Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Deadly Blessing (1981)

Young farmers Martha (Maren Jensen, Athena in the original Battlestar Galactica) and Jim (Douglas Barr, Bill Stillfield in Designing Women) find it aggravating enough that Jim's father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine, Harry Booth in The Black Hole), who leads a strict Amish-like sect called the Hittites, disapproves of their marriage enough to have cut Jim off from his family. But when Jim is unexpectedly run over and killed by his own tractor in the middle of the night, his simple cousin William (Michael Berryman, Pluto in The Hills Have Eyes) is stabbed while peeping through windows and then strung up in the barn, and someone puts a water moccasin in Martha's bath, it's time to buy a gun. Because this is a Wes Craven movie, and Craven has no time for protagonists who respond to threat with anything less than lethal force.

Soon, Martha's friends Vicky (Susan Buckner, Patty Simcox in Grease) and Lara (Sharon Stone, Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct) have ralied around so that they can tell her about their spider-nightmares and try to score Martha's Hittite brother-in-law John (Jeff East, Young Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie). Meanwhile, Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine, Dutch in The Wild Bunch) keeps going on about how they are with the Incubus (undefined here but usually a male demon that seduces or rapes women), non-Hittite mother & daughter Louisa (Lois Nettleton, Sister Marion in Mirror Mirror 2) and Faith (Lisa Harman, Tabitha in Tabitha) act weird and vaguely threatening, Vicky maces a dog, John tries to rape his fiancée/cousin Melissa (Colleen Riley, Jane in The Hills Have Eyes Part II), Lara finds a milk carton filled with blood, Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine, Cabbie in Escape from New York) beats the shit out of a little kid, and a Wes Craven tv movie plays at a hard-top theatre.

Despite all of the weirdness and the trappings from other horror subgenres, Deadly Blessing is the closest Wes Craven came to directing an old-school slasher. A Nightmare on Elm Street and Shocker are supernatural stories with undead villains, Last House on the Left is a rape/revenge movie, The Hills Have Eyes is closer to the rural massacre subgenre, and the Scream movies are metafictional slasher parodies. Deadly Blessing, at the end of the day, is about someone putting on their black leather gloves and killing people, complete with one of the genre's oldest and most hackneyed pseudo-psychosexual rationales; everything else is just red herrings or window dressing.

Except for that goddamned ending. But more about that later.

The script may be all over the place, but Deadly Blessing looks lovely and has some good set-pieces, from the huge, empty spaces seen in the opening shots of Hittites working the fields to the claustrophobic scene of Sharon Stone being stalked through a spider-infested barn. James Horner's score may steal too bluntly from Jerry Goldsmith's for The Omen but it helps make the scope of the movie seem bigger than the usual mad slasher flick.

Sharon Stone features in the two best horror set-pieces in the movie. The most famous is a dream sequence, which made it onto the poster (see the bottom of this post for both a clip and the poster). The other, and my favourite part of the movie, is the aforementioned scene where she is locked in a barn filled with cobwebs and spiders and possibly the killer and definitely a corpse. Deadly Blessing was Stone's first speaking role, and although her lack of experience shows in other scenes, she really shines in this dialogue-free sequence.

(Incidentally, legend usually has it that Stone had the spider that was dropped in her mouth de-fanged, which lead to it starving to death. This is untrue: freeze-frame that sequence and you can tell that it's a fake spider. The large huntsman spider that crawls on her décolletage is the one that she had de-fanged.)

The bathtub scene in Deadly Blessing was apparently inspired by a dream Craven had the night before shooting; he later memorably reused it in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Fans of the auteur theory will be able to find a number of themes that also appear in other Craven movies: a stern father figure, a sense of isolation, visceral nightmare sequences, booby traps, protagonists who fight back as fiercely as they're attacked, and of course a silly producer-prescribed ending.

After everything has been wrapped up, rough justice has been served, and even Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine, Mermaid Man in SpongeBob SquarePants) has pronounced that "the messenger of the Incubus is dead!", Martha is left alone in the house. She's now widowed and pregnant and has to tend to the farm entirely on her own. Then the Incubus jumps out of a hole in the floor and drags Martha down to hell. The End! Then the audience says, "What?" Yes, it's one of those clichéd '80s horror shock endings that not only makes no sense, it makes a mockery of everything that's come before! The end of Deadly Blessing is particularly out of left field, but it's part of a long tradition that can be traced back through Friday the 13th and Carrie to Deliverance and beyond.

All in all, Deadly Blessing is a fairly good entry in Wes Craven's extremely uneven directorial career, and a slightly unconventional slasher movie with some utterly tacked-on pieces of a supernatural horror movie. Craven's main contribution to the script seems to be the horror set-pieces, which are the best parts of the movie even while working against the story. If you're looking for an entertaining and nostalgic piece of '80s horror nonsense with more class than sleaze, this is a good bet.

This post was originally written for Stacie Ponder's Film Club, but I got in too late. So it goes.