31 (More) Days of Fright: The People Under the Stairs

For Fool, having a shotgun shoved in his face is just another day in America.

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 a second Wes Craven film (I usually try to avoid duplications, folks), The People Under the Stairs, chosen by friend, writer, editor, and communications consultant Richard Johnson. I picked up The People Under the Stairs from my local video store Queen Street Video.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: racism, child abuse.

The People Under the Stairs opens with a tarot reading. Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) lays down cards for her brother Pointdexter (Brandon Quintin Adams) and pays special attention to the “Fool” card, because that’s what everyone calls him. She says the Fool has to walk through the sun to come out the other side a man. Pointdexter, or “Fool,” feels this reading has relevance to his current situation. After all, his mother, Mary (Conni Marie Brazelton) is very ill, Ruby is turning tricks out of desperation, and his family has just been evicted from their tenement housing. The landlords are pushing them out to set up a condominium. However, Ruby’s friend (maybe lover), Leroy (Ving Rhames), has an idea of how Fool might make some money and save his family from that eviction notice. (That’s a lot of pressure for a thirteen-year-old!)

“What does Marsellus Wallace look like?”

So, what’s the scheme: Leroy and his white friend Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) robbed a liquor store and found an address: the same people who own the liquor store own Fool’s run-down apartment building, so Leroy now knows where they live. Ruby has heard some strange, scary stories about the landlords, but Leroy has heard they have a stash of gold coins. And he plans to make like a Black Mario, collect those coins until he gets a free life. We next see the family of landlords, and it seems the rumours Ruby heard were accurate. Mommy (an over-the-top Wendy Robie, doing a decent Mommie Dearest) watches the eating habits of her daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer), like a hawk to make sure she doesn’t feed “that thing in the wall.” Daddy (Everett McGill, also swinging for the fences) casually drops the N-word and beats his daughter with a belt like it’s 1910 Mississippi (rather than 1991 Los Angeles).

Leroy, Spenser, and Fool roll through the neighbourhood and study the landlords’ house: it’s large, but seems to be falling apart. Fool disguises himself as a Cub Scout to try to weasel his way inside, but Mommy doesn’t fall for his scam. Still, Fool is able to somewhat case the joint and determine the house’s doors and windows are locked from the outside-in. Spenser then attempts to get inside, dressed as a gas meter reader. Though Mommy is very hesitant to allow him inside, she eventually relents.

Waiting on the street in their black van, Leroy and Fool see the landlord and landlady leave in their black murder Cadillac, but Spenser still hasn’t returned. Leroy is convinced his partner is trying to screw him over and take all the coins for himself. He brings Fool with him as he breaks through a series of locked doors with a crowbar. Along the way, they see what looks like a large voodoo doll caught in a mousetrap. And once the final door opens, a massive Rottweiler attacks them. But thanks to Fool’s quick thinking, they trick the guard dog and manage to lock it outside.

Trying to catch them riding dirty.

Leroy and Fool observe their surroundings: nearly every cabinet in the kitchen is locked, and dust and dead flies have piled up in every corner. “Nice to see rich folks get rats, too,” Leroy jokes. (Though we soon find out that rats are not the problem.) Leroy ventures upstairs to try to find Spenser but leaves Fool – who is visibly spooked by the dilapidated house – to stand guard on the main floor. However, Fool soon finds a secret basement entrance with hidden stairs. On those stairs lie Spenser’s fake gas-man clipboard and lighter. Against his better judgment, Fool remembers Leroy’s taunts and ventures into the terrifying cellar, pulling a trip wire that traps him inside.

