In the early 1970s, Wes Craven made the leap from academic to filmmaker, working at the sleazier end of the movie industry with director and producer Sean S Cunningham on films with titles like Together, Honey Pie and Hot Cookies. It was with his horror films The Last House On The Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) that Craven became recognised as a director in his own right, and their shocking subject matter and violence gained him a considerable amount of notoriety among critics and censors.
Although Craven continued to dabble in exploitation cinema after The Hills Have Eyes (he served as cinematographer on The Evolution Of Snuff in 1978), the end of the 70s saw him gradually shuffle towards the mainstream; 1978’s Stranger In Our House (also known as Summer Of Fear) was a relatively tame made-for-TV horror flick, and even starred a well-known actress: Linda Blair, who’d just survived the traumatic experience of making Exorcist II: The Heretic with John Boorman.
Craven’s next horror film was Deadly Blessing, a 1981 oddity which paved the way for his future mainstream success, yet failed to gain the cult traction of his earlier genre movies. More than 30 years later, this unloved entry in Craven’s back catalogue has been given a chance to find a new audience on Blu-ray.
Deadly Blessing takes place in an isolated part of rural America: all endless fields, white picket fences and cavernous barns. Newlywed couple Martha (Maren Jensen) and Jim (Douglas Barr) have recently moved to their idyllic homestead, where trouble is brewing among its apparently peaceful community. Jim was once a member of the Hittites – a local religious sect which detests any form of modern technology – but was banished after marrying outside his hermetic community.
Unfortunately for Martha and Jim, the Hittites live in the plot of land next door, which makes the past impossible to forget; Jim’s father and sect patriarch Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine, wearing a formidable fake beard) glowers and seethes as his son rides around on a tractor, and constantly refers to Martha as ‘the Incubus’. The feisty, middle-aged Louisa (Lois Nettleton) and her artistic daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman) appear to be the only friendly neighbours, even if they do seem almost as eccentric and secretive as the Hittites.
When Martha’s husband dies in mysterious circumstances one night, her friends Lana (Sharon Stone, in her second big-screen outing) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) turn up to lend some moral support. But with creepy Hittite William (Michael Berryman) sneaking around outside and the bodycount rising, a bloody confrontation seems inevitable.
After the gore and chaos of The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing sees Wes Craven attempt a more restrained approach to horror, with the emphasis shifted from bloodshed to atmosphere and drama. But while Craven and cinematographer Robert Jessup capture the eerie calm of its Texan locations well, and some scenes are engagingly framed – a shot of Martha standing by her husband’s grave while the Hittites look down on her from a distant hill is particularly striking – the numerous dialogue scenes are less satisfying. The relative inexperience of some of his young actors – in particular Stone, who’d only made a brief appearance in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories before this – is often evident, while Ernest Borginine is maniacal yet seldom threatening as the fire-and-brimstone spouting Isaiah.
The uneven drama is joined by a plot that never quite gels – the supernatural elements feel particularly out of place in a story about religious fanaticism and murders on a farm – and some of its scares seem oddly rote when compared to the creativity of Craven’s genre work both before and afterwards. Deadly Blessing originally began life as a TV script, which may explain why, although Craven’s rewrite adds voyeuristic nudity and more jump scares, a soapy sense of US telly melodrama remains stubbornly intact.
Actually, the most inspired moments in Deadly Blessing are its most dreamlike, hinting at Craven’s future Nightmare On Elm Street success, and clearly indicating that his passion lies in the surreal rather than the more grounded, thriller aspects of the script. A moment involving Sharon Stone’s agog face and a falling spider packs a toe-curling wallop, and the constant talk of nightmares and Incubii is clearly a precursor to Freddie Krueger and his dreamland antics in Craven’s later hit.
(There’s also a bathtub scene which appears to mark the midpoint between a strikingly similar moment in David Cronenberg’s Shivers and Craven’s own Nightmare, with something dark and unpleasant emerging from soapy water.)
It’s in the last 20 minutes that Deadly Blessing really starts to get going, with a blackly comic twist, firearm anarchy and Sharon Stone’s character completely losing the plot, like a trash cinema version of Ophelia out of Hamlet.
Viewed as a standalone horror movie, Deadly Blessing is more a sporadically entertaining curiosity rather than essential viewing. What’s most interesting about the film, from a historical standpoint, is that so many involved in its making were on the cusp of doing something better and more noteworthy; Stone was at the beginning of her acting career, and her performance here is far from the Golden Globe-winning work she’d put in for Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Composer James Horner provides some atmospheric music, but his best stuff would come later, in movies such as Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and Aliens.
As for Wes Craven, Deadly Blessing marked his first brush with Hollywood producers, whose pushiness would have a considerable bearing on the finished film’s content. In the Blu-ray’s extras, Craven describes being driven to a remote field by “über producers” Jon Peters and Peter Guber, who made it clear that they wanted Sharon Stone in the picture, as well as plenty of shots of the three female leads sitting around in lingerie. The film’s ill-advised coda, which wasn’t in earlier versions of the script, was also their idea.
Deadly Blessing, therefore, represented something of a compromise for Craven, and that shows in the final cut. Elsewhere on the disc’s decent extras (which also include a lively director’s commentary, some brief interviews with the Craven and writer Glenn M Benest), Craven recalls Sharon Stone demanding that a tarantula have its fangs removed before she allowed it to crawl around on her chest. It’s an illustration of the rather cold determination that would soon make Stone a Tinseltown star, but also a metaphor for the film as a whole. Deadly Blessing sees Craven de-fanged, and it wasn’t until A Nightmare On Elm Street that he found a way to marry mainstream thrills with The Hills Have Eyes’ savage horror bite.
Deadly Blessing is out on Blu-ray on the 25th March in the UK.
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