With no contractual obligation Instead of remaining with New Line to shepherd the inevitable sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street (which ended up being directed by Jack Sholder in 1985 as Craven had no contractual guarantee to remain with the series), Craven wanted to tackle something unlike anything else in his filmography: Deadly Friend (1986), an adaptation of Diana Henstell's novel Friend scripted by Bruce Joel Rubin, who had written the famously unproduced cult script Jacob's Ladder (eventually filmed in 1990) and would go on to win an Academy Award for Ghost (also 1990).
Deadly Friend was originally conceived by Craven and producer Bob Sherman as a tragic teenage love story with elements of science fiction and horror, something not that far removed from the audience for such 1985 films as Weird Science or Back to the Future but in a much darker key (with Craven particularly citing Starman as a kindred type of project). Due to Craven's presence, the film received an unusually heavy amount of coverage from the horror press, particularly Fangoria, which played up the fantastic elements in the story of gifted budding neurosurgeon and robotics engineer Paul (Little House on the Prairie's Matthew Labyorteaux) and his attempts to use his skills to bring back his neighbor, Samantha (Kristy Swanson, the first Buffy the Vampire Slayer), after she's murdered by her abusive father. A real former neurosurgeon, Dr. William H. Faethe, was brought to the set to consult on the surgery scenes, but Craven was adamant during principal photography that the film would be a far cry from his Nightmare on Elm Street shocks. "The book on which the film is based was much more grotesque," he noted during a set visit for Fangoria (#56). "People were named 'Piggy' and 'Slime,' and they were always grunting and sweating. We just made them much more normal, living in a normal neighborhood." Also discarded was the element of Samantha's physical decay over the course of the story; in the novel her existence as an animated corpse is more overtly gruesome and would have resulted in a very different final product.
Principal photography was a very smooth and harmonious process for everyone involved according to all accounts, with Rubin and Craven getting along well and Rubin's children even being chosen as production mascots. A relative newcomer at the time best known for roles in two 1986 teen classics, Pretty in Pink (as Ducky's consolation girl) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (as the briefly-glimpsed Simone), Swanson showed up on set the day after finishing shooting the Disney made-for-TV film Mr. Boogedy (1986) and found the tonal changes demanded by the studio to be a particular challenge. However, she spoke fondly of the shoot and remained proud of her role, particularly the work she achieved in her robotic form courtesy of consulting with professional mime Richmond Shepard.
However, the success of Nightmare on Elm Street ultimately proved to be a major obstacle for this film when it was screened during production for executives at Warner Bros. The lack of gore or nightmare sequences led to demands that Rubin write six new scenes, including a nightmare sequence involving Samantha's father, a highly illogical shock ending set in a morgue, and the film's most talked-about sequence involving actress Anne Ramsey and a basketball (which was trimmed down for an R rating in theaters and on VHS but has been restored to its original length now in most versions). "They really destroyed our love story," Rubin said in Fangoria (#98), "and everyone still blames me for the ending! That robot coming out of the girl's head belongs solely to Mark Tapin, and you don't tell the president of Warner Bros. that his idea stinks!"
Despite the patchwork nature of its added scenes, Deadly Friend went on to become a fan favorite on TV and home video, with its score by original Nightmare on Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein also earning a solid following. (Confusingly, the original soundtrack LP consisted of electronic demos rather than the actual film score, which was released later on CD.) Immediately after this film, Craven went on to pen the extremely successful A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) and Swanson would go on to play the lead in New World Pictures' Gothic adaptation of Flowers in the Attic (1987) with much more to come in their futures. Today their sole collaboration can more easily be appreciated as a fascinating transitional film in a genre trying to reinvent itself, with a few unavoidable birthing pains along the way.
By Nathaniel Thompson