Imprisoned in the dank basement, he searches for Spenser with the only illumination provided by a pocket lighter. He can hear people moving within the walls. He finds an old television tuned to CNN (and the night bombing of Baghdad during Desert Storm). Eventually, he finds the corpse of someone who looks like Spenser, but must be about 50 years older. In the body’s hand is a gold coin. (They do exist!) Fool tries to pull old Spenser’s body from the wall, but something (or someone) keeps dragging it back. Suddenly, a reedy man dressed like a Road Warrior extra leaps on Fool. Fool runs upstairs to escape, but with the flip of a switch, the stairs turn into a slide, and Fool skids back down into the basement. He recovers and runs up the ramp, but the door is still locked. Suddenly, it opens, and Fool is surprised to see a girl about his age (Alice) on the other side.

Fool discovers why this film is called The People Under the Stairs.

Fool is pulled back down by his ankle, but soon kicks himself free. When he escapes the basement, the girl is gone. But he sees through the front window that the landlords have returned from their afternoon drive. He runs upstairs to warn Leroy and finds him face-down on the floor. At first, he’s afraid Leroy is dead, but he’s on the floor for other reasons: he can heard something inside the walls. Fool tells him two important bits of information: (a) the creepy homeowners are back, and (b) Spenser is dead, seemingly frightened to death. “If you thought he was white before,” Fool grimly jokes, ”you should see that sucker now.”

Seeking a way out, Fool tries the front door, but discovers – the hard way – it’s electrified. Leroy tires to bash through the windows, but he has no luck either. Mommy and Daddy, seeing that someone has broken into the house in their absence and locked the dog outside, let Prince (the Rottweiler) have first crack at the intruders. The dog soon runs to the living room and locks onto Leroy’s wrist. So Fool leads the two of them to the front door, and using his and Leroy’s bodies as a conductor, electrocutes the dog. (Science?) They head upstairs to look for hiding spots as they hear Daddy load his pistol and the doors and windows lock shut.

Rarely seen kitchen crane shot.

Leroy hides in a closet by himself but is soon terrorized by the teenager from the basement jumping out of the wall. Leroy stumbles out into the hallway and is shot to death by Daddy before tumbling down the stairs. With no other escape, Fool decides to go through a secret passage into the wall. Inside he finds a little shelter and bloody animal bones. Then, through a vent on the far side, he spots Alice. Daddy, in the hallway, fires his gun wildly at the walls while Fool escapes from the walls into the dilapidated bathroom where Alice is hiding.

After preliminary introductions, Fool learns that Alice has never been outside before: she is certain it’s not possible to leave the house. Fool asks her about the people who live under the stairs – within the walls of the basement. Alice says that her mom and dad have looked long and hard for the perfect boy child, but none of them worked out. So Daddy cut out the bad parts of the boys they kidnapped – anything that spoke, heard, or saw evil – and put them in the cellar. But they get fed and have access to flashlights, so they can’t be living all that bad. As for the person who looks like a post-apocalyptic Gomer Pyle, that’s Roach (Sean Whalen). Daddy hates Roach, because he escaped the cellar and lives inside the walls. We then see that Daddy has changed into full S&M bondage gear. He fires a shotgun at will into the walls, aiming to kill Roach.

Ving Rhames isn’t the only Pulp Fiction alumnus to appear in this movie!

While Mommy feeds the recovered Prince Spenser’s severed hand, the 5-0 roll up into the driveway, having spotted a black van wanted in connection with a liquor store robbery. Daddy changes back to his street clothes, and he and Mommy answer the police officers’ questions in the driveway. They acknowledge that it appears someone is trying to break into their house, but they have it all under control. However, when the cops leave, Mommy notices something in the rear of the van: a discarded Cub Scout uniform. There’s still a boy inside the house with their “little angel.”

Alice and Fool separate, but angry dog Prince runs upstairs traps Fool in the bathroom. Daddy then tries to blow his way through the door with the shotgun. But when he does his best Jack Torrance, Fool smashes a tile on his head. Roach pops out and pulls the cornered Fool into the wall. Daddy tosses Prince into the wall to pursue them, but Roach uses a trap door to shake the dog. When Mommy and Daddy see Prince slide down a ramp toward them, they notice a doll in the dog’s mouth: the boy has already got to Alice!

