Friday, April 5, 2013

Deadly Blessing

Deadly Blessing (1981) is not a great movie, let me just state that up front.  It's not terrible, it just a bit lackluster in areas.  Part of director Wes Craven's (first) recessive period (in-between The Hills Have Eyes [1977] and A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984]), Deadly Blessing has a flat-footed premise, some actors that are (mostly) not up to task, a bunch of nonsense, and one of the stupidest/greatest, must-see endings in horror history.
Martha (Maren Jensen) and Jim Schmidt (Douglas Barr) live on their isolated farm (called Our Blessing) in the quiet countryside, neighboring a community of Hitties, members of a strict religious sect that "make the Amish look like swingers."  Jim was once a member of this group, but left them years ago when he got married.  He was subsequently shunned by his family and community, led by his father, Isaiah Schmidt (Ernest Borgnine).  Isaiah is distrustful of outsiders and refers to "the incubus among us."  His son John (Jeff East) is curious and seems even a little envious of his brother Jim's lifestyle, something that doesn't go unnoticed by his strict father.  There's also another set of neighbors, Louisa (Lois Nettleton) and her daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman), who seem to have trouble with the Hittites, especially creepy William (Michael Berryman), who harasses Faith.

Late one night, Jim is out in his barn and is murdered, the victim of his own tractor.  Marked down as an accident by the local, ineffectual police, Martha continues to stay on the farm in the face of resentment and mild/vague threats from the Hittites.  Her city friends Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) come to stay with her, which was a good idea, because then a lot of weird shit starts to happen.  They're stalked by the mentally deficient William, there's creepy encounters in the barn, nightmare visions of spiders, an attack by a snake, some murders, explosions, and some really, really crazy-weird shit at the end.
Deadly Blessing is quite the mixed bag, which couldn't be any other way when you crunch together a slasher film involving three lovely ladies wearing skimpy clothes with a portrait of religious zealots.  The film has definite aspirations, but it never quite reaches them, instead settling for a modest amount of mystery and misdirection with plenty of red herrings and some shocks and scares.  The film is rather pedestrian in most ways, until the ending, which throws another wrench into the works.

The finale of Deadly Blessing doesn't come out of left field so much as it comes out of another ballpark entirely.  It definitely makes the film memorable, as the last 15 minutes features not one, but two incredibly fucked up things, things that make the middling previous hour+ seem totally worth it.  Things go out with a bang, that's for sure.

I'm not going to spoil it for those who haven't seen it, I didn't know about it when I watched it and was pleasantly surprised, so to preserve that for anyone that desires it, I'll speak in the vaguest terms to those that have seen it:  Alright, when Martha's getting chased and attacked and then that one thing happens and is revealed, I was all like, "whaaaaaat??," and I thought this movie just went to a weird place, and I kind of liked it, even though it might not make all that much sense, I still respected the movie for going there.  After all that though, at the very end of the film, there's some really truly crazy weird shit that goes down and I was all like, "whaaaaaaaat?areyoukiddingmeeee??"  What an almost totally random ending, just bonkers!  I guess this ending was tacked on (surprise, surprise) after the film was finished and the producers wanted a little more "oomph" to the ending.  Craven filmed it, but I guess he regrets it now.  The effects were done by an uncredited John Naulin, who would also do effects work on Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986).  They wanted "oomph."  Mission accomplished.
Deadly Blessing has some elements and themes from Craven's other films, both earlier and later.  The film sets up a scenario involving two opposing ideological communities (the Hittites vs. the outsiders) in a battle of survival that plays out through a series of stalk and slash scares, which recalls Craven's previous film, The Hills Have Eyes (which also starred Michael Berryman).  The film also has an emphasis on dreams and nightmares, which would be much more prevalent in A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Craven's direction definitely elevates the material beyond its TV-movie trappings, the look of the countryside has a warm haziness, while the scare scenes are suitably dark and foreboding.  He was assisted by cinematographer Robert Jessup, who also shot the underseen Race with the Devil (1975) and my favorite Chuck Norris movie, Silent Rage (1982).

