A strange, unevenly plotted curio from the equally uneven early Hollywood career of horror maestro Wes Craven gets a long overdue UK release from Arrow Video this month, and in the process reveals the director to have been an efficient technician of taut set-pieces who would become particularly skilled at recycling and refining similar ideas in slightly different forms across the breadth of his later work. 1981’s “Deadly Blessing” plays very much like a greatest hits package of best moments from the Craven filmography, even though it comes before a large portion of the films in which those best moments occurred had actually been made: for a start, genre stalwart Michael Berryman -- Pluto from “The Hills Have Eyes” -- is on hand once more to do his thing, although this time he’s slightly less menacing and plays a naïve adult man-child who hangs around with a load of dorky-looking kids from a strict, Amish-like farming community that live in a remote region of wilderness in an area round about Texas. During the course of the occasionally bewilderingly overwrought and muddled proceedings that follow, there appear a number of sequences that remain oddly familiar: a robed maniac killer, who leaps energetically out of a hay loft, at one point, to menace a twenty-one-year-old Sharon Stone in one of her first ever screen roles, provides a curious foreshadowing of the “Scream” franchise’s mysterious ‘Ghost Face’ and a nicely staged set piece that is to be accompanied by even more acute nods to the near-future that will pop up later in the film. Anyone reading this who’s ever seen “A Nightmare on Elm Street” will surely experience a nostalgic frisson during the scene when lead actress Maren Jensen reclines in the bath with legs spread in the akimbo position, only for something very unpleasant to emerge from among the soap suds. The scene is shot and edited in almost exactly the same style as Heather Langenkamp’s similarly slightly prurient bath-time experience in Elm Street, except the surrealist element of having Freddie’s glove threatening to probe towards a very tender spot as Heather’s character drifts off to sleep, is replaced here by more prosaically phallic concerns, namely the threat of a live poisonous snake, released into the steamy bathroom by a black-clad intruder.
Elsewhere though, there are hints of that surrealism-to-come from Craven’s later 1985 hit, and also of the theme of reality and dream becoming confused, when Sharon Stone (again) is apparently targeted in her moonlit slumbers by a demon that fondles her head with clawed hands and whispers to her as a spider lowers itself on a fine web into her gaping mouth. If there’s one main fault with “Deadly Blessing” it’s that there seems to be a bit too much going on narrative-wise -- probably in order to cram in all the requirements of the studio for what would otherwise have been a fairly perfunctory slasher flick -- but with interesting subtext, set amongst religious fundamentalists living in an ruggedly rural location. The final sequence goes way over the top in order to pull off a “Carrie-like” ending, including ghostly manifestations and a monster from the pits of Hell that emerges improbably from under the floorboards. But first let’s back up a bit …
Craven came to this big studio project, having previously been known mainly for his grungy ‘70s indie features such as “The Last House on the Left” (1972) and “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), at the request of screenwriter Glenn M. Benest, who, interviewed for a featurette included on Arrow’s splendid disc, reveals he got the idea for the film after reading a National Geographic article on the culture of the Amish people and deciding that their way of live -- eschewing technology and living separately and disengaged from the modern world in general – could be made the basis and provide the ideal setting for a potentially interesting horror movie (this was before the Harrison Ford thriller “Witness” made the Amish community much better known around the world). Craven was approached by Benest, who was also an executive producer on the film, after the director had previously shot a TV movie with Linda Blair that Benest had also written, and Universal Pictures subsequently became interested in the project -- no doubt eager to exploit the then-current box office boom in horror movies and especially low-budget slashers, and keen to have a hot ‘name’ horror director like Craven on board.