Roach, Fool, and Alice reconvene in her bedroom. Fool learns why Roach is so quiet – Daddy cut out his tongue – and learns that Alice has a hobby of making dolls to hold the souls of salesmen and robbers that her parents have killed. She’s even made one of Leroy. (Fun! Also, she works very quickly.) That’s when Mommy and Daddy break into the bedroom and bust up the slumber party fun. Daddy captures Fool, Mommy slaps Alice around ,and Roach goes into hiding after being shot at a few times. Mommy announces that things are going to the next Defcon level: “TOTAL SPRING CLEANING.”

What’s the matter? Dad got your tongue?

So what does “total spring cleaning” involve? Apparently it involves tossing Fool and Leroy’s dead body into the cellar, and forcing Alice to clean up all Leroy’s blood, like some sort of horror-themed Cinderella. Daddy accompanies the men to the basement, where he chops up Leroy’s body and tosses some of the meat to the mutants trapped in the wall. After Alice finishes cleaning the foyer, Mommy prepares a bathtub of scalding water and dumps Alice inside. Finished with feeding the people under the stairs, Daddy shoves Fool into the wall with them. The pale, vampiric boys – looking a bit like Morlocks from The Time Machine – threaten Fool, but Roach soon comes to the rescue by animating Leroy’s eviscerated corpse to scare the superstitious mutants away.

Roach hides himself and Fool in the dormant furnace (Wes Craven loves furnaces!), which is when Fool realizes his saviour has been shot. Some of Daddy’s buckshot got him in the side. Roach hands Fool some gold coins, then indicates how to reach Alice’s room, and dies. Fool scurries up to the secret entrance to Alice’s room, where Daddy is busy menacing his daughter. Fool punches the man in his groin, breaks a lamp over his head, and brings Alice with him back into the walls. Daddy run downstairs to light the furnace (and simultaneously burn Roach’s dead body) to help smoke the two kids out.

Alice and Fool journey through the walls, mindful of many booby traps set by Roach. Prince again bounds into the wall and attacks Fool. Daddy (in the hallway) hears the commotion and begins to bayonet the wall, hoping to hit the boy. But Fool turns the Rottweiler around and Daddy inadvertently stabs his own dog to death. But he doesn’t realize that’s what’s happened. When he sees the bayonet slick with blood, he assumes he’s murdered Fool and begins to do the dance of joy. It’s only when they pull open part of the wall and Prince staggers out dead that his glee evaporates.

Next up, on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares …

Fool guides Alice up to the house’s attic where the one openable window can be found. “I never thought smog would smell so good,” Fool remarks. Unfortunately, it’s a treacherous drop from the roof, and Alice is afraid to venture out the window. However, Daddy is on the way, so Fool takes his chances and slides down the roof, falling safely into the pond in their yard. Daddy runs downstairs and fires his gun into the bushes, but Mommy, mindful of the neighbours, warns him to never shoot his gun outside.

Fool returns to his grimy apartment. His grandfather, Booker (Bill Cobbs) appraises the coins and figures Fool’s family should be good for rent for the next ten years (and then some). Grandpa Booker (who we’ve never seen before) is a veritable Wikipedia of local superstition, noting that the landlords aren’t actually husband and wife – they’re brother and sister (!) – and that family has been twisted for centuries, each generation more depraved than the last. (Where was Grandpa Booker a day earlier?) Despite that, Fool feels the need to return to the house to rescue Alice. Ruby reads his cards again and advises against it, but Fool made a promise and he’s aiming to keep it.

An anonymous call to Child Welfare on the pay phone brings the police to the landlords’ creepy house. But by the time they arrive, Mommy and Daddy are making like Ozzie and Harriet, and the house has miraculously been cleaned up, weapons have been hidden (and walls repaired of multiple shotgun blasts, I guess). Most confusingly for the police summoned there, the couple appears to have no children at all. Satisfied the call was not legit, the police depart. But Fool uses the opportunity to hide in the cabinets. He drops out when Mommy and Daddy turn out the lights for the night.

