Wes Craven. A name synonymous with horror, and a director to have not one, but three genre-defining movies to his name. The first is his first film, Last House on the Left, the next would come some years later in the guise of A Nightmare on Elm Street and finally the re-invention of horror that was Scream. But tonight’s feature sits in an uncomfortable transition period, between the home invasion, brutality of his earlier output and the more supernatural elements that would later define Elm Street, and tries somewhat unsuccessfully to meld these two sub-genres together into what amounts to a clever idea that doesn’t quite come off. Indeed it reminds me very much, in its presentation, of giallo, at least in its main story thrust with clear inspiration taken from the Italian masters, right down to the spider. So whilst it may have lofty ideas, it loses something in the execution, even if there are elements of excellence scattered through-out. So lookout behind you as we delve into tonight’s feature presentation, Wes Craven’s 1981 cult shocker, Deadly Blessing.
The film opens up to a field being ploughed by what look to be Amish people (actually they are Hittites, similar in nature to the Amish, only more zealot) working the land manually with their tools. There is narration that hints at a hidden horror, devilish beasts that remain unspoken of and hushed up, presumably by the people we are seeing. This opening gives us no idea what time the film is set, it is only with the sound of a tractor engine starting that we realise that we are in modern times (actually the early eighties as clothing and hairstyles will soon give away), and that the Hittites hold on to their simple lives and shun those that do not conform, even excommunicating those that break from the fold. The leader is Isaiah Schmidt who rules his flock with a rod of iron, actually a wooden cane, and is not averse to using it to administer God’s Will. There is no age discrimination from his wrath; young, old, his own offspring are not immune and even public floggings are not beneath him. Genre actor Ernest Borgnine gives life to Isaiah but plays it without any wit or depth in a performance that earned him a Raspberry nomination, and it’s easy to see why. As leader of his people he should display a cruel authority, those not of the faith should be shunned with utter contempt, these things are shown but never believed and I think it’s more a fact of under writing than poor acting. Not once do we believe that Isaiah commands the respect of his flock, even if they cower under him, he has neither the presence nor the fear that leaders of such lifestyles possess – even if he went all fire and brimstone, or ruled with a cruel menace, either choice would have made him at least memorable. As it is the character is wasted.
As the scene unfolds we see a young lady painting a landscape, it is slightly twisted in its presentation. She is Faith Stohler and just as her art is slightly askew so too will her tale be. As she paints she hears the name calling of ‘incubus’ and one of the faithful, William, leaps the fence and destroys the painting chasing Faith all the while calling her that fearful name. This exchange along with the beginning narration hints at the story direction the film will take; that of something supernatural hiding in plain sight – and though we don’t know it yet is actually far more devilish than we first suspect. Faith is played by Lisa Hartman, who took a short semester from TV roles and then went straight back to them. She is a ‘local gal’ short on education and very forward in her actions this makes her a target for the Hittites and a liability for her mother. William, however, is a very recognisable face from Craven’s own catalogue, and is given life by Michael Berryman. His looks seem to dictate his characters, at least in the early years, and here he plays to type very easily – William, much like Faith, is somewhat under-educated, easily lead (even by his own close friends and peers) and gives the impression of being simple but calm, though our first introduction to him and his subsequent voyeurism of Martha point to a darker side in his nature.
Martha is our main protagonist, it is the unholy death of her husband, ex-Hittite and son to Isaiah, that brings the full horror of this community to bear. He was seemingly crushed by his own tractor late one the evening in a scene that plays out as a kind of sick justice for turning his back on his father’s community – though it was his father that shut him out when he fell for Martha. Again there are strong hints of the supernatural at play here, both in the narrative and the filming style, but it is not long before the direction quickly changes.
Immediately after the funeral, Martha’s L.A. friends turn up to keep her company and help with the grieving. Both are young, blond and full of energy; it is clear that Martha is from the same stock and it is only her love of Jim, her husband, that holds her in this farming outback. Even with him gone she still feels a sense of duty to the farm and wishes to continue working it – much to the chagrin of Isaiah and the Hittites who wish the farm return to its native owners. We now have hints at the type of horror that Craven was, at the time, known for, that of class confrontation – a sub-genre that proliferated with such films as Craven’s own Last House on the Left and The Hills have Eyes, but was capitalised on by other master horror makers with the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, It’s Alive and Shivers. Here, in Deadly Blessing, we see the simple common folk of the Hittites against the more modern thinking ex-Californian’s with their blasphemous technology. Much could have been made of this uncomfortable relationship where deep rooted prejudices in the name of Religion could unearth some truly horrific moments. But Craven fails to capitalise on it, or even further hint at, other than through a couple of easy scenes and throw away lines. Last House on the Left was only nine years past, but in that time his eyes had been opened to commercialism, thus the film was made for money and not to exercise his own demons thus that raw energy is simply lacking.
