Deadly Blessing (1981)
Rating: **1/2 out of 4
Cast: Maren Jensen, Sharon Stone, Susan Buckner, Jeff East, and Coleen Riley
Writers: Glen M. Benest & Matthew Bar and Wes Craven
Director: Wes Craven
Following a period of relative quiet after The Hills Have Eyes, Craven was brought aboard Deadly Blessing by the producers of Summer of Fear (his made for TV movie from three years prior) as a director for hire and to spruce up the script, which Craven admitted on the film’s commentary needed a lot of work. The film had base core elements that would clearly attract Craven, but even he admitted that he only really took on the film to keep working, though claimed a fondness for the picture. It is true, that even with all the films many imperfections, there is quite a bit to admire about the film.
The film centers on a grieving widow who suspects that the local religious cult of Hittites (said to make the Amish look like swingers) may have had something to do with her husband’s death. She is creepily haunted by strange happenings in and around her house, but is she being tormented by human or supernatural means? While the film offers little more in the way of story, it does examine the nature of religious repression and the horrors that stem from that repression nicely. In fact the weakest element of the film is the suggestion of the supernatural, which the film’s producers really pushed and Craven resisted according to the commentary.
What really elevates the film is Craven’s strong sense of building suspense and releasing the built up fear with a few solid jump scares and three genuinely frightening set pieces. You can really see him come into his own with this film’s smooth framing and camera placement as well as the effective use of lighting. His previous films were predominantly naturally lit, but here he discovers the subtlety of lighting and how it can be used to effect the scene. He also pulls solid performances from every cast member with a young Sharon Stone and Ernest Borgnine in particularly strong roles. This film also has, for the first real time in a Craven picture, a fantastic score provided by James Horner.
The film’s largest problems seem to have stemmed from producer demands, namely the supernatural elements, the wardrobe of the three female leads, and the truly nonsensical final scene. As I mentioned above, the film struggles to find this balance of whether the horror stems from the horrors of religious oppression or the supernatural, and the supernatural stuff just falls flat. What works are the POV killer shots (used in many film before, but put to nice use here), and the primal elements of the environment. The bathtub scene was super terrifying and the scene with Sharon Stone in the barn with all the spiders…you can almost feel the spiders crawling on you, it has you so on edge. The nightmares that that scene induces Stone’s character are fantastic as well!
Let us discuss the way the women are dressed here. There is no reason for them to be in lingerie nightgowns for nearly all of their scenes. This was another demand of the producers, and one that Craven was openly critical of on the film’s commentary. It just looked odd and unnatural, and while all the women look beautiful in outfits, it was distracting and took you out of the moment. But, the thing that damns the film the most is the final scene, which is typical of a post-Carrie horror film to have a non-sequitur final jump, but this one comes out of nowhere and clashes with the ultimate conclusion of the film’s core. It is so bad, in fact, that it dropped a full half star in my review. For an otherwise solid horror film, that final scene is so disjointed and misplaced that it brought me to flat out dislike the film as a whole. Again, this was an ending thrust upon Craven by the producers and he is noticeably unhappy with it on the film’s commentary.
What is neat, however, is seeing what Craven took from this picture. He had three great scenes, and would use them to great effect in later pictures. The tension building of the barn scene would be the framework from which he would later hang how he shot many other centerpiece scare scenes in other films. The bathtub scene he would later reuse (even down to the framing) in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and speaking off, the use of nightmares would become the backbone of one of the most important films of his career. Even the whole climax in the house is very Scream-y (right down to how it is shot and edited). He was fine tuning his craft with this picture and it becomes evident when placing this next to his later works, and for that I have a fondness for this picture, too.
Image 1: thatwasabitmental.com