Obviously, these are not the outfits they wear when they greet Child Protection Services.

Fool arms himself with a fireplace poker and heads upstairs. He hears Mommy and Daddy saying their evening prayers, but when he reaches the source of their voices, he realizes he’s been tricked by a tape recording. Daddy – in mega-leatherdaddy mode – pops up behind Fool and seizes him. Fool gouges his eyes and attacks both adults with the fire poker, then runs into the walls. Alice, meanwhile, is hanging from the brick chimney in the attic by her arms, like she’s in a Mad Magazine cartoon. Though a series of secret passageways, Fool finds his way to the attic chimney and undoes the bolt that holds Alice. But Daddy re-enters the room, and Alice must pretend to still be manacled. The sight of Alice as prisoner gets Daddy randy (gross), and it’s only Mommy calling from downstairs that prevents something more heinous from happening.

Once Daddy leaves, Fool tells Alice that her parents aren’t her real parents. She must have been kidnapped by them as a child. They could escape via the roof again, but Daddy has already drained the pond and filled it with broken glass. In the master bedroom, Mommy and Daddy fight over Alice when they hear a stirring from within the chimney. Daddy takes a look up the flue and promptly has a brick dropped on his head. He doubles back in pain and Mommy decides to take a look for herself. Fool and Alice slide down (like Santa Claus) and crash onto the woman. They continue downward, with Fool heading to the basement to retrieve Daddy’s shotgun.

Alice has made her way to the living room, but is soon captured by Mommy who demands to know where Fool is. Alice stomps on her bare foot and tells her mother to “burn in hell.” When Mommy and Daddy meet up again, they decide that Alice has become expendable. Both of the kids loose in the house are to be killed on sight. Daddy finds Fool in the basement, and after some struggle, Daddy wrests the gun from him. He’s about to blow Fool’s head off when there’s a knock at the door. They hesitate, thinking it could be the police.

Instead of the authorities at the door, it’s the community. Ruby and Grandpa Booker have gathered the former residents of the slums that Mommy and Daddy own for a protest. Mommy first slams the door on them. While this is happening, the people under the stairs shine their flashlights in Daddy’s eyes, allowing Fool to escape. Ruby knocks on the door again. When Mommy answers, she prepares to shoot Ruby in the head, but Alice drops down from the ceiling and smacks Mommy’s skull against the floor. Daddy, in the basement, opens fire on the mutants in the wall and accidentally breaks open the lock that fences them in. They drag Fool into their pen once again. Daddy runs upstairs to escape the basement dwellers and is knocked down by Ruby and Grandpa Booker, entering the basement at the same time.

“Turn around … every now and then I fall apart!”

The people under the stairs guide Fool to a secret chamber, where he finds a stash of gold coins, paper bills, and riches worthy of Scrooge McDuck. “No wonder there’s no money in the ghetto,” he marvels. Upstairs, through some trickery, Mommy gets all the community members outside and locks all the doors once again. She chases after Alice with a butcher knife and pins her on the stairs. That’s when the mutants underneath tear through the floorboards and bite into her arm. Mommy recoils, but soon the basement mutants are breaking out of the walls and corners in every direction and attacking her. She runs to the kitchen where Alice stabs her in the stomach, then the basement captives swarm Mommy. They toss her dead body into the basement – her throat torn open – where Daddy finds her and weeps.

Fool finds something else in the vault of riches: dynamite. (What a weird place to keep it!) Daddy follows the boy into his vault and draws his shotgun on him. But Fool has the dynamite rigged to explode. It’s a tense standoff for a couple moments, but when Daddy twitches, Fool starts the explosion. The whole house goes off like a Roman candle and Daddy dies. (Fool, who was standing right beside him, remains unscathed: “I feel like a million dollars.”)

