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Monday, February 16, 2009

Deadly Blessing (1981) review


Maren Jensen (Martha Schmidt), Sharon Stone (Lana Marcus), Susan Buckner (Vicky Anderson), Ernest Borgnine (Isaiah Schmidt), Jeff East (John Schmidt), Lisa Hartman (Faith Stohler), Lois Nettleton (Louisa Stohler), Michael Berryman (William Gluntz), Doug Barr (Jim Schmidt)

Directed by Wes Craven

"We are the kindred of God! We have no business with the serpents!"

In a farming community out in the middle of nowhere, Jim Schmidt, a former member of a Hitite commune, returns to his home accompanied by his bride. Following the words of Isaiah, the Hitite leader, Jim is shunned by his former clan. Not long after, Jim is killed in a freak accident. His wife, Martha, refuses to leave the land Jim inherited despite Isaiah's insistence that "The incubus is among us!" Martha invites her two best friends to come out and stay with her till she gets over her husbands death. Soon, strange and horrifying occurrences take place resulting in several murders blurring the line between reality and the supernatural.

Wes Craven directs this early effort (shot back to back with SWAMP THING) in his filmography and a drastic change of pace from his brutal beginnings with THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). He next did a television film starring Linda Blair entitled STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE (1978) aka SUMMER OF FEAR (the latter title showing up on a theater marquee later in the film). Wes Craven retains some of that TV movie mentality with DEADLY BLESSING. Although it has several nude scenes, it has that TV movie ambiance of the time, yet that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Horror films made for television back then were far more brutal and over the top then they later became, and bore qualities not too far removed from their more theatrical counterparts.

Despite that, DEADLY BLESSING succeeds on several levels. It's not completely without flaws, but there are enough strong points for its much needed reappraisal. Craven handles all the horror elements with a lot of care and allows for precise momentum to build before exploding the payoff. The script that pits modern society against a culture that prefers to remain stagnant calls forth a lot of questions.

The first instance detailing these two sides diametrically opposed to one another occurs during the opening credits leading into the first shot. It shows the Hitites at work in the fields with horse drawn buggies around the frame. This then cuts to a shot of a modern tractor emerging from a barn setting in motion the conflicting two worlds.

The suspense and the foreboding, yet light horror doesn't give one a lot of time to ponder too much on this subject, though. The heavy religious connotations lead you to believe that the Hitites are indeed the villains. But soon, this proves to be nothing but a red herring as something more devilish is taking place.

The ominous presence of the Hitites gives way to dialog like, "The evil one is among us", and "She is with Incubus! She could not speak the truth if she knew it!" It would seem that this is reserved for the characters of Martha and her friends since Martha was more or less responsible for her husband, Jim, leaving the Hitite circle and joining the modern society. The Hitites also don't think too fondly of a mother and daughter that live nearby, Louisa and Faith Stohler. Later in the film, it becomes shockingly apparent that there is another "incubus" among them.

The term incubus has several meanings. One is that in ancient times, it was believed that an incubus was a hellish creature that had sex with women while they slept. In another, an incubus is the representation of a demonic entity, or an oppressive, nightmarish force. All three of these, in some way, are weaved into the script for DEADLY BLESSING (1981). The film builds itself up like a slasher film with pseudo-supernatural overtones till the last 15 minutes when Craven hits you with two amazingly outrageous twists that come totally out of left field.

One of them recalls a similar twist seen in a little horror favorite that took place at Camp Arawak as well as the conclusion to Craven's own SCREAM (1996). This wild and unruly finale includes a riotously over the top gun battle and fight scene that results in the total trashing of Martha's home. The other twist shamefully delivers on the supernatural element that looms heavily over the entire film delivering a final coda that, despite turning a lot of people off, really does add to the whole nightmarish quality of the film as well as reinforcing the whole notion of the incubus that's reaffirmed by the Hitites throughout.

Craven states on the commentary track on the Aussie DVD that the final shock moment was ordered by the producers. Feeling that every horror film should have one last big scare a la FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), Craven took their advice and shot the last two minute sequence after production had already wrapped. Craven later regretted shooting the final sequence, but as jarring as it might seem, it nonetheless fits within the parameters the story occupies.

