Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Deadly Blessing (1981)

Country: USA

At this point in his career Wes Craven was known for the mindless sadism and cruelty of The Last House on the Left (1972), an amateurish and vile exercise in screen grotesquery that he has since spent a career trying to defend. I’d have much more respect for Craven if he were to admit that his repugnant debut was an implement purely intended to make money. Instead he lives up to his surname by suggesting it is more than what it is. This shows contempt for the horror audience, a contempt he has shown throughout his career. But despite this obvious disdain, horror fans have, by and large, bought into Craven’s assertions about his debut film. Some will even argue that The Last House is a classic! Personally I’ll stick to The Wicker Man (1973) and Suspiria (1977) and anyone who wants scenes of women being made to piss themselves are welcome to them. The thematically similar The Hills Have Eyes (1977) however is far superior, and showed at least that Craven could actually a decent looking film. He took this visual competence a step further with his third theatrically released feature film Deadly Blessing. The film is notable for its lack of savagery and sadism. This is a sanitised Craven on his knees begging for entry to a mainstream he always craved. It is little more than a rural slasher, and although Craven enters into the realm of sub Halloween (1978) trickery (this just goes to highlight how inferior a filmmaker he is to John Carpenter), Deadly Blessing still manages to emerge as a lot of fun.

The film was shot in the countryside of Texas and Ohio and DOP Robert Jessop captures the beautiful autumnal colours perfectly. The film works far better in daylight scenes because one can admire the splendour of the landscape, unfortunately when darkness descends the clichés mount up. Although this is a departure in both style and form for Craven, the principal themes of the narrative are familiar. The Hittites are a religious sect led by the cruel patriarch Isaiah Schmidt (Ernest Borgnine), they are a farming community that shun technological modernity, that oppose modern values, and live within a strict and codified religious order that is brutally masculine. There values are simpler and more attuned a to a rural and agricultural existence. In direct opposition to this is Martha (Maren Jensen) who married into the family, but was totally shunned as a result. The symbol of this difference is the mechanised tractor that is used by her husband, a device that represents both the modern world and his decision to turn his back on his origins. It also becomes the means of an ironic death for him. The arrival of a killer (replete with point of view shot of course) actually distracts from the tension and agitation that exists between Martha and Isaiah. With the arrival of some friends from the city (a contrivance that provides potential victims) the film rapidly degenerates into slasher territory after a promising start.

Craven does create some atmospheric moments within the slasher format though. A sequence in which Sharon Stone is terrorised in a barn is a highlight, the scenes involving the distinctive countenance of Michael Berryman also add flavour. Unfortunately the Berryman character is too obvious a red herring, as are any of the Hittite contenders, and the result is that the culprits become screamingly obvious because they seem the least likely. What makes Deadly Blessing intriguing is the manner in which it subtly and slowly shifts into a more fantastical realm. The dreams that plague Sharon Stone’s character at first seem like a minor subplot that will be forgotten. But later in the film it affords us a tremendous sequence involving a spider. This moment and the sequence involving a snake in a bathtub offer the clearest indication yet of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The film offers hints at something supernatural, and the screenplay by Glenn M .Bennett, Matthew Barr and Wes Craven effectively builds up a sense of an encroaching malevolence. But this in itself indicates the schizophrenia of Deadly Blessing, which is never sure if it wants to be a straight slasher or a horror fantasy. Eventually Craven at al try to have a both and the result is an uneven patchwork.

The finale feels rushed, heavily contrived and ill thought out. For example why make one the killers an hermaphrodite? This is a twist that links up the Hittites obssession with an incubus but it barely registers amid the chaos of the final moments and lacks the emotional pathos such a revelation should bring. Throughout the film Craven allies our sympathies with the city folk and presents the Hittites as an unhelpful barrier to progress. They are depicted as extremists and they are an ever present red herring associated with murder. But the final scene which confirms the existence of demonic forces validates the stance that Isaiah has taken throughout the film. Ultimately it seems that Craven’s sympathies do lie with the Hittites after all. This is just one of numerous confusing aspects to this film, but deep within the narrative deficiencies of an entangled plot there is something very interesting here. Because of the mainstream nature of Deadly Blessing one senses that Craven wasn’t quite able to follow through his themes with the total conviction he was able too with his first two films. But Deadly Blessing is nevertheless a far more intriguing proposition than either of those films.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. I quite like this one a lot, Shaun. I reviewed the Aussie DVD back in 2009 and was very happy to FINALLY get my hands on it since the old VHS tape was one of many I got rid of. I think Craven also foreshadows where he's going with the later overrated SCREAM. He says on the commentary for DB that the ending was ordered by the producers after production had wrapped and he regrets ever shooting it.

    Speaking of LAST HOUSE, I view it as pretty much any 70s shocker and Craven states on the DVD they were only out to make the most disgusting thing they possibly could--a statement shared by many filmmakers at that time. However, I do think the film speaks about the inherent savagery in us all and the violent lengths we as a race will go to to protect ourselves and loved ones. If there's any other underlying themes, I don't see them. I do think it's an essential work of 70s gruelling horror.

  2. Yes it wasn't too bad Brian. My review copy was the Region 2 Arrow Films release from a couple of years back, and it was a wonderful transfer...especially important here for all those gorgeous autumnal landscapes, fields and woodlands. I think the ending is a very interesting aspect of it, it wasn't an unwelcome element of the narrative for me.

    Craven might have said that on the DVD, but I've read/heard countless interviews with Craven in which tries to defend the film by resorting to allegory and just doesn't wash with me. When you talk about inherent savagery and violence, that can be applied to virtually any film that features savage and/or violent themes. It's far too universal an interpretation to be of any use in my view. For me Craven has only made one essential horror film and that would be THE HILLS HAVE EYES...thanks for the comment buddy!

  3. Hey easy on Last House. It was fantastic! Anyway, nice blog.

  4. Thanks for stopping by Mr. Exploit, the kind words are much appreciated. As for my views on LAST HOUSE, I've always felt that honesty is the best policy...but I'm always glad to hear or read a defence of the film :-)


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