Paul, a teenage prodigy in robotics and artificial intelligence, reanimates his teenage neighbor Sam by implanting his pet robot’s processor into her brain after she’s rendered brain dead by her abusive alcoholic father. It works, but she’s an effective zombie, incapable of speech and exhibiting a robot’s herky-jerky movement. Things escalate when Sam uses her newfound robot strength to extract gruesome vengeance on her father and other neighbors.
In a 2021 interview, screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin revealed he intended to pass on adapting Diana Henstell’s novel Friend because he hated the book. He changed his mind after meditating and hearing his yoga mentor’s voice say, “There’s more integrity in providing for your family than in turning down jobs.” His original draft (also titled Friend) played as a macabre love story1.
But the initial test screening convinced the studio the film needed more violence. Something he and director Wes Craven were happy to contribute. Reshoots added scenes of escalating brutality. Rubin remembers audiences hooting and cheering during a follow-up screening, but now studio execs felt it was too violent and demanded cuts. “For every second we lose,” Rubin remembers Craven saying, “that’s a million at the box office.”1
Craven proved prescient. The resulting film underwhelms. The first half plays like a PG-rated teen romance. Paul, with his robot sidekick BB, displays an advanced maturity befitting a gifted intellect. But upon encountering Sam, he’s flustered, stammers, and feels every bit a fifteen-year-old boy.
This proves a departure for Craven, known for his edgy independent horror, but he surprises, coaxing charismatic performances from his young leads. The inserted scenes of violence, including BB choking a would-be car-thief and Sam dreaming of stabbing her father and having him spurt gallons of blood over her, feel pulled from one of these earlier Craven entries.
Though the film bears some superficial resemblance to the Frankenstein story, it’s not equipped to tackle the issue of playing God. Paul’s adolescent love for Sam renders him a child, not wanting to play God, just wanting his friend back.
The tone smooths out once Sam begins her killing spree, but at the cost of any emotional or narrative stakes. Sam’s a mindless zombie, ending her effective romantic chemistry with Paul, who’s never in any danger. There’s a visceral glee in watching Sam take revenge on the awful neighbors—including a memorable exploding head sequence—but the story’s focus has been on Paul, so the revenge feels less personal.
Also—short of Elm Street—is this the worst block on the planet? Next door, an abusive alcoholic. Across the street, a shotgun-happy paranoid shut-in. And prowling the streets, a gang of would-be bikers riding sport motorcycles instead of Harleys and picking on kids half their age.
But I digress. Things build to a crescendo when Paul’s friend Tom—aghast at the horror that Sam’s become—storms out of Paul’s house, threatening to go to the police. As Tom mounts his bike, he glances up, and Sam crashes out of a second-floor window in a swan dive yelling “Ahhhhh!”
This scene had me laughing aloud. I rewound it twice, laughing harder each time. Anyway, she lands on Tom and begins attacking him. Paul pulls her off and slaps her, causing her to flee, leading to a standoff with the police. The closing scene makes no sense, but the script has dug such a deep hole of ridiculousness, doubling down was the only viable option.
A shame. Matthew Labyorteaux and Kristy Swanson charm as Paul and Sam. They have great chemistry, and their early scenes together play cute. The original PG-rated macabre love story might not have appealed to Wes Craven’s core demographic, but it would have been a better movie. Granted, that’s not saying much.
- Written in Blood, Deadly Friend, Shout Factory, 2021.↩