Martha’s two friends were chosen as the antithesis to the small farming community, Vicky Anderson drives a bright red Mustang and jogs in provocative short shorts, while Lana Marcus is your typical Californian blond and a stunner to boot. Vicky, in addition to her looks and demeanour is quite sassy as well, a short scene showing her fighting off a dog by using mace, as well as knowing her way around a gun (lucky the local gas stations sells .44 Magnums huh?), but is also quite the go getter. Her affections towards Isaiah’s other son, John, lead him astray and it is she that initiates all their interplay. Played with delightful relish by Susan Buckner an actress best known for her TV work, though you may recognise her from the hit musical Grease, this, sadly, was to be her last film. Lana, on the other hand, is something of an enigma, being that she very quickly becomes a slave to the supernatural happenings in the house as she becomes haunted by her nightmares. In fact it is she that is at the centre of one of the film’s most notorious scenes and became the poster girl for it – that of having a live spider dropped into her open mouth! Played by the then twenty three year old Sharon Stone, this was her first speaking part in a movie (little wonder they stuffed a spider in it as she is really quite woeful). There is no denying Stone was a looker when she was younger and she flaunts it every chance she gets, however she had yet to develop any real talent so simply saying lines doesn’t cut it. She does manage to look scared and when she is terrorised in the barn she does manage to emote the pre-requisite fear, but later in confrontations with Martha about their situation she seems hopelessly out of her depth.
With the girls arrive there is a spate of less than supernatural killings, and, unfortunately, anyone can be the target, thus alongside the supernatural happenings, strange dreams and spiders, we have a maniac with a knife that likes to kill, kill, kill. The filming style of this centre portion of the film is very reminiscent of giallo – a gloved hand is all you see of the killer as the gruesome acts are committed. These are not limited to knives, though, death by incineration or snake in the bath (the other very notorious scene) are just as likely to see you offed, though there is not as much conviction to the gore as there are in the Italian sub-genre almost as if Craven was afraid of going too far into the red. A shame as this film could do with a bit more blood. Because with the advent of the serial killer the supernatural element gets put onto the back burner, only to be resurrected in the spider swallowing scene which, by this time seems a little out of place. Indeed the whole mishmash of ideas sit uncomfortably next to each other. The idea that this creates a sense of unease doesn’t wash with me, I’m afraid; there is a lot going on and the film doesn’t really know in which direction it wants to head. It is easy, then, to visualise that Craven was on a cusp of his filmmaking career – moving away from the more visceral killers stalking and killing the everyday family into a more ghostly and other horror – this film is a visual metaphor for it, whether it was designed that way or not.
One thing is clear though, there is more than a hint of Argento, or Brava in its presentation, even down to the framing and editing choices. Indeed when the final reveal is made about who the killer is, it is, in the greatest traditions of giallo, suitably obtuse with just enough hints at who it is throughout (but you really have to pay attention) even with all the red herrings thrown in. A great deal of suspense can be laid at the feet of composer James Horner, in a very early outing for him. His score is at times whimsical, at times menacing, but always striking the correct balance with the visuals and this adds immensely to the overall tone of the piece.
The film as presented by Arrow on this Region B locked Blu-ray is the uncut American release that includes the parting shots that have been such a talking point over the years. The original release in the UK omitted these final shots in their entirety (and can be replicated by chapter skipping after the police car drives off) which was far more in line with Craven’s original intention. But with the success of Carrie and its stinger ending (much copied, never equalled) a studio imposed parting shot was added on a re-shoot. There is no denying that it completely changes the tone of the story, and indeed comes as something of a curve ball pulling the supernatural right back into the story. But it could also be viewed with the negative effect of pulling the carpet from under you, and whilst this is not without merit in some cases, here it seems exactly what it is, a tacked on stinger that has little to do with the previous story, despite narration, dreams, spiders or otherwise.
I wouldn’t say the film is a write off though. It clearly marks a transition period and with Craven at the helm there is enough verve to give it a watch. But it is a very small cannon in his otherwise formidable arsenal. Pick it up to see a delicious Sharon Stone trying to act with a spider in her mouth or to watch Craven wrestle a giallo movie out of a mishmash of ideas, or even for a remarkably good score from an on form James Horner. Don’t set your hopes too high and you will be suitable entertained, even if you just try to spot the killer before the pay off. The parting shot? Well that’ll give you something to mull over in your bath with snakes, I’m sure.
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