Craven and Benest seem to have gone all out to deliver the studio a screenplay that doles out a string of ‘80s slasher contrivances with bells on, and which they’ve attached to their novel premise with gusto. The film starts with material that would’ve doubtless seemed quite familiar to the audiences that had previously turned out for “The Hills Have Eyes”: the distinctive gnarled and starey-eyed features of Michael Berryman appear on screen once again, lumbering through farmland in hot pursuit of the pretty Lisa Hartman, who plays the daughter of Lois Nettleton’s single mother neighbour, Louisa Stohler – also a woman who is the target of much religiously motivated hatred from the nearby community of Hittite settlers, to which Berryman’s character William Gluntz belongs. The sect all dress alike in 17th century puritan garb, travel about by horse-drawn carriage and seek to avoid all the evils of the modern world such as farm machinery, motor cars and city people. They don’t like the Stohler girls because they think that they’re human incarnations of evil demons; but Gluntz’s simpleton’s accusation of ‘Incubus’ rather than succubus, directed at the teenage girl Faith, would appear to indicate a slight gender confusion in his allocation of demon-related nomenclature.
Faith is saved from Gluntz’s clumsy attentions by local farmer Jim Schmidt (Douglas Barr), who interrupts the chase when the two run into his field and nearly get knocked down by his tractor. It turns out Jim is himself a former member of the Hittite sect; he left them after falling in love with city girl Martha (Maren Jensen), but that still hasn’t dissuaded him from not only bringing her back to live right under their noses in the same area, ensconced in a picture postcard homestead down the road from his former clan’s own land, but also starting his own farm using all the modern methods and with all that devilish technology they so despise, to boot. The boy’s really rubbing their noses in it! And that’s not all ... because the sect’s head honcho (an amusingly wild-eyed performance by Ernest Borgnine in broad-brimmed hat and false beard) is Jim’s dad! Needless to say, daddy Isaiah Schmidt isn’t Martha’s biggest fan for leading his eldest son so astray. And if the Hittites celebrated Christmas, it’s safe to say the couple probably wouldn’t be on their card list.
All of which means there is no shortage of suspects available who dress entirely in black when poor Jim meets with a nasty accident after he goes to investigate strange noises in the barn at night and finds someone has scrawled the word INCUBUS in red paint on the back wall. He gets crushed to death by his own tractor (driven at him by an unseen intruder) leaving his unsuspecting wife Martha, who naively thinks her husband’s death is just a freak accident, to run the farmstead all by her-self. The Hittites’ number one local enemy, Louisa -- Faith’s mom – tries to help her out by lending a sympathetic ear in the face of hostility from Isaiah Schmidt, who blames her for his errant son’s death; but Louisa seems to be getting just a little too friendly, having explained to Martha how she went completely off men after her former husband turned out to be no good. Before Louisa can get any closer to the vulnerable grieving widow though, two of Martha’s best friends from the city turn up to keep her company and help take her mind off the tragedy.
Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) were expecting a pleasant holiday in the country … not the suspicion and culturally institutionalised misogyny of a bunch of religious sectarians who ‘make the Amish look like swingers.’ But the female trio’s troubles are soon to be amplified considerably: mysterious prowlers spying on them from both outside and from inside the house, Isaiah glowering disapprovingly on the side-lines, and blame being unfairly apportioned to the city girls when, after Lana is assaulted in the hay loft, one of the Hittites turns up dead in the same barn as the one in which Jim earlier met his end. There’s clearly something weird afoot in this seething hotbed of repression and religiously motivated fervour. But despite at least one of the deaths quite clearly being a brutal murder (on account of the fact that the victim had already been repeatedly stabbed to death before being hanged!), the doughty girls bravely (or rather, foolishly) elect to stick around for further shenanigans, even though the sheriff makes no bones about the fact that ‘the next time something happens, I won’t be around for anything but clean-up!’
Now Faith and Louisa start to act weirder and weirder still around the girls: Faith in particular -- especially when she goes to visit the house with a basketful of eggs, casually dismisses the recent death of Jim and then bounces up and down suggestively on Martha’s bed while giving her a rather eerie and quite blatant ‘come hither’ look. Meanwhile, an intruder in the house proves bath time and snakes don’t mix, and something odd involving a spider seems to be happening in Lana’s bedroom at night. Vicky courts trouble from the off when her charms attract the attention of Isaiah’s other, younger son John (Jeff East); his eye is drawn away from the prim, extensively corseted Hittite girl already picked out as a bride for him by the community at large, after he catches sight of Vicky while she’s out running one morning, and is tempted by the image of her scanty jogging shorts and her post-run sweaty-sports-shirt-with-no-bra look. The poor sap has never seen the like!
