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The Nostalgic Attic: Deadly Blessing (1981)

21 October 2014

Deadly Blessing (1981)


"In the rolling hills of a sinful farm community, untouched by time, a gruesome secret has been protected for generations."


We've discussed Craven's career a few times here at The Nostalgic Attic (recently enough actually, with Swamp Thing) and while many of his minor films have flown below the radar, one that seems to get forgotten about completely is Deadly Blessing. Falling into that grey period between The Hills Have Eyes and career re-launcher that was A Nightmare on Elm Street, is it worth digging out of the vault for a re-evaluation?




Something sinister is afoot in the super religious community of the Hittites. A former member of the pseudo-Amish is crushed one night by his own tractor. His wife, Martha (Maren Jensen), an outsider to her husbands people, decides to stay on the farm to pick up the pieces of her life, despite the sheriffs warning to leave. She finds resistance from all those around her, including her husbands estranged father, Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine) who calls her the Incubus, and wants her to sell up the land and leave for good. The only friendly faces are those of her neighbour, Louisa, and her childish-but-nice daughter, Faith.

She is soon joined on the farm by her old friends, Lana (Sharon Stone; Totall Recall, Action Jackson) and Vicky (Susan Buckner), who want to comfort her, but also plan on bringing her home and away from the scene of her husbands death. The local youngsters can't stay away from what they perceive to be an 'evil place', and led by the simpleton William (Michael Berryman; The Hills Have Eyes, Cut and Run), they dare each other to go into the barn in which Martha's husband died. After he doesn't return home from his visit to the barn, William's father begs for help from Martha, and not long after, William's strangled body is discovered by the hysterical Lana. Just who is killing off the members of the community? Will Martha and her friends escape with their lives and sanity intact?




Coming across as a somewhat mature slasher, Deadly Blessing does more right than it does wrong. From the opening shots of the countryside and the community working the land, a real attempt is made to stand out from the more typical 'dead teenager' films from the era. Craven takes the straight approach with the material, creating an interesting conflict of religion and family as the backdrop to the tense stalk sequences. Time and care is taken to establish our large cast of characters, and even minor players such as John, the brother of the deceased, gets much more depth than most genre films would allow for such a character. Others, such as Lana, feel a bit one-note, but it's forgivable considering everything else the film nails.

What also sets it aside from other films from the period is the lack of graphic violence and gore. Most of the deaths are bloodless, but Craven seemed more interested in doing something else here; namely, making a horror film that was actually scary. Several sequences revolve around the barn, and the scenes build a genuine sense of terror as they play out. Other frightening moments play on our 'city slicker' fears of the wilderness, which was a recurring motif for the director. Spiders make frequent appearances (the best being Lana's dream) and one moment involving a snake in a bathtub is enough to warrant the film being remembered by genre fans alone. ANOES fans will recognise shots from this sequence, as many were used again when Nancy took a dip in the tub herself a few years later.




What makes it all work is the decent script that pulls all of this together, but it's also the thing that lets it down somewhat in the last act. Events transpire here that throws the plot almost off the rails (a similar twist is used in another slasher, but I won't spoil anything), and I can imagine many viewers just simply laughing instead of being horrified. It's a twist that doesn't have much signposting, and one wonders if it really adds much to the picture at all. Saying that though, it gave the lead character a chance to stop being the victim and to fight back, and I always welcome that.  There was also a forced change made to the ending (which really jumps the shark), but to be honest, these issues didn't bother me at all; Craven was taking me for a ride and I was happy to be on board. The climax itself is thrilling enough for me to forgive these late-in-the-day problems.

The cast is solid, with Jensen great in the lead, and she handles the frequent nudity like a champ. It's a pity she didn't do anything else after this, and the same goes for her co-star, Buckner. Stone is passable in one of her earlier big screen roles, but she does get some of the best scenes to herself. Berryman is as maniacal as always, and it's a pity he exits early on, despite the 'red herring' video sleeve we had in the UK. Screen legend Borgnine lends the film some high class credibility, though you can tell he was only there for a few key scenes. Special mention should be made of the excellent score by James Horner - it also adds to the classy nature of the film.