One of the more suspenseful scenes in Deadly Blessing is when Lana gets trapped in the barn and is stalked by an unseen foe.  The doors get locked, the shutters slammed, she stumbles through cobwebs, and finds a dead body.  It's probably the film's best sequence of onscreen terror.  Lana also starts having strange dreams, involving somebody whispering her name and containing ominous spider imagery.  In one dream scene, a pair of hands hold her head and a big, hairy spider drops into her open mouth (!), something that Sharon Stone actually did (!!).  This was an early role for Stone, her first one of significance, and she does a decent job playing confused and troubled Lana.  She would uncross her legs to fame in Basic Instinct (1992), a film I find rather overrated (heck, I might even prefer Deadly Blessing).
Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch [1969], Escape from New York [1981]) goes way, way over the top in this, spitting firm and brimstone and chewing the scenery with reckless abandon.  He has great lines like, "We are the kindred of God!  We have no business with the serpents!" and "You are a stench in the nostril of God!  The Devil has you now!"  He actually won a Razzie Award for his performance in Deadly Blessing, but I don't think that's quite fair, as his wild-eyed performance is one of the redeeming factors within the film.  The movie could honestly use more of his crazy eyebrows.

Also, Borgnine was quite the trooper.  He suffered a severe accident while filming Deadly Blessing, when a buggy he was in was flipped after some horses freaked out.  Borgnine spent a week in the hospital, healed up, and came back to work, like it was no big deal.  Now THAT is professionalism.
Michael Berryman is as unique looking an actor as there has ever been.  Born with twenty-three various birth defects, Berryman has made a career out of playing psychos and weirdos.  His first role came as a mental patient (another specialty of his) in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) which was followed by his most iconic and enduring performance, that of the hillside mutant Pluto in The Hills Have Eyes.  Berryman followed that up with some memorable roles in Weird ScienceMy Science Project (both 1985), and The Barbarians (1987).  In Deadly Blessing, Berryman doesn't overdue the mentally ill aspects of his character and he manages to make him sympathetic despite his creepiness.
Maren Jensen and Susan Buckner apparently had a terrible time making this movie, as they would both give up acting after Deadly Blessing.  Before this Maren Jensen was in the short lived cult TV sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica and Susan Buckner was in the hit musical movie Grease (1978) as Patty Simcox.  Buckner seems likable enough, but Jensen doesn't really bring anything to the table, which for the female lead in the film is a slight problem.  It's never made clear why her character is so stubborn and insists on staying on this farm after her husbands death, which Jensen doesn't really seem to convey much grief over.  

Speaking of poor old Jim, Douglas Barr would co-star with David Rappaport in a short lived TV-series that I seem to be one of the few people to remember, called The Wizard.  Lisa Hartman, who played weirdo neighbor Faith, would go on to be a regular cast member of mega-hit nighttime soap-opera Knots Landing.  

Jeff East had worked with Wes Craven previously on his TV-movie Stranger in our House (aka: Summer of Fear, 1978).  The curly-headed East reminds me of a doofy William Katt-type.  He got his start playing Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer (1973) and (duh) Huckleberry Finn (1974) and he also played young Clark Kent in Superman (1978) and was also one of the doomed kids in Pumpkinhead (1988).  Just typing that made me remember how much I like Pumpkinhead... raise your hand if you do to.
The movie has a nice score, with a sweeping opening theme, by future Oscar winner James Horner, who got his start on Roger Corman movies like Battle Beyond the Stars and Humanoids from the Deep (both 1980), before eventually landing big Hollywood gigs like Aliens (1986), Field of Dreams (1989), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009).  His score for Deadly Blessing is at times reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's iconic score for The Omen (1976), with the ominous chanting and choral parts, and is quite effective at setting the tone for the film.
I mentioned this being part of Wes Craven's recessive period.  The audacious viscousness of his notorious debut film The Last House on the Left (1972) had a negative effect on his career (although since then it has become a mostly respected classic of the genre) and his name wouldn't be on another film for 5 years (The Hills Have Eyes), which was very successful.  He would follow that with Deadly Blessing and the tragedy that is Swamp Thing (1982), which was such a debacle that afterwards he found himself in "I need a paycheck"-mode with the awful (but awfully fun!) The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1984).  During all this, in his back-pocket he had the idea for A Nightmare on Elm Street, which of course was a massive success.  Again though, after this, Craven found himself in a rough period, with questionable product that ran from Deadly Friend (1986) to Vampire in Brooklyn (1995).  The following year he would have his biggest hit to date with the modern slasher film Scream (1996), which has since led to 3 sequels (all terrible) and yet another recessive period for Craven.  I guess what this means is that Craven is due sometime soon (?) to release something that will knock our socks off.  Here's to hoping he can make it happen.

Wes Craven would reuse this imagery of bathtub terrors in A Nightmare on Elm Street, replacing the snake with Freddy Kruger's glove.

Commerce section:  Deadly Blessing is available on DVD & Blu-Ray on a new special edition, full of interviews, a commentary, and all that good stuff, from the fine folks over at Scream Factory.

Laugh if you want, you'd make the same face with a spider on your chest.
The face made after finishing experiencing Deadly Blessing.

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