Wes Craven is the Sultan of Shock, the director behind such blood-drenched cult-classics as "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "The Last House on the Left" and "Swamp Thing." So it comes as something of a surprise to find Craven in a more meditative, and even playful mood, in "Deadly Friend" (citywide), an adept new horror film that lacks much of the graphic gore and disturbing imagery that has outraged many critics (and thrilled horror fans) in the past.

Craven remains a savvy storyteller--and he still jolts us with a couple of hideous frights--but this new film lacks the skin-crawling intensity of past Craven efforts.

As is the custom these days, the horror film hero is a teen-ager, though Paul Conway (Matthew Laborteaux) is anything but an average high-schooler. At 15, he's already a graduate student at local Poly Tech, dabbling in brain surgery when he's not adding some new circuitry to his latest creation, Bee Bee the robot. With a raspy, Daffy Duck-voice and a frisky personality, Bee Bee's a great pal. He not only protects Paul from neighborhood bullies, but helps him make friends with Samantha (Kristy Swanson), the pretty girl next door who's glad to get away from her abusive, alcoholic father.

It takes a while for the movie to really kick into gear, but when both Bee Bee and Samantha fall victim to adult-provoked disasters, Paul finds himself in the role of a teen-age Dr. Frankenstein, using his technological wizardry to bring one of his beloved companions back to life.

Craven is a master at creating the illusion of small-town normalcy--Paul has a poster of Einstein on his wall, carves pumpkins with his mom and has a best friend who works a paper route. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems, especially after dark, when the teen-agers fall prey to a series of chilling dreams that signal trouble. ("Nightmare on Elm Street" fans will note that the worst shocks occur under the covers and down in the basement--two popular Craven horror pit stops).

Unfortunately, Bruce Joel Rubin's script takes the story in too many directions, not only straining credibility, but undercutting our sympathies with key characters. While Laborteaux is especially likeable as the wide-eyed teen-age wizard, Swanson is so radically transformed during the film that its hard for her to cope with the demands of the role. Hard-core horror fans will still find plenty of grisly action here--just keep your eyes on the bouncing basketball--but "Deadly Friend" (rated-R for its graphic gore) is a disappointment for long-time Craven followers. There are plenty of shocks, and even a tinge of sadness, in this nifty little thriller, but not enough razor-edge electricity.

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