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Deadly Blessing (1981)

Deadly BlessingDirector: Wes Craven
Starring: Maren Jensen, Ernest Borgnine, Michael Merryman, Sharon Stone, Susan Buckner, Lois Nettleton, Lisa Hartman, Colleen Riley, Jeff East
Running time: 103 minutes

Warning: review contains spoilers.

Wes Craven made Deadly Blessing all the way back in 1981. If you don’t remember what American TV movies from the 1980s are like, then you’re fortunate. Generally – with a few honourable exceptions – they were dreadful affairs, usually thoroughly bowdlerised so that no one could possibly get offended about anything, and with soap opera acting principally calculated to ensure the thesps didn’t emote too much and make their carefully prepared makeup run. Deadly Blessing has a little too much nudity and violence to be one of those, but it comes close, and that’s only one of its problems.

Where to start? Deadly Blessing’s biggest defect is that it spends so much time teasing the audience as to whether it’s a film about a supernatural threat, a psycho killer or a monstrous cult that it doesn’t leave itself time to convince as any of them. It also features some truly atrocious acting (Sharon Stone) and an ending so cretinously stupid that you want to find Wes Craven and whack him over the head with an oar.

The synopsis

City girl Martha (Jensen, best known for playing Athena in the original Battlestar Galactica) and her husband Jim (Douglas Barr) live in a rural farmhouse called ‘Our Blessing’, right next door to the Hittites – a dour religious community described by one character as “making the Amish look like swingers”. The Hittites hate all technology and have decidedly old-fashioned views on the role of women; to make matters worse, Jim is the son of Hittite elder Isaiah Schmidt (Borgnine), and is ostracised by the community because he went away to the big city, lost the faith and married Martha. The Hittites aside, Martha and Jim’s only neighbours are blowsy divorcee Louisa (Nettleton) and her teenage daughter and amateur painter Faith (Hartman), denounced by the Hittite man-child William Gluntz (Berryman, essentially reprising his role in The Hills Have Eyes) as an ‘incubus’, which appears to be a catch-all term for an evil coming to lead men astray.

Before you know it, Jim’s crushed to death by his tractor, leaving Martha widowed; her best friends – alpha female Vicky (Buckner) and whiny lush Lana (Stone) – come up to support her. Isaiah and the other Hittites mutter darkly about the ‘incubus’ and try to get Martha to move out, without success; William goes to peep on Martha undressing and is knifed by a mystery assailant. Lana has a recurring nightmare about a monstrous figure with ash-grey skin who keeps turning into a spider.

Someone sneaks into the house on repeated occasions (even though Martha feels increasingly under threat, to the extent that she buys a gun, it never seems to occur to her to lock the doors) planting a snake in the bathroom when she’s in the tub (which comes rising out of the soapy water between her legs: at this point you suspect that Freud would have had a field day with Craven) and rigging up a dummy in Martha’s room to scare her, dressed in the jacket Jim was buried in.

Meanwhile, Vicky’s been having a tentative romance with Jim’s younger brother John (Jeff East), who’s already betrothed to Melissa (Colleen Riley). When Isaiah casts him out, John goes to find Vicky. Melissa marches round in her night-dress – wild-eyed and brandishing a knife. Someone stabs John to death and sets Vicky’s car on fire; it blows up with her in it.

Martha goes to Louisa’s house and finds that Faith’s done paintings of her based on her wedding photo, but with the groom’s face blank. Oh, and Jim’s exhumed body is hanging up in Faith’s room, too. Meanwhile, Melissa marches around, chanting an invocatory prayer; Louisa jumps out and apparently strangles her, while Faith jumps on Martha. In the ensuing struggle Faith is revealed to be a boy (raised as a girl by the man-hating Louisa) and obsessively in love with Martha. Cue a battle at Our Blessing in which Martha shoots Faith, Lana shoots Louisa, and Faith leaps back up to attack Martha only to be skewered by Melissa, whom Isaiah praises for killing the incubus. (It’s never quite clear who killed John and Vicky; Melissa certainly had more motivation to do so than Faith.)

