It’s been a few years since the film world lost Wes Craven; and while many reach for A Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Hills have Eyes, or Scream, some like to take the time to appreciate the under sung tunes in his catalogue. This is where I enthusiastically raise a mic and start warbling about Deadly Blessing (1981), an intriguing mix of slasher, the supernatural, and religious fanaticism that could only come from the busy, brainy mind of Mr. Craven.
Released in mid-August by United Artists stateside, Deadly Blessing received no favor from critics, but did bring in over $8 million against a $2 million budget; not too bad for Craven during this period, who found himself making (highly enjoyable) TV films to keep the lights on.
Our story opens in an Amish-like farming community called “Our Blessing”; but instead of the Amish, these are Hittites, a group that one person intones, “makes the Amish look like swingers”. There are outliers in the area, however: we have farmer and mid-wife Louisa Stohler (Lois Nettleton – Mirror Mirror 2: Raven Dance), who lives with her adult daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman – Tabitha); and farmer and ex-Hittite Jim Schmidt (Doug Barr – Spaced Invaders), who lives off property with his pregnant wife Martha (Maren Jensen – Battlestar Galactica).
In the Hittites’ corner, we have Jim’s younger brother John (Jeff East – Superman) and their father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine – Willard), the leader of the Hittites; also on hand is Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) as William, a not at all nutty Hittite who runs around scaring Faith and calling every non-Hittite an incubus. This is big with the Hittites; anyone not aligned with their belief system is an incubus, including Isaiah’s older son Jim.
When Jim is killed in a tractor “accident” (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s the impetus for getting the story moving), Martha’s city friends Vicky (Susan Buckman – Grease) and Lana (Sharon Stone – King Solomon’s Mines) come to stay with her on the ranch. Jim’s death sets off a chain of events where a masked killer is offing not only the Hittites, but those allegedly “infected” by the incubus. Is it someone within the community, or is it the fabled incubus itself?
If you’ve read anything about Craven’s bouts with studio interference, then you know how this one goes; let’s just say an unwanted coda was tacked on to the film at the studio’s insistence, and it ended up negating (or at the very least, muddying) what is a fairly straightforward thriller. (Hey logic; get outta here! We don’t need your kind.) To be fair to Mr. Craven, he came on and did a rewrite; I’m assuming with his strict religious upbringing he found a lot to like in the Hittite material, and he certainly isn’t subtle with it.
But why should he be? Most of his films can be pored over for psychological and social reckoning; whether he goes deep or lays it on the surface, he’s usually trying to convey something. And his something here is the hysteria and hypocrisy of the pious, blind as they are to anything that doesn’t affect them – and righteous anger towards anything that they feel impedes on their way of life, or their relationship with A Higher Power. Until the tacked on ending, the incubus is merely a catchall for the Hittites – it’s their boogeyman, their devil, the face of sin; when the killer is finally revealed in the excitable climax, the audience is left with the impression that prejudice and mental illness may manifest from any direction.
Aside from the overt supernatural touch at the end (If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now what happens), Craven has thrown his hat in the slasher ring with Deadly Blessing, black gloved killer and all. The film is most definitely set up like one: group of young attractive people? Check. Unusual deaths? Ditto. Indifference from law enforcement? You know it.
Yet even when Craven is treading through familiar cinematic ground, he manages to put in a few twists; for instance, he has a dream sequence involving Sharon Stone’s mouth and a descending spider that hits on an arachnophobe’s greatest fear – unwillingly ingesting one. And while science says we all do while we’re sleeping, I’m pretty sure that a full size tarantula was not part of that particular study. He also has a prototype for Nancy’s bath scene from Elm Street (sub a snake for Freddy’s glove) and, with the way the denouement plays out, a glimpse into its unfortunate ending as well.
For the record, I’m perfectly fine with the ending; the motive of the killer is pretty extreme and doesn’t play into the events of the film much at all anyway, so why not throw a soupcon of irrationality in to boot? It’s only rock and roll, baby.
I have seen many people opine that this is one of Borgnine’s more restrained performances - to whom I say, I’ll have five of whatever you’re smoking please; this is hellfire and brimstone Ernie, and frankly he possesses the type of zealousness the role requires. Jeff East, indelible as teenage Clark Kent a few years prior, plays the only Hittite curious enough about the outside world to take a chance on it. (You can guess how that goes.) He’s very good, but it’s really the women who rule, as the film is very much theirs; the men are essentially useless and or helpless to prevent the murders, leaving the three strong leads (well, Stone’s maybe so-so) to solve them while continuously being in harm’s way. Craven always had sturdy, three-dimensional women on hand to buoy his films.
Wes Craven was still three years away from creating A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Deadly Blessing still works as an urban version of the boogeyman – one that takes place in an all too real existence. Until it doesn’t.
Deadly Blessing is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.