finds Paul’s expensive new sleeping bag in the yard: is that any way to treat camping equipment? The android Sam, however, is on the move. Harry Pringle wakes up on the couch, sweating bullets. The house is extremely hot: in fact, it appears to be on fire. The coal furnace – somehow the house has a coal furnace, as if it’s a steamship from 1925 – is on overload. Harry goes to the basement to see what’s the matter and spots a bottle of bourbon on the basement steps. He reaches for it and Sam grabs his wrist from under the stars and throws him to the ground. (Fell for the old bourbon trap!) When Harry sees his daughter still alive, he begins to scream. Robot Sam moves toward her father and bends his wrist backward with her pronged hands. She then shoves him up against the burning furnace and finally breaks his neck.

Outside, Paul sees black smoke billowing from the Pringles’ chimney. And given they aren’t selecting a new Pope, he knows it must mean trouble. He enters the basement to see Mr. Pringle half in the furnace with Sam standing over his body. Paul drags Harry Pringle’s gruesomely melted body out of the furnace and hides him in the basement’s coal chute (!), covering over his mangled body with chunks of coal. He then brings Sam into his bedroom to hide until he can figure out what to do next.

Across the street, nosy Elvira Parker thinks she sees a ghost: the Pringle girl in the Conways’ window! She alerts the police, but the police think she must be crazy. Elvira continues watching her old movie when a basketball slowly bounces into the room. Being naturally paranoid, she retrieves her shotgun and locks the door. But after hearing a bang, she sees the front door has been damaged: someone must have broken in. Sam appears behind her. In one of the greatest moments in film history, robot Samantha then hurls the basketball at Elvira Parker, smashing her head into bloody chunks against the wall. The headless Elvira lurches around and spurts blood for a while before collapsing in a heap.

Kristy Swanson, doing her best John Stockton impersonation.

In his bed, Paul Conway awakes to see something moving towards him under the covers, Tremors-like. When he edges himself to the very top of the bed and removes the covers, he sees Samantha’s charred dad, reaching up for him in anguish. But it’s just a nightmare. (So many nightmares in this movie, you’d think they lived on Elm Street.) Paul goes downstairs to chase away his nightmare with a glass of milk, but is spooked by Sam, who is down there waiting for him. He realizes he has to keep Sam in the attic to make sure his mom never finds her. But when he tells her to stay hidden there, robot Sam looks incredibly forlorn.

Paul and his mother hear ambulances and police cars across the street. According to a busybody neighbour, both Mr. Pringle and Mrs. Parker have been found dead: “Elvira’s head is all over the walls in there.” The next day, Sam breaks out of the attic and finds a photos in Paul’s room: Paul, Tom, Sam, and B.B. Given that robotic Samantha now contains the consciousness of two of the four people in the photograph, she becomes disoriented and frustrated. When Paul returns home from school, his mother tells him she heard a stirring upstairs. He finds his android crush in an emotionally distraught state. Paul tries to reassure her, but is interrupted by a phone call from Tom.

Bad news: Tom is beginning to crack. He can’t handle the guilt anymore and needs to tell someone about what he and Paul did at the hospital. Paul begs him not to squeal. Meanwhile Dr. Johanson finds Mrs. Conway at her work and tells her Paul hasn’t been at school for several days; something’s not adding up. Paul brings Tom back to the attic to see Sam. Tom, having not seen Sam since they stole her body, is horrified to see her up and about like a more rational zombie. Tom immediately runs downstairs and threatens to call the cops, calling Paul a creep. (Fair.) Paul, in his struggle to stop Tom from leaving, punches him in the schnozz, causing another nosebleed. That’s when Paul’s mom enters and says they need to have an honest talk.

Tom takes this opportunity to run out and tells Paul, again, he’s calling the cops and putting a stop to his madness. That’s when Sam leaps out the attic window and comes crashing down on Tom. She tosses the boy around some, then shoves Mrs. Conway aside when she tries to intervene. Paul runs up to cyborg Sam and slaps her across the face. In return, she begins to throttle the boy mad scientist, but stops short of killing him. She runs away.

Samantha, keeping Welling clean and taking out the trash.

Paul follows her through the night. He doesn’t find Sam before the leader of the dirt bike gang finds him alone, without a giant yellow robot to back him up. The gang leader starts to rough Paul up. Paul gets a few solid punches in, but he’s no match for the leader of a dirt bike gang. But then the dirt biker hears a howl of “B.B” in the robot’s voice. Samantha arrives and lifts the confused hooligan over her head. Police cruisers rush into the abandoned lot and Samantha tosses the teenager into the police car’s windshield, killing him instantly.