Speaking further on the foreboding nature of horror inherent in the picture, Craven succeeds in several suspenseful set pieces. The sequence with Sharon Stone in the barn is one of the pictures highlights. James Horner's OMENesque score piles on the dread during this scene. Towards the end of the sequence, Craven hits his audience with multiple shocks involving spiders and dead bodies. Spiders play an important role in the movie, especially in regards to Lana (Stone). Lana has several nightmares involving spiders (another reference to an incubus) and they come frighteningly to life when she becomes trapped inside a dark and dusty barn.

One shot required a wolf spider to be placed on her chest at one point during this tense scene. Assuring Stone that the Tarantula wouldn't harm her as long as she didn't press down on it from above, she asked if there was anything else that could be done to make her feel more comfortable. The handler responded that the fangs can be removed, but the spider would eventually starve to death. Stone insisted the fangs be clipped.

Another scene involving Sharon Stone is a dream sequence. In it, Lana has a pair of huge, disembodied hands grasp her head while beckoning her to open her mouth wider and wider still. Then, a large spider dangling from the ceiling drops down into her gaping mouth. This shocking scene is possibly the most memorable of the film. Interestingly, it was not in the original script and was improvised by Craven during the shoot further emphasizing his preoccupation with dreams and nightmares that would come to the fore in his NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984).

Another truly nail biting scene occurs while Martha is taking a hot bath. Someone enters the house and lets a poisonous snake loose in the bathroom. While Martha covers her face with a rag, the serpent crawls into the tub with her and appears between her legs in a symbolic fashion. Jensen declined to do this scene, so a local dancer was employed for the honors.

What's interesting about this shot is that Craven states on his commentary that on video tape versions of the film, the stand in can be seen clearly wearing panties despite it being framed out of the camera during the initial filming. The 1:85.1 aspect ratio on the DVD preserves Craven's intended version and the shot of the girls panties is nowhere to be found.

In addition to Craven's masterful suspense set ups, the lighting and cinematography in DEADLY BLESSING (1981) is extraordinary. Many of the outside shots involving sprawling country vistas seem to go on for miles. The lighting seemingly gives the impression of a dream like quality. The vast rural setting gives the impression this film takes place somewhere in Pennsylvania, or some location in America's heartland. The film was shot in Waxahachie, Texas, about an hour from Dallas. It was also freezing cold the entire shoot, and aside from one or two shots of visible breath, the cold Arctic air blowing through the area at the time isn't readily apparent.

James Horner did the excellent and ominously evil score. Horner has since went on to a fruitful career scoring some of the biggest movies of all time. Horner came from the Roger Corman school of moviemaking and had delivered some choice scores for Corman films like BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (both 1980). As with most of Horner's scores, there is a familiar hint to his cues that clue you in that what you are listening to is a James Horner composition.

His "signature" from his HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP soundtrack can be heard here at various points in the film. It's not a borrowed track, just a familiar set of notes that recall that films score. The cue heard during the crazy battle royale finale sounds like a sped up version of the attack on the house scene at the end of HUMANOIDS. The sinister cues of chanting monks are an obvious nod to Jerry Goldsmith's phenomenal score for THE OMEN (1976).

Craven was able to get a fine cast for his unusual foray into the slightly supernatural world of horror. Ernest Borgnine was probably the biggest coupe of the shoot for the crew. Borgnine plays the menacing Isaiah, the leader of the Hitite community. Craven says that he was a jovial actor who was always signing autographs between takes and never turned anybody away. Borgnine brings a lot of intensity and scenery chewing vigor to his role saying lines like, "May you be damned in Hell!" and, "You are a stench in the nostrils of God! The Devil has you now!" with so much conviction, viewers can't help but take notice every time he's onscreen.

Not everything was smooth sailing, though. Borgnine got injured during a buggy scene involving horses that weren't used to pulling them. The horses suddenly went wild flipping the buggy containing Borgnine and actress Coleen Riley. The accident was so severe, Craven thought he had been killed. Riley was fine as Borgnine cushioned her fall. Borgnine was in the hospital for a week and came back like nothing had happened and went right back to work.