Confused? Don’t even try to make sense of what’s gone before, because…

As the dust settles, Lana heads back to the big city (trailing her substance abuse problems, chronic whininess and Stone’s atrocious acting in her wake) and Martha goes back into Our Blessing and shuts the door. Immediately Jim’s ghost appears from nowhere – the first unambiguously supernatural manifestation of the entire film! – intones “beware!” a couple of times and then vanishes. At which point the floor explodes and an enormous demon with glowing eyes bursts out, grabs Martha and drags her screaming down to hell.

Really. That’s how it ends. This ending may have achieved the highest score recorded on an Oh-fuck-off-o-meter in human history. (Note to Jim: next time, try delivering the warning more than five seconds before the actual sodding event.)

What else is wrong with the film? How long do you have? Apparently Martha’s pregnant, although apart from two references in the entire film you wouldn’t know it. It doesn’t even appear to rank as a conversation topic with Vicky and Lana. Also, the (biblical) Hittites were a non-Israelite tribe marked for genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Old Testament and later forced into bond service by King Solomon as he’d been unable to completely wipe them out , so it’s a rather odd choice of name for a presumably Christian sect. And an incubus is a male sexual vampire, not a female one – that’s a succubus. Okay, Faith is a boy in disguise, but the Hittites keep using it as a shorthand for feminine evil.

Deadly Blessing was Maren Jensen’s last film role: shortly afterwards she developed Epstein-Barr Syndrome, which forced her retirement from acting. She’s quite good in this, although of the three women, the most interesting character and performance is that of Susan Buckner as Vicky. She’s smart, strong, confident, capable and sexy, and the hesitant romance between her and John is one of the film’s better aspects. As is the case again and again in Deadly Blessing, the scenes connected to the Hittites are the most intriguing and intense, but the cult is infuriatingly underused and underdeveloped. Borgnine, as always, is eminently watchable, chewing the scenery as if he hasn’t eaten in weeks, and his fierce, commanding presence as Isaiah Schmidt is at the core of two of the film’s most powerful scenes: the confession and beating played out at William’s funeral, and John’s banishment. But even here there’s a sense of missed opportunities: it’s a one-note performance. In an early scene where he encounters John talking to Vicky, Isaiah initially appears as a kindly paterfamilias before switching abruptly to the role of unyielding fanatic, and it’s hard not to think the character would have been a lot more interesting, and scary, had Borgnine played the whole part like that.

The other really stand-out performance in Deadly Blessing is, perhaps surprisingly, from Lisa Hartman, best known for her subsequent role in the 80s sitcom Knots Landing and subsequent country and western career. Ironically, she’s one of the few actresses who manages to avoid the pitfalls of 80s TV acting to turn in a performance as Faith – first a seemingly gauche but mostly innocent child, then as a murderous killer – that convinces utterly. Stone’s acting is so appalling it’s a surprise the cameras didn’t explode in protest. Michael Berryman attacks his part with gusto and brings pathos to the small role, but the normally reliable Lois Nettleton shows an almost magical ability to transform from solid wood to pure ham and back again.

The DVD bristles with extras – an audio commentary from Craven, a introduction by, and interview with, Michael Berryman, interviews with both Craven and screenwriter Glenn Benest, Easter Eggs and a collector’s booklet by Kim Newman – but the old phrase about polishing turds comes to mind. Wes Craven has made some decent films (The Serpent And The Rainbow, for example) but this most certainly isn’t one of them. 103 minutes of my life are now lost to me forever, but it’s not too late for you. Avoid Deadly Blessing like the cinematic plague it is.

SIMON BESTWICK

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3 comments

  1. I wish I’d read this about four months ago. That ending… Really? That? And, of course, all the other awful aspects you’ve mentioned. BUT I rather enjoyed it – if entirely for the wrong reasons. Hilariously bad.

  2. I interviewed Wes Craven when Scream 2 came out many years ago. Luckily I hadn’t seen this film at the time and there were no oars to hand. I still haven’ t seen it and thanks to your suffering Simon I won’t have to now. I was very entertained by your review though, so some good came out of your pain.

  3. I really have to rent this on dvd of course and if I can find it on vhs I will love to watch it! I love the spider effect and the spider period!

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