The crowd outside cheers as money blows out through the top of the roof and showers down upon them. A celebration of the oppressed tenants erupts in the streets and the cannibalistic basement dwellers secretly escape through the crowd and into the night. Ding dong, the witch is dead.

It’s raining tens. Hallelujah!

Takeaway points:

  • The People Under the Stairs is easy to read as a broad, messy, satiric screed against the greed of (primarily white) urban landlords. Remember Donald Trump in the 1980s? Craven has essentially turned him into the perverted, murderous, leather-clad Daddy of this film. The greed of property owners kicks off the film, and it’s established that these white landlords have been hoarding the ghetto’s money under their own roof. Craven aims to expose the moneyed white class of Los Angeles as a thousand times more depraved and monstrous than any Black sex worker or thief. They’re also a class that the law serves to protect: both times the police arrive, they are more concerned with Black theft of property or so impressed by a veneer of white civility that they don’t uncover the evil under their very noses. And this class division is all the more relevant that it’s set in 1991 Los Angeles. One needs only to read about the 1984 Olympics or Operation Hammer (or the great chapter on Los Angeles in Kevin Smokler’s film book Brat Pack America) and how it helped widen the already growing rift between white and Black, rich and poor in Los Angeles in the 1980s (and today) to see why.
  • Though there’s a lot about race and class warfare in America (and Los Angeles, in particular) within The People Under the Stairs, it almost seems best to treat the film as a Wes Craven fairy tale. The trappings are there: a mysterious house, wicked step-parents (of a sort), a girl named “Alice.” The film follows the folkloric journey of our pauper hero (Fool) into the evil witches’ gingerbread house where children go to die, but transports those themes and tropes to a modern, urban setting.
  • The film is allegedly based on true events. Craven wrote the story after reading a news article about burglars breaking into a house. When the authorities responded to the call, the burglars were nowhere to be found. Police instead found a terrible case of child abuse: the home owners who called for the police had kept their children locked inside their rooms for years. Does that make The People Under the Stairs scarier? Probably.
  • The actors playing Mommy and Daddy (Wendy Robie and Everett McGill) have been a couple before, though a much more pleasant one: Craven got the idea of casting them as the incestuous brother-sister after watching them work their magic on Twin Peaks as a married couple who don’t really love one another, Nadine and Big Ed.
  • Wiser people than me have noted that The People Under the Stairs is a total inversion of Home Alone, which premiered only the year prior – right down to the booby traps. In Home Alone we root for the affluent white kid as he tortures thieves in new and unusual ways. In Craven’s film, our loyalties lie entirely with the thieves. That’s because in reality, the rich homeowner isn’t an adorable moppet like Macaulay Culkin; he’s a racist, avaricious monster like Mommy and Daddy.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Not terrifying, not terrible – just a weird ride that maybe shouts its themes a bit too loudly.

“I want something that says dad loves leather.”

Best outfit: Daddy’s full-body Leatherdaddy hunting outfit makes a strong statement about traditional Christian values.

Best line: “I know it’s a bother, but so is cerebral palsy.” – Fool, with an incredible charity sales pitch.

Best kill: There’s definitely something enjoyably reminiscent of the finale of Tod Browning’s Freaks in the way that Mommy dies at the hands of the many hideous basement captives.

Unexpected cameo: The actress who portrays Fool’s ailing mother, Conni Marie Brazleton, is known to millions as Nurse Connie Oligario in nearly ten seasons of medical drama, ER. And you probably know A.J. Langer (Alice) as Rayanne Graff.

Unexpected lesson learned: Before you do anything, make sure you consult with Grandpa Booker.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The People Under the Stairs are a successful hip-hop group that took their name from this film. But if I had to pick another band name, it would be Total Spring Cleaning.

Next up: Basket Case (1981).

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).