A Sci-Fi Honey Retro Review by Katie

Deadly Friend (1986)

Quick: name a 1980s horror film that’s famous – or in some cases, infamous – primarily for a single unforgettable scene. These are cinematic moments that are burned into the collective memory of the moviegoing public for a variety of reasons, whether they elicit terror (“heeeeere’s Johnny!”), shock (Angela’s reveal), disgust (shunting, anyone?), or laughter (“garbage day!”). This week’s #ItCameFromThe80s sci-fi horror flick is largely recognized for one particularly amusing practical effect – and thanks to the immortalizing power of the internet, this moment is forever encapsulated in .gif form for all to enjoy.

You know the one.
In Wes Craven’s first feature film since his breakout hit A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1986’s Deadly Friend is at its core a harrowing depiction of child abuse that utilizes a sci-fi plot for the victim to process their trauma. Out of context, however, it’s that movie where Buffy explodes the head of Mama Fratelli with a basketball. Nearly thirty years after it was conceived, does Deadly Friend deserve more critical attention and praise than one silly scene gives it credit for?

Before we get to the brain-bashing, Deadly Friend begins with teenaged ‘Boy Wonder’ Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux) moving to a new city with his mom, where he’ll be attending a prestigious technical school. Paul has built a robot called “BB," whose microchipped brain enables him to learn, communicate, and exhibit an intensifying degree of autonomy. Paul and BB befriend their neighbor Samantha (Kristy Swanson), a friendly but emotionally guarded teen living under the rule of her domineering father. The fates of both girl and robot become intertwined when BB is shot to pieces by the neighborhood curmudgeon (Anne Ramsey), and Samantha is gravely wounded after an argument with her father ends in a plummet down the stairs. Paul’s remedy for both tragedies is to implant BB’s microchip in Samantha’s brain, thereby reanimating her corpse into something resembling a robo-girl; little does he know, however, that BB was capable of much more destruction than initially thought possible…

… just give her a basketball and see. 
If some of the above sounds a little nutty, that’s because it is – and it only gets more ridiculous as the film progresses. Samantha’s transformation after she’s rebooted by BB’s computer implant is conveyed through shoddy “zombie” makeup and the rigid stance of someone doing an awkward robot dance at the club. It’s hard not to laugh at Kristy Swanson speaking with BB’s auto-tuned robotic voice, chasing down her victims like some demonic version of Vicki from Small Wonder, all conveyed through Craven’s pixelated robo-cam. She uses her newfound super-strength to throw bodies in the air, break necks, and yes, even explode some heads with sports equipment. Before the robo-girl rampage ensues, however, Deadly Friend manages to explore some surprisingly heavy themes surrounding child abuse that warrant greater attention. Samantha’s victimization at the hands of her father is first only hinted at, then intimated by Paul’s mother, then finally confirmed when Samantha suffers brain death after an encounter with dad. The extent of the abuse is most patently obvious in the depths of Samantha’s troubled unconscious: during a nightmare about her father crawling into bed with her, Samantha defends herself by stabbing him with a hollow vase. Instead of succumbing to his wound, he laughs gleefully as blood flows from the end of the weapon and douses her with his crimson pseudo-ejaculate. It doesn’t take Freud to interpret the trauma of incest from the nightmare’s penetration imagery, adding a layer of complexity to a film that is only outwardly a piece of sci-fi fluff.

If anyone deserves to be choked, it’s this guy.
Based on the novel Friend by Diana Henstell, Craven’s adaptation often feels more like a companion piece to the Elm Street series than a work of original science fiction. Released just two years after Freddy made his debut, Deadly Friend also centers on teenagers who battle demons in their nightmares symptomatic of the real-life horrors they face – in this case, Samantha and her abusive father. As a stand-in for Freddy in the real world as opposed to the supernatural, it is fitting that the abusive male of Deadly Friend eventually meets his demise in a boiler room, and that his horribly burned face makes an appearance in a teen’s nightmare. Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein scores Deadly Friend with an arrangement eerily similar to the spine-chilling notes that accompany Freddy’s reign of terror, lending both films the same distinct tone. Whether Craven intentionally introduced these parallels or not, there is indeed an Elm Street in every town – and Deadly Friend is simply another entry in that overarching mythos reworked to incorporate a sci-fi twist.

Meet the new Freddy! 
Nowadays we throw the term “cult classic” around to fairly loosely describe a film that was underappreciated in its time, but has garnered popularity over the years through a core group of fans who elevate the film through the home video market, word of mouth, and big-screen revivals. Deadly Friend seems to have earned that distinction in some circles solely for the basketball scene, which is a gross misrepresentation of how the film can be interpreted as a whole. Craven would’ve been better off either appropriating more lighthearted science fiction of the era (BB as Johnny 5?) or eliminating the sci-fi aspect altogether and crafting a psychologically potent exploration of the trauma of child abuse. Though Deadly Friend is an uneven pastiche of both whimsy and horror, it is undoubtedly more conceptually rich than the single image it’s remembered for, thus proving the old adage: don’t judge a film by its .gif.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Three-and-a-half brain-busting basketballs out of five.

Deadly Friend is available via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube VOD, Vudu, Google Play, & DVD

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