Samantha runs further, but nearly a dozen police cars are in pursuit. They surround her several times before she escapes to the Conways’ shed. Paul realizes that’s where she’s hiding, and finds her in the dark. He pleads with her to remain calm. Maybe he and Dr. Johanson can help her. Then Sam’s P.O.V. turns from a digital display to regular human vision: Sam is slowly regaining some of her humanity. But it’s come much too late: the police have arrived at the shed and demand that Sam come out and give herself up.

As Sam and Paul leave the shed, the police draw their pistols on her. Paul tries to pull the cops’ guns away, but they restrain him. Samantha yells out “Paul!” in her human voice, then runs toward him, her claw-like hands outstretched. The police officer shoots her once in the gut. Samantha dies in Paul’s arms.

In an epilogue, the coroner and Dr. Johanson discuss the strange case of Samantha Pringle as they slide her body into a morgue drawer. They look forward to cracking her open tomorrow: it’ll be one for the record books. After they extinguish the lights, Paul breaks in – this guy never learns – and opens up Sam’s morgue drawer. Paul gazes upon her face and Sam’s hands suddenly pop up and begin to strangle him. Sam’s face slowly peels off, revealing a monstrous version of B.B. underneath. “Come with me, Paul!” she insists, and Paul screams. The end credits play a terrible industrial song in which the chant “B.B.” happens over and over again.

Film’s ending: Does. Not. Compute.

Takeaway points:

  • As horror buffs likely already know, the original version of Deadly Friend, as director Wes Craven intended it, was more of a PG-rated, dark science-fiction thriller about misguided affection. But test audiences expected serious gore from a Wes Craven film, so the film was re-written to include several grisly nightmare sequences and gruesome deaths. (In fact, they went a little too far with the revisions, as the original cut of the film saddled it with an ‘X’ rating.) To Craven, the real horror lay within the character of Samantha’s dad. And he’s a nightmarish figure, to be sure. Underneath the ridiculousness, you can see the glimpses of a heartbreaking story of an abused girl and the failure of her friends and neighbours to protect her from her monstrous dad. (This is helped, in a huge part, by a really excellent Kristy Swanson performance.)
  • Deadly Friend kind of works as a dark, gory inversion of a film that premiered the year prior, Weird Science. It’s almost as if Craven saw the John Hughes comedy and thought it was having too much fun to be a real warning to teenagers eager to play God. As such, Deadly Friend has more in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, sharing themes of the dangerous pursuit of scientific knowledge, and how secrecy only leads to disaster.
  • An added element to this film (that Frankenstein lacks) is male entitlement to women and their disinterest in female agency. Paul, simply because he has a crush on Sam, feels he needs to revive her from the dead. Is this something Sam would want? Paul doesn’t even pause to consider this question: he wants her back. The fact that the revived, robotic Sam only looks like his old friend – does not act or sound or move like her – just emphasizes the divergence between Paul’s desires and the dead Samantha’s autonomy.
  • One of the principal questions the film is: What exactly is Samantha’s father’s job? He owns a rather large house, but we only see him drinking and abusing his poor daughter like it’s a full-time occupation.
  • As my friend Andrew, who watched the film with me, noted upon seeing one of the film’s credits, “That medical advisor should be ashamed of himself.”

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: People deride Deadly Friend, but it’s really not that bad. Some of the nightmare sequences – Samantha stabbing her father, the melted Mr. Pringle appearing in Paul’s bed – are genuinely scary. Deadly Friend is just an ambitious film that fell short of its goals. But I respect the genuine effort.

Samantha Pringle never met a pink she didn’t like.

Best outfit: Let’s just agree it’s a bold choice to wear a sweatsuit that incorporates three different shades of pink – and on Thanksgiving, no less. Samantha Pringle, I salute your style confidence.

Best line: “Oh, I love these. I love them. Thank you, come in.” – Paul Conway, playing it real close to the chest when Sam gives him a box of cookies.

Best kill: Forget this particular movie: there are few kills in film history better than Elvira Parker’s unceremonious dispatch by a powerfully thrown basketball. (Watch it online if you doubt me.)

Unexpected cameo: The voice of B.B., Charles Fleischer, was also the voice of Roger Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Unexpected lesson learned: Don’t rely on medical professionals to strictly obey the times at which they terminate life support down to the very minute.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Slime Toomey.

Next up: Creep (2014).

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