Maren Jensen was, like her two co-stars, a beautiful actress with an alluring face. She seemingly dropped off the movie scene after this picture wrapped. Jensen is probably best remembered for her role as Athena, the daughter of Commander Adama and the sometime love interest to Lt. Starbuck on the popular, but short lived show, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978-1979), at one time, the most expensive show on television. Like her bathtub scene, the nude scenes involving Jensen's character were all done by a stand in.

Sharon Stone is easily the most recognizable face to modern audiences especially after her sexually charged turn as Catherine Tramell in BASIC INSTINCT (1992), a film that has been copied hundreds of times since its release. DEADLY BLESSING was Sharon's first big role, yet she shows nothing that would reveal big things to come over the next decade.

Susan Buckner is the liveliest of the three beauties. Amazingly, like Jensen, Buckner seemed to vanish from the industry altogether after appearing in DEADLY BLESSING. Possessing a smoking hot body, Buckner will most likely be forever remembered for appearing in GREASE (1978). Her perky and jubilant smile gives off that 'all american girl' look and despite not shedding her clothes, her frequent scenes dressed in shorts and a tank top leave little to the imagination.

Lisa Hartman had a hugely successful career on television after her appearance in this movie. She did TV before, but she found her biggest fame on the popular US weekly soap, KNOTS LANDING (1982-1986). Hartman also ventured into the world of Rock and Roll when she dated KISS frontman, Paul Stanley for a time.

Michael Berryman will be instantly recognizable to horror fans. He had previously appeared in Craven's original THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) where he played Pluto, a member of the cannibalistic clan of murderers that prey on any soul unlucky enough to stumble into their domain. Berryman became a staple of the horror genre appearing in dozens of other films. Having somewhere in the range of 23 birth defects, he has one of the most striking faces in all of cinema.

DEADLY BLESSING (1981) is a fascinating early excursion into horror by Wes Craven. A director who can clearly bring a great cinematic nightmare frighteningly to life, but was also capable of begating some truly terrible movies. His first theatrical trip into bizarre slasher cum devil movie territory is a refreshing voyage into suspense and terror that was sadly ignored upon its theatrical release and still seems to get lost in the cracks. Although it will put off more demanding viewers expecting a lot of gore every few minutes, it is definitely deserving of rediscovery.

This review is representative of the Australian Umbrella region 0 DVD.


TheReverendDoom said...

this sounds like a cool movie. I'll admit I never heard of it until now.

venoms5 said...

I can't remember if I first saw it on cable or on VHS back in the 80's, but I do remember revisiting it in the mid 90's renting it from a local video store and making a copy of it.

Craven says on the commentary track that this film has slipped through the cracks over the years and not many people he has talked to know anything about it.

It wasn't a successful movie as his subsequent movie, SWAMP THING was also not a success, yet that film seems to be more well known due to frequent play on television. Craven also says DEADLY BLESSING is hard to find on VHS tape.

It's definitely a bizarre movie and has a little bit of everything in it. It's well worth a look although it isn't gory at all and relies on suspense to carry it. That might account for why it's not talked about more in horror circles.

Sean M said...

ReverendDoom i've just watched the whole of this movie on youtube!

This is probably my introduction to Wes Cravens films as i'm sure i've not seen those other titles mentioned in the review.But nontheless a great film of his to start with,with a tense doomy atmosphere and several highlights as described by Brian.Loved the snake in the bath scene.

Also liked the Omen-like music accompaniment to Jim's burial and the added scene at the end of the film which reminded me of the demon apparation in THE EXORCIST.

venoms5 said...

Glad you liked this one, Sean. It's definitely an underrated movie, IMO. A lot of people don't seem to like it because it has very little violence and bloodshed. I guess coming from the director of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and the original HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), I can see why some people would be a bit disappointed.

Kaijinu said...

I saw this, but the copy I got is a VS ransfer bootleg, so It's kinda blurry. I do have one question, though, when Jensen drove out that night during teh blig climax, she picked up some small things grond what appears to be pool of blood, where those caliber shells? and if they were was there a dead body next to them?

and who was that dead boy she bumped to after seeing that painting?

venoms5 said...

I'm not sure, Kaijinu. I'd have to see the film again. You have me curious now. Maybe I can pop in the Aussie DVD sometime this weekend and take a look!

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