Classics Revisited: “Deadly Blessing”

It’s difficult to consider the late Wes Craven’s body of work as a whole because, frankly, it varies so wildly in quality. He tried his hand at so many different genres (exploitation slasher, comic book, demonic possession, killer robot teens, voodoo, action thrillers, vampires, werewolves, even the odd heartwarming drama) that there’s no one thing that can be pointed to as a “Wes Craven trademark.” Some of it worked, a lot of it didn’t. When Craven was good, he turned scary movies upside down, but when he was bad, he was My Soul to Take.

Rather than writing the umpteenth thinkpiece on Scream and how it ushered in the era of sly, self-aware horror, I thought I’d go back a little further and revisit one of his lesser known films, 1981’s Deadly Blessing. A supernatural thriller with more red herrings than it knows what to do with, it’s remembered mostly for an early appearance by Sharon Stone, and not much else.

Deadly Blessing takes place in a small, rural town populated mostly by Hittites, a religious order where the members live and look like the Amish, but, as one character points out “make the Amish look like swingers.” Martha (Maren Jensen), an outsider originally from Los Angeles, is married to Jim, a former Hittite excommunicated by his father, Isaac (Ernest Borgnine, wearing a hilariously fake Amish beard), for leaving the sect and falling in love with Martha, whom Isaac refers to as an “incubus.”

It’s a lonely life when your in-laws think you’re literally a demon and the only people around to talk to are your weird neighbor (Lois Nettleton), and her even weirder daughter (Lisa Hartman), but Martha, newly pregnant, seems to be leading an idyll life with Jim, until he’s run over by his own tractor and killed. Following the funeral, she’s visited by her friends, Lana (Sharon Stone), who is almost immediately troubled by strange dreams and visions, and the overly cheerful Vicky (Susan Buckner), who spends time away from the very recently widowed Martha to flirt with John, Jim’s younger brother, who is still part of the Hittite clan and torn between his attraction to the short shorts wearing Vicky, and his duty to his fiancee.

Jim’s death seems to usher in a whole lot of mysterious events in the town. Another Hittite, William (Michael Berryman) is murdered. Someone almost attacks Lana in a barn. A snake is dropped into Martha’s bathtub while she’s soaking in it. Jim’s body is removed from his grave. Isaac, all bulging eyes and furrowed caterpillar brows, and who gets to say awesome stuff like “You’re a stench in the nostrils of God!”, thinks all of it can be traced back to Martha, the “incubus” who led his son away, and ultimately, to his death. Maybe it can. Lana thinks it might have something to do with the nightmares she’s having about spiders falling into her mouth and milk cartons filled with blood. Maybe she’s right. But what about those weirdo neighbors, maybe they might be involved somehow…?

I really want to say that Deadly Blessing is a forgotten gem, overlooked in favor of A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream movies, but, well…it’s not very good. As you could probably surmise by this point, there is a lot going on in this movie. There are evil spirits, religious cults, ghosts, a crazy Mrs. Voorhies-like mom, eerie dream sequences, snakes, spiders, exploding cars, a Sleepaway Camp-like twist that comes from out of nowhere, spooky chanting on the soundtrack. None of it really works, certainly not as a bunch of half-formed at best ideas thrown together in a silly, not terribly scary stew.  Even after all that, I’m still not sure what the “deadly blessing” is.

It’s pretty obvious that Deadly Blessing was written by three people, quite possibly without ever speaking to each other until their final drafts were turned in. Nothing the three leading ladies do make sense, and none of the villains stand out from each other, because everyone in this town comes off as at least mildly cuckoo (PROTIP: if Michael Berryman is in the cast and he’s not the creepiest character, your movie might be a bit over the top). Similar to the previously reviewed Bloody Birthday, it looks an awful lot like it originally started out as a TV movie, then was punched up with some random nude scenes for theatrical release–further research shows that, in fact, this was the case.

And yet, there are a few inspired moments, including one scene involving the heroine in a bathtub that Wes Craven would reuse with greater effect just a few years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Also, a dream sequence involving Sharon Stone’s character is a fairly effective moment in a movie that mostly involves goofy, already derivative by 1981 scenes like POV shots of the killer (or who we think might be the killer, at least) peeping at the heroine as she changes into a negligee. Deadly Blessing isn’t a terrible movie, just a mess. If Craven had narrowed it down to just one or two ideas and fleshed them out, he might have had something.

Deadly Blessing is currently available on Shudder and YouTube

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