Cravenous: Deadly Friend

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As if we (and Craven) didn’t learn this lesson with Deadly Blessing, here comes another example of how outside involvement in one’s creative process is bad, mmmkay?

Funny that it would be with the second movie Craven directed with the word “Deadly” in the title (although the title was originally the same as the book on which the story is tenuously based). I speak, of course, of 1986’s Deadly Friend. Based on Diana Henstell’s novel Friend, Bruce Joel Rubin wrote the screenplay for this story about teenaged computer genius Paul and his robot BB, and how they moved to a new town, where Paul fell in love with pretty blonde Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sam, who ends up dead at the hands of her abusive father around the same time that Paul loses BB to a blast of rifle shot from the neighborhood hermit who was just trying to be hermit-y. So what does Paul do? Implants BB’s A.I. chip into Sam’s brain, of course. Hilarity…didn’t ensue. Just a whole lot of WTFery.

Oh, also, Rubin’s most famous other contributions to Hollywood are that he wrote Jacob’s Ladder and Ghost. That kind of lessens the sting of this train wreck. Although, again, this is all about the damage of outside demands.

So what happened with this movie? A whole lot of wrong. See, Warner Bros. was delighted to have snagged the director who had been riling up the horror crowd for more than a decade at this point and had just dropped Freddy Krueger on audiences to continuing success for New Line Cinema. They wanted to channel that power into their own pockets, which translated to they wanted Craven to deliver something as horrific or worse than A Nightmare on Elm Street into their movie collection (see the movie’s poster above, which claims that this movie was Craven’s “most horrifying creation,” which was kind of right, but for all the wrong reasons).

Craven, however, had a completely different idea. He was tiring already of being known only as a horror director. With this film, he was hoping to do something more like a sci-fi thriller/love story. Something sweet and intriguing, not disgusting and unsettling like most of his other movies. Neither Warner Bros. nor his devoted fans were feeling this. When he finished the first cut of this movie, which went through title changes from Friend to Artificial Intelligence to A.I. and finally to Deadly Friend, everyone but Craven was disappointed. Fans wanted gore. Warner Bros. wanted gore. Also, WB VP Mark Canton wanted an ending that makes absolutely zero sense but that ended up being the new ending because no one tells the emperor that he looks stupid naked.

Craven ended up going back in and adding a bunch of gore and a few minuscule scares throughout the film to satisfy the fan demand, and re-shot the ending to match the upper echelon request…and what we ended up with was what I would now categorize as the kind of movie that is enjoyable when you’re young, but that contains far too many plot holes and questionable decisions to continue to be enjoyable to an adult with a hyper-critical mind.

It actually surprised me in all the bad ways how much I couldn’t enjoy this movie anymore. Not really scary, not really sci-fi, extremely dated, and with tons of questionable choices, I at least can say that Deadly Friend is still fun to watch for two reasons: catching all the anachronisms and poor choices; and one of the greatest horror death scenes ever. Think basketball versus head.

Oh yeah.

Otherwise, I spent much of the movie, including the increasingly more ridiculous end half, asking all kinds of questions that detracted from the story immensely. Questions like why did Sam have to look like a raccoon after she died? Was there no budget for a decent make-up artist? Couldn’t Craven bring some of his crew from NOES to help him out on this film? After being spoiled by the makeup for Freddy Krueger, going to this movie’s idea of “dead” makeup was more than jarring. It was just silly. See Exhibit A:

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Seriously, I could come up with a better corpse makeup than this. Then again, was she a corpse? Was the A.I. processor taking over the functions of a living entity? Or was it merely animating dead flesh. That was never really addressed, but something needed to be touched upon to explain this ridiculous makeup.

Then there is the question of Sam’s robotic movements. BB’s A.I. processor was having difficulty integrating into her brain. He wanted to keep moving the way he remembered moving. However, he had no trouble integrating enough to use her legs to walk even though he shouldn’t have known how to use legs. Why, then, couldn’t he just as quickly figure out how to use her hands the way they were meant to be used? Because the pincer hands were a little distracting. See Exhibit B:

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She just walked around like that for most of the time that the character was “BB/Sam,” until it was no longer convenient but literally made no sense that she started to function normally toward the end only to…well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Back up to the fact that, in addition to moving like BB, Sam also sounded like BB. Which meant that Sam sounded like a demented Roger Rabbit, because Charles Fleischer made the annoying noises attributed to the robot. Why? She only possessed BB’s A.I. processor. Not his vocal chords. Of course, they never really specified how BB made any noise in the first place. Still, there should have been no way that his voice could have come from her larynx. That was just silly, and made all the sillier when she then started to sound like herself at the end.