Wes Craven did a great job here; you can tell he was showing restraint as he attempted to move away from the exploitation orientated pictures he had made up to that point, and had his eye firmly on bigger budgets. He deserved it too; the film displays that great promise we now know he delivered on just a few short years later. Deadly Blessing is a fine balancing act of drama, tension and horror. Sure, the ending is patchy, but who cares when the journey there is so well done?

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6 Comments:

At 21 October 2014 at 10:49 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, I think the film is probably worth digging out. After reading your post I went back to something I wrote on the film in 2010 when I last saw it (four years later my memory of the film is vague at best) and like you I noted elements that would find greater fruition in A Nightmare On Elm Street, so in that sense it's a fascinating auteurist film. But I'm not sure I'd be as kind to the film as I was in 2010, and if I had to choose sides I'd pick People Under The Stairs over Deadly Blessing. It's absolutely impossible to say anything about Deadly Blessing without mentioning the final scene and my God, what was Wes Craven thinking, considering up until that point, the film is quite skillfully put together. I want to imagine that the film's fatal swerve off the road was caused by another hand, but the final scene of A Nightmare On Elm Street is absolutely misjudged too, as is the dog's flashback in Hills Have Eyes II (?) Incidentally if any readers have heard Craven's commentary from the Arrow/Shout Factory editions, please let us know what was deal with the final scene ! And maybe stick a spoiler warning before it for the uninitiated, because this is one ending best experienced cold...

 
At 21 October 2014 at 11:22 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, by all accounts I've read, the final scene was forced on him by producers who felt that the audience would want to see some payoff for all the talk of the 'Incubus' in the film. Same goes for the ending on ANOES, a fact that Craven discusses regularly enough, but it's an ending that people seem to be more forgiving towards than that in Deadly Blessing (not surprising, really, as it jars completely).

Incidentally, it brings up the discussion; is it fair to shit on an entire film just because of the last 2 minutes? Craven has always had difficulty in 'finishing off' a film, and he tends to re-use the same ending over and over. Deadly Blessing, ANOES, The People Under the Stairs, Shocker, The Serpent and the Rainbow all feel very 'samey' in their climaxes. For me, I've mellowed out considerably over the years, and I find this sort of thing much more forgivable, especially considering the circumstances. If it was the directors choice, then yes, fair enough, but sometimes these things get lifted out of their hands...

...saying that though, I'm not sure even I would be willing to try and form any sort of defense for Hills Have Eyes II...

 
At 21 October 2014 at 12:37 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, you're right of course, it is absolutely unfair to take a dump on a film for a wrong turn late in the show - I suspect my contempt for that ending springs from the atheist in me, a point that looks decidedly shaky considering I love The Exorcist and The Omen, but at least those two films moved within a particular framework - with Deadly Blessing, it just comes out of nowhere, with Craven's customary intelligence sacrificed to a shock ending. I think for all the infamous endings in Cinema - the pleasant road trip thru a Shining outtake in the original Blade Runner, the retro-axis spin reversal of time in Superman, bother me a lot less than Deadly Blessing ! Someone is reading this thinking "Fella, you need to get over yourself" and they'd be right too ! Incidentally, a friend of mine absolutely hates the ending of Do the Right Thing, when Danny Aiello's Sal pays Spike Lee's Mookie his wages, the morning after Mookie incites the riot that destroys Sal's shop and livelihood...

 
At 22 October 2014 at 06:09 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Fully agreed that the final misstep is completely out of context with the rest of the film - the reason why it's forgivable in NOES is that it still works within the 'dream logic' already established in the film... It's worth sticking to your guns over this things though, otherwise what's the point of debating them? I always welcome a differing opinion to mine, as I said, I can be VERY forgiving...

Do the Right Thing is an odd one, I absolutely love the film, but it infuriates me in many ways (mainly due to the politics), and I can see where your friend is coming from...

 
At 26 October 2014 at 12:01 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I haven't seen Deadly Blessing since a VHS viewing in the mid 80's - so I'm basing any commenting here on a nearly 30 year old viewing. I remember thinking it was a big step down seeing it after the original Elm Street. I thought the ending was silly then - and definitely would like to see it again to see if I have changed my mind at all.

 
At 27 October 2014 at 09:09 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

It's not one I'd go apeshit for to see again - but I'd love to hear your thoughts on it when you do get around to it. The ending is silly, but the film is competent enough to be able to shrug it off, in my opinion.

 

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