(This post is part of the ongoing Film Club series over at Stacie Ponder's witty and hysterically funny blog, Final Girl. Stacie assigns a specific movie, and anyone who wishes to participate watches it and writes something about it. Be sure to follow the link and check out the other reviews...after you've read mine, of course. I've tried to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but it's so hard.)
Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper had similar beginnings to their careers as horror film directors. Both of them came to prominence in the 1970s, each with a pair of nasty, rural, independent horror films that would go on to become acknowledged genre classics (Craven gave us The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes while Hooper delivered The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the slightly more obscure Eaten Alive). Both subsequently made leaps into the mainstream in the 1980s with higher-profile major studio horror films, but while Hooper was taken under Steven Spielberg's wing to direct the effects-laden blockbuster Poltergeist, Craven's effort was the comparatively modest thriller Deadly Blessing. Released in 1981 by United Artists, Deadly Blessing slipped under the radar and ultimately became a minor footnote in Craven's celebrated career. Before undertaking this review, I hadn't seen it in years, and I only remembered brief snippets of it, chiefly Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) shouting "Incubus!" and two unforgettable scenes involving a spider and a snake, respectively.
Martha and Jim Schmidt (Maren Jensen and Douglas Barr) live on their isolated farm in uneasy proximity to the Hittites, an Amish-like religious sect. Jim had previously been a member of the sect but was banished by his father, Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), after going away to college and returning with Martha, whom he subsequently married. Jim's brother John (Jeff East) seems to wish he could join Jim in the secular world, much to Isaiah's consternation. Isaiah and the rest of the Hittites deride Martha, blaming her for corrupting Jim and referring to her as an "incubus." Louisa and Faith Stohler (Lois Nettleton and Lisa Hartman), a mother and daughter living nearby, are wary of the Hittites but have their own peculiarities. When Jim is killed in an mysterious "accident" involving their tractor, a heartbroken but steadfast Martha leans on her neighbors for support, as well as two old college friends, Vicky Anderson and Lana Marcus (Susan Buckner and a very young Sharon Stone), whom she summons to join her. Soon after Jim's funeral, more strange events occur. Lana has a terrifying experience in Martha's barn which foreshadows a disturbing dream sequence involving a spider, and Martha has a much-too-close encounter with a snake which an intruder has let loose in her bathroom while she's in the tub. Following a few more mysterious murders, the killer is revealed in a surprising twist which precipitates a climactic siege on the farmhouse. Just when you think everything's over, though, the film wraps up with a real head-scratcher of a final scene.
From its very beginning, Deadly Blessing has the feel of a made-for-TV movie - albeit one with amped-up sex and violence - a feeling that is reinforced by its cast, many of whom are familiar faces to TV watchers from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Battlestar Galactica's Jensen and Knots Landing's Hartman. Other recognizable cast members include veteran actors Borgnine and Nettleton, along with East (Superman) and Buckner (Grease). Released in the midst of the slasher movie boom, that's essentially what it is, although it plays more like a drama for most of its running time and flirts with the supernatural on occasion (a flirtation which becomes an all-out ravishment at the film's conclusion). Craven had actually worked with one of the film's producers a few years prior on the TV movie Stranger in Our House (aka Summer of Fear - keep your eyes open for a somewhat meta reference to it in Deadly Blessing), so it's almost as if the aesthetic of their previous effort was carried through to this one. Nevertheless, the film is well-crafted and substantially more polished than Craven's earlier films, and it's obvious he's using the additional resources he's been given to make more of a "real" movie, as evidenced by the film's crane shots and sweeping vistas of its Texas countryside locations. The story and the characters draw you in, and after the one-two punch of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Craven demonstrates that he can do more than just shock an audience into submission. The film's pastoral setting is visually pleasing as well.
Up until the film's conclusion, things are played relatively straight, and the hints of a possible supernatural force at work are extremely subtle; for instance, when Jim is killed, it seems as though the tractor could be moving on its own, but it's filmed in a way that leaves room for doubt. Then we come to the coda, one of the great WTF? moments in horror cinema. Without spoiling things, the film totally abandons any pretense of subtlety and hits its audience over the head with a nonsensical final scene that sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to everything that's come before it. Logic is thrown out the window merely to provide the requisite shock ending that seems to have been a requirement of all horror films made during this era. Craven has said that the film's producers insisted on adding this scene, and he is on record as regretting having filmed it. There's no doubt that the film would have been better had it been left out.
The film is generally well-acted, with a few exceptions. The always professional Borgnine (RIP, Ernie) is utterly believable as Isaiah, the fanatical leader of the Hittites (not everyone thought so, as he was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor for Deadly Blessing). Jensen impresses as well, coming off as vulnerable yet tough, even as she's asked to supply not one, not two but three nude scenes. (The preteen me had a ginormous crush on her when she was on Battlestar Galactica, but somehow her appearance in this film escaped me at the time, although I wouldn't have been allowed to see it anyway.) Future Oscar winner Stone, however, is living proof that practice makes perfect (to be fair, her performance does improve when her character starts to go off the deep end). East and Buckner acquit themselves well, especially when their characters take a (forbidden) shine to one another, and it's nice to see Berryman afforded a more complex (if also more brief) role than the one in his earlier collaboration with Craven.
Deadly Blessing is fairly restrained in terms of bloodletting, which was a change for Craven; the relative lack of explicit violence definitely adds to the TV movie feel. In addition to Sharon Stone's eight-legged nightmare in this film, Craven had previously included an unsettling dream sequence in The Last House on the Left; both scenes, of course, were precursors to his ultimate expression of bad dreams in A Nightmare on Elm Street just a few years later. The scene with the snake is perhaps one of the most terrifying things Craven has ever filmed, and it also foreshadows the creepy bathtub scene in Elm Street. Composer James Horner provides a superb score (one of his earliest) that nevertheless is strongly reminiscent at times of Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning score for The Omen; it enhances the feeling that something paranormal might be going on.
I began this review by contrasting Wes Craven with Tobe Hooper; although Hooper's mainstream success came earlier than Craven's, his career sadly fizzled out not long afterward. Craven, on the other hand, went on to become one of the most successful and celebrated directors in modern horror film history. Deadly Blessing, while not one of his most memorable offerings, is an entertaining film that holds up well and benefits greatly from his considerable craftsmanship along with some solid performances. Just don't hold the ending against him.