Even sillier than this? The ending. Ugh, the ending. So Sam meets her second ending from a bullet from a deputy’s gun after causing a whole bunch of death and destruction. Paul, still unwilling to let go of probably the only girl to ever show any interest in him (and for some reason not in a cell of his own for stealing a dead body and re-animating it for this death trek through this once-quiet town), breaks into the morgue to steal Sam again, only to find that somehow a robot has grown beneath Sam’s human skin, breaking through at just the right moment to start choking Paul before the film mercifully finally fades to black. Oh, but not before we hear that Sam once more sounds like BB.

W.T.A.F.

This seriously was one of the worst endings possible for this movie. I don’t care if Canton was one of Warner Bros.’ VPs at the time. This ending makes NO SENSE. How would a robot grow? And what happened to Sam’s bones and organs and blood? Paul stole her body from the hospital before she could be embalmed or prepped in any way for burial. Everything was still there. Only now it transformed into robot parts. Never mind the fact that, right before Sam is killed again, she’s starting to show signs of returning to a more normally functioning human, with normal human movement and normal human speech (or that, when she’s shot, she bleeds and we don’t hear any tin ricochet noise or something equally ridiculous). What was that all about? How could she be going full human only to then turn into a robot at the end?

Logic, you are completely MIA from this film.

Still, with all the terrible, I’d still rather watch this than Chiller ever again. I’m not sure that’s saying much, but it’s all I’ve got at this point.

Cravenous: The Hills Have Eyes Part 2

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I’m honestly surprised that Wes Craven agreed to tackle a sequel to his 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes, especially considering how adamantly against an open ending he was for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Then again, even though The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 came out after Nightmare, Craven started working on it before that film released. Perhaps his experience with this film was partially what drove his disinterest in leading another of his films down the franchise route.

There’s not really a whole lot to say about this sequel. True to most 80s horror sequels, it takes the original idea, guts it of value and back-fills it instead with more gore and more gratuitous nudity. That’s pretty much this film in a nutshell. The only original characters to return for this film are Michael Berryman’s Pluto (who gets royally shafted in this film), Robert Houston’s Bobby, and Janus Blythe’s hill girl Ruby, who now goes by Rachel. Oh and Beast, the German shepherd, who is probably the most interesting character from the entire film.

The premise is that Bobby is still severely traumatized by the events of the first film and when he learns that the motocross team he trains and has developed a high-octane fuel for is going to compete in the desert near where those events happened, he freaks and can’t go. So his wife, Rachel/Ruby, takes his place and leads his unknowing team of dirtbiking dudes (and their girlfriends) off into the empty terrain of her former home. Of course, they break down and the remaining cannibal clan find them. You’d think the clan would be led by Pluto (who, by the by, shouldn’t have made it to the sequel since it seemed pretty clear from the first film that Beast killed Pluto, but whatever). Instead, the leader is the Reaper, the brother of Jupiter, the leader from the first movie.

Now, that’s where the plot really falls apart for me. This introduction of the Reaper is painfully convenient, especially considering how important it was to stress how horrible Jupiter was in the first film—so horrible that his own father abandoned him alone in the desert to fend for himself. No mention there of a brother. And yet for the sequel, we get a brother who is supposedly even worse than the first guy? Perhaps they were only supposed to be brothers in name only, but if that was the case, then they needed to stress this a bit more. Otherwise, it just feels like a flimsy plot contrivance.

I would have much rather seen Pluto as the big bad of this film. Craven could have made him a proper badass to better explain how he survived the first film. Instead, he turned Pluto into a bumbling, skittering Falstaff to the Reaper’s terror. And, spoilers ahoy, he bites it well before the end of the film. A shame, really.

The returning character who doesn’t bite it but instead bites others? Beast. Most badass dog on the block, yo. So badass that he has flashbacks. I kid you not, denizens. Beast has a flashback to the events of the original movie, and it might possibly be one of the greatest moments in film history. Dog flashback. Thank you, Wes Craven. Also, thank you for letting the dog survive this time. And kill Pluto. Again.

Spoilers.

Craven does introduce an intriguing plot element by having one of the characters, Tamara Stafford’s Cass, be blind. I liked the utilization her other senses to figure out what was happening around her. Kane Hodder appears in the movie as a stuntman. Guess it was in between Friday the 13th films for him. Peter Frechette’s in it, for you two Profiler fans out there. Oh, and Penny Johnson plays Sue. It’s not until many, many moons later that she lands her job as Kassidy Yates on Deep Space Nine.

Not much else to say about this movie. It’s an okay sequel, but not really necessary. However, I’m glad that Craven took the reins on the sequel rather than let others tamper with his original creation. Wonder what might have happened with the Nightmare franchise had he held on to those reins as well…

Cravenous: Chiller

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I know I’m calling this one early, but I’m going to have to say that Chiller is probably going to be my least favorite film from Craven’s directorial oeuvre.

