I’m very excited about this week’s double feature, courtesy of TCM Underground. Both films, Deadly Friend and Swamp Thing, are directed by Wes Craven and are both films I remember from way back as a wee lad growing up and I have some sort of nostalgic connection with.
Deadly Friend (1986)
I know I just said, not but ten words ago, I have a nostalgic connection with both films this week, but I’m going to be upfront here: Deadly Friend is a terrible movie. Not that I give a shit about critical consensus, but Deadly Friend is one of the rare films to have a 0% rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t know if it’s quite deserving of a ZERO PERCENT but it’s pretty bad.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what the movie gets wrong, but I’m going to throw the robotic character “BB” under the bus. BB is the creation of robotic genius and wunderkind Paul Conway (Matthew Laborteaux), the new kid in town, a nice kid who actually does a really good job eschewing the traditional tropes associated with nerdy characters in movies.
The problem with BB is… is this robot supposed to be cute? It kind of is sometimes, in a terrifying, grotesque kind of way.
BB is cute on its surface, but the voice that it emits is that of a lifelong smoker possessed by a demon. It speaks in low, growly gibberish (filtered through a helium tank) that I think the filmmakers had intended to be cute. I have a strange duality with BB… I want to befriend the robot, but I’m also deeply embarrassed that Wes Craven and company would have though this particular robot would have won audiences over. Deadly Friend came out the same year as Short Circuit so I have no idea if BB is a rip-off of Johnny 5 or not, but it really feels that way.
Paul is out and about with his friends one evening, including the girl next door, Samantha (Kristy Swanson), that he has a crush on, when tragedy strikes and BB is killed by a shitty, shotgun-wielding neighbor, played by the go-to actress for shitty characters in the 1980s: Ann Ramsey. Only a short time later, tragedy strikes again when Samantha is accidentally killed by her abusive father.
Deadly Friend, when you really think about it, is a sad fucking movie. Samantha, that poor girl, just wants to have a normal life and every night she has to prepare herself for the possibility of being assaulted by her father and then, guess what? She gets attacked by him, predictably, takes a tumble down a flight of stairs and dies.
Paul, hoping to fix two dead birds with one really ill-advised stone, puts the still-technically-functioning robot brain of his robot BB into the head of Samantha’s corpse, that he has stolen from the morgue. The movie switches gears and becomes something of a teen-aged “Frankenstein”. Samantha takes to BB’s brain and she begins to remember things from her past. She confronts her father and kills him. Tapping into BB’s memories, she beheads the shitty, shotgun-wielding neighbor with… a basketball. I shit you not.
Apparently, Wes Craven hadn’t intended for Deadly Friend to be a horror movie at all, but test audiences hated the original cut and upon studio insistence, more violence and gore was added and the entire tone of the film had to be shifted. I sort of like the resulting tone of the film, which is pretty tragic, but something is definitely off. If the character of Paul is like a teenage Dr. Frankenstein, this film is definitely a cobbled-together result of tones, themes and scenes from other movies and genres, Deadly Friend itself some sort of monstrous creation.
I think what really worked in the film were the relationships between the kids. Paul and his friend Tom have a realistic rapport with each other. Even their inevitable falling out, due to the hideous robot-monster cobbles together out of a dead girl hiding in the attic, feels real to me. When Paul punches Tom, Tom tells Paul’s mother that she’s got a real psycho for a son.
And the relationship between Paul and Samantha was charming. I liked that Paul wasn’t a stereotypical nerd pining for a girl, this one-sided thing he was too shy to act on. Instead, he told her he liked her, she felt the same and they wanted to be together–they just couldn’t because of her abusive father.
Deadly Friend works best when it’s interested in its characters. It works less well when it’s being forced to be a Wes Craven film.
And oh, man… that ending credits song. BB got its own song and it’s… something.
Swamp Thing (1982)
This week’s double feature really should have began with Swamp Thing because it is a vastly superior film to Deadly Friend. I mean, I’m going to admit straight off that I like Deadly Friend but I’m going to acknowledge that it’s terrible. Swamp Thing ain’t Gone With the Wind, but it knows what kind of movie it wants to be and it tells its story solidly, with skill and with consistent tone and characterizations. You know what kind of movie you’re in for from the get-go and it delivers on it.
I’ll sum up my enjoyment-level with Swamp Thing thusly: Somehow my DVR fucked up the recording of this movie, and I’m now entirely sure how, but only 45 minutes of it got recorded. I decided to watch the 45 minutes I had on the DVR and, from there I was going to decide what to do for this week’s write-up. After the 45 minutes were up, I decided I genuinely wanted to see how this thing ended, so I watched the rest of it on YouTube. So, yes, I liked it enough to want to see how it ended. But, no, not enough that I was going to pay additional money to rent the damn thing if my DVR fucked me.
Swamp Thing is based on the comic book creation by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, before comic book movies were all the rage, and I’m curious if they’re ever going to reboot the character of Swamp Thing for modern audiences.
Ray Wise plays Alec Holland, the scientist who will become Swamp Thing while in human form. Dick Durock plays the character as a towering, costumed creature.
The film begins as Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) joins the research team headed by Dr. Holland, a bio-engineering project tasked with creating a plant-animal hybrid. This sounds pretty insidious to me, to create this horrible creature, but these are the good guys. Fine, whatever. I’ll just shut off my brain, accept the logic, and just go, “Okay, that will be a good thing that they create this terrifying creature.”
A villainous scientist by the name of Dr. Anton Arcane, who wants to steal Holland’s research as his own, has a team of mercenaries raid Holland’s compound in the swamp, steal the research and blow the place up. Dr. Holland is covered in chemicals, is lit ablaze and runs outside and jumps into the swampy water and vanishes… only to return as the Swamp Thing, a plant-man creature with incredible strength.
I’m not sure which version was shown on TCM, but two versions exist, and the one I kind of lucked upon on YouTube was the unedited version with quite a few scenes of nudity. No violence was added to the extended version, but the nudity was enough to cause a controversy when people rented it, seeing an accidental PG-rating from the MPAA attributed to it. So, seeing a guy lit on fire: Fine. Seeing a naked pair of breasts: Gotta call and complain about this madness!
If Deadly Friend is similar to Frankenstein, then Swamp Thing is similar to another one of Universal’s sympathetic monsters: The Creature From the Black Lagoon, complete with hideous monsters carrying barely-clothed women imagery.
I saw Swamp Thing a few times when I was a kid and I liked it. But I remember that for whatever reason at that age, I loved the sequel: Return of Swamp Thing. By all accounts, it’s apparently a piece of shit, but I do own it on VHS and if I ever have enough energy or curiosity, or that perfect curious-energetic ratio, I’ll check it out again.
Wes Craven is such a fun director. It’s hard to imagine that Deadly Friend and Swamp Thing were directed by the same person. It’s crazy that these two films were made by the person who also made such instant classics as The Hills Have Eyes, Nightmare on Elm Street, Last House on the Left or Scream.
Join me next week when it looks like I’ll just be reviewing the one movie, one I’ve never seen before: 1985’s Red Sonja.