It’s not that Craven did a terrible job on directing. It was a nice, solid, middle-of-the-road effort for a movie that was…meh. Not the worst made-for-television movie. Not the best. Just meh.

The story, written by J.D. Feigelson (who apparently had a very brief career as a screenwriter of other equally unmemorable-sounding horror scripts), contemplates what might happen if someone was revived from cryogenic suspension without their soul. He doesn’t have a very positive outlook for such a person.

Very existential-sounding plot, right? Of course, it requires that one believes that behavior is dictated by a “soul” rather than something less ethereal like personality, genetics, upbringing, etc. I’m not really all that keen on believing that who I am is contingent upon what my soul is like, or that missing my soul would turn me into a cold, calculating jerk with serpent eyes.

Really, really cheesy serpent eyes, mind you.

I don’t really have a whole lot else to say about this movie. It was rather dull, with no real standout directing or acting. Paul Sorvino is probably the most recognizable name. Beatrice Straight played the mother; horror fans will recognize her as Dr. Lesh from Poltergeist. Dick O’Neill was in it for a hot minute, for all you Cagney and Lacey fans.

I kind of feel as though this was an immense step backward for Craven after he dropped the magnificence that is Nightmare on Elm Street on us all. Then again, people might not have yet twigged to how amazing that movie was and how wondrous Craven could be when given control of his films. He was probably still just that guy who made horror movies to them. A shame, really, that he had to waste time on something like this when he clearly could do far better.

Cravenous: A Nightmare on Elm Street

If ever the hashtag #SorryNotSorry were applicable to anything I have done here at the lair, this is the time. I stated in my initial Cravenous post that I wanted to examine Wes Craven’s lesser-acknowledged films…the ones that didn’t include “Nightmare” or “Scream” in their titles. However, I simply couldn’t skip this film, denizens. My horror-loving heart is so full with joy and exuberance for this particular movie that the thought of not taking full advantage to re-watch and re-examine it filled me with an aching sadness. Besides, I’ve actually never written specifically about the film. I’ve done a Poster Pick examination of the film’s poster (ah, Poster Picks, I miss you so). I’ve also written about Nancy Thompson as a Lady of Horror May-hem.

Now is the time on Sprockets when I finally write about the actual film, and the most significant solo contribution that Wes Craven made to the horror genre: A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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Die-hard horror fans will already know how Craven found real-world inspiration for this script within several news articles that detailed the mysterious sleep-induced deaths of Laotian refugees who had recently immigrated to the United States. They claimed that something was trying to kill them in their dreams. No one believed them; in one instance, a young Laotian man struggled to stay awake for several days before his family finally got him to sleep. I’m sure you know what fate he met.

Craven, of course, being fascinated already by the historical terror and power of dreams (he had trained himself since college to dream lucidly and to keep a dream journal), instantly knew that he wanted to come up with a movie that centered on a powerful dream demon who would take out his victims when they were most vulnerable. He also knew, thanks to his daughter Jessica’s influence, that he wanted a strong heroine to lead his story. Remember how I wrote in my review of Swamp Thing that Jessica was disappointed in her father’s use of the cliched “Tripping Heroine” trope? With Nancy Thompson, Craven set out to undo that disappointment tenfold.

What Craven did was create one of the most significant (though ultimately too revisited) villains of modern horror as well as one of the fiercest horror heroines. We’ll get back to Nancy in a moment, though. Now, rather than simply regurgitating to you all the fun factoids that I have learned about this film throughout the years of my obsession, I’m instead going to encourage you to seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie. It’s chock-full of special features, including two full-length “commentaries” (I feel as though one of the commentaries was more of a pieced together selection of interview bits from various players in the film and crew rather than a legitimate commentary session). Pay special attention during the commentary with Craven, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin to hear mention to how this was for the laser disc release of the movie. Good times.

A couple of intriguing moments from the commentaries that I would like to focus on came from two of the lovely ladies to star in this film. First was from Amanda Wyss, who played Tina Gray. She referred to the teens in this film as “shelterless.” I think is a brutally beautiful way to describe Freddy’s teen victims. They had no consistently protective force in their lives (with possibly the exception of Glen). Even Nancy with her stalwart police officer father couldn’t completely depend on him. Having divorced parents meant that she only had access to him in a limited capacity. Instead, she was living with her mother, who chose to deal with the secret that the Elm Street parents were keeping from their children by disappearing into alcoholic fugues as often as possible. That takes us to the deeper truth of this “shelterless” existence. Nancy and her friends were being taken out by this dream demon because of the sin of their parents. What began as these parents taking the hard-line final choice when it came to protecting their children from the neighborhood child molester and murderer ultimately led not only to their inability to protect their children but their culpability in their children’s murders at the hands of the man they killed. It’s quite the perverse circle jerk, if you think about it.

Conversely, I suppose that you could argue that the parents provided the wrong sheltering. Nancy’s mother sheltered her from the truth of who Fred Krueger had been. All the parents sheltered their children from this truth, and that cost them all dearly.

The second moment was hearing Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp refer the character of Nancy Thompson as a “warrior woman.” It really struck a chord with me and made me re-evaluate my use of a more accepted term when it comes to the surviving females in horror movies: the Final Girl.

I’ve always taken issue with the use of “girl” in the comics world. Whereas the use of “boy” for the male superheroes is rare (and usually refers to an actual young character), there are several instances of “girl” in the names of female superheroes, including those who are clearly not les petites filles. I can’t help but wonder whether the absence of “boy” isn’t in part because of the negative connotations this term carries in reference to a grown man. One need only look to segregation-era America to understand the dismissive, offensive implications of using a child identifier for an adult man. While not on the same derogatory level as “boy” is in this context, I would argue that “girl” in reference to a grown woman, or even a woman on the precipice of adulthood, is similarly dismissive. Additionally, it’s infantilizing the character in question—locking her in at a certain age and never allowing her to reach full maturity. The implication is that this character must look eternally young (a brutally pervasive mindset that drives far too many women into the mutilating “care” of plastic surgeons) and be in constant need of supervisory assistance, care, or rescue.

Similarly, the term “Final Girl” carries with it a pejorative air, especially when you take into consideration that: A) there is no male counterpart term—no “Final Boy”; and B) any male character who survives such a trial would most assuredly be viewed as a fully tested man by the end of said events.

So why not the same for the female characters?

With Nancy Thompson, the term “warrior woman” resonates so wonderfully and so vividly with her approach to defeating the dream demon she and her friends are encountering. At no point does Nancy ever view herself as Freddy’s victim. Instead, she goes about trying to figure out what’s happening to her friends and her; once she gets the full story, she goes into survival mode and begins planning how to defeat Krueger rather than sitting by, idly awaiting her turn as his next kill. Additionally, she must contend with the doubt of all the adults around her and the continued murder of her peer group. She accepts her fate and her need to complete this journey, with or without the benefit of external support. In her final showdown with Freddy is where Nancy proves her mettle most eloquently. She is in such control of that moment that never once have I doubted that her strength could have defeated this nightmarish stalker. It’s such a fantastically powerful moment and one of my all-time favorites from any genre.

I wish that Craven had gotten his wish to end this movie on a more final note. While I have often stated that I first discovered Freddy Krueger through the campier, sillier Elm Street sequels, once I learned the origin of this monster, I understood the dilution of his power that the sequels had upon him. It also made me appreciate all the more Craven’s efforts with New Nightmare.

In addition to getting an amazing script from Craven, we also get a top-notch technical crew who pull off some incredibly progressive practical work. Of course, there’s the rotating room that allows for the memorable deaths of Tina and Glenn (spoilers). Again, seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie for some great stories from Craven about this room. There’s Haitkin’s gorgeously atmospheric cinematography and lighting. Speaking of lighting and ingenuity, I do want to touch upon one particular technical moment from this film for its simple yet highly effective brilliance. While there are many moments of technical merit throughout this film, I’ve chosen this one for how it reminds me of an equally effective simple trick from John Carpenter’s Halloween. In that film, we see the slow emergence of Michael Myers from the shadows with the use of a blue light bulb slowly illuminated beneath his iconic mask.

For this movie, we see the emergence of Freddy Krueger from the solid wall behind Nancy as she sleeps. As it goes in cinematic lore, they achieved this by stretching a panel of white spandex behind the bed and having special effects technician Jim Doyle push against the spandex while lit from underneath. The end result of Freddy hovering over Nancy’s prone form is visually stunning and disturbing.

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Add to all this an amazing cast, including Langenkamp, Saxon, Wyss, Johnny Depp in his first film appearance ever, Ronnie Blakely, Roger Rabbit as the sleep disorder researcher with the weirdest taste in posters…

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Seriously, what’s up with that poster next to Fleischer’s character? And who else has ever noticed it before?

Oh, and Robert Englund. I give Craven so much credit for the script and the directing, but choosing Englund to play Freddy Krueger was key. Had he not selected the right actor for this role, this could have just been another cheesy 80s slasher flick. The stars aligned so magically for this film, however, and we the horror faithful are that much better off for the fact.