All this, of course, enamours this household of brazen hussies even less to Isaiah and his Godly brethren, and the sweet little Hittite girl John had been courting isn’t too happy about her beau’s roving eye, either. ‘You’re a stench in God’s nostril!’ a fulminating Ernest Borgnine colourfully ejaculates towards his now (other) errant son. John, it has to be said, does appear to have gone all Norman Bates on us by this stage, now that his lusts have been unwittingly enflamed, but this part of the storyline comes to a dramatic conclusion with John, Vicky, John’s chosen Hittite fiancé (who’s also suddenly developed psychic powers, it seems!) and perhaps another personage with murderous intent in mind, all turning up in the woods at the same time for the couple’s unexpectedly eventful make out session.
All this richly diverse strangeness and mysteriously odd behaviour being displayed by a number of the characters is building up to a deranged climax back at the house that is, it has to be said, both very entertaining and very crazy … and also completely ridiculous, in fact. It involves a character revelation that anticipates the denouement to “Sleepaway Camp” (1983) (but nowhere near as effectively, thanks to an unconvincing chest piece), and a solution to the identity of the killer which would be adapted for further use by Craven years later when he came to make “Scream”.
Craven’s direction is at its best when it comes to the staging of the film’s numerous set-pieces, strategically placed throughout its run-time. The director was clearly setting out his stall for the special notice of Hollywood here -- and who could have blamed him? Not only does he showcase trial runs of sequences to be later mounted with bigger budgets in more high profile vehicles, but he shamelessly reproduces the POV opening sequence of “Halloween” near the start, just to make the traditional slasher audience feel comfortable before the film spirals off in all sorts of crazy directions; and the screenplay always keeps one figurative eye firmly on the fact that the predominant audience for slasher pics in the early eighties would have been (or assumed to have been) adolescent boys: thus Martha is required to disrobe at regularly spaced points throughout (although actress Maren Jensen is clearly using a body double) and, this being a slasher (of sorts) with the theme of repression at its core, there is always someone creeping about the house or perving on her while she’s doing it. The climax of the film was appended at the request of the studio and inadvertently, for the sake of a show-stopping final reel thrill, leaves the ‘sex equals death’ equation, that could be found at the root of many other slasher films from this period, looking positively forward thinking and liberal in its sub-textual outlook by comparison.
Amid all this sexual neurosis, gender confusion and repressed hysteria, Borgnine (top-billed, but with his brief appearance time cannily distributed throughout the film) provides good value and camps it up nicely as the stern-faced fundamentalist patriarch who publicly whacks kids in church with a cane after dragging them out before the congregation for hanging around the devilish Schmidt household – while, at the same time, the actor is careful not to overdo the ranting too much, lest it become too obviously satirical. Michael Berryman, meanwhile, is to all intents playing a child in this film - and doesn’t have too many scenes beyond the halfway mark. The narrative plays slightly on Berryman’s distinctive look to set him up as an early obvious contender for being the killer, especially as he spends much of his spare time peering through Martha’s bedroom windows to catch her in a state of undress. His status as an adult trapped in a psyche of childlike ‘innocence’ makes his character the perfect summation of the isolated society to which he belongs – taught to be repelled by the temptations of the opposite sex and to react violently against worldly manifestations of these temptations from outside the community, but, at the same time, privately fascinated and drawn to the subject. “Deadly Blessing” is still unusual among the era’s slasher movies, despite trying so hard in places to fit in with them, for featuring a trio of strong female protagonists highlighted against a cultural backdrop displaying an overt hostility to the very notion of female independence, both social and sexual. Of course, the interesting subtext concerning the repression vs. liberation theme is rather turned on its head thanks to that inanely cheesy coda at the end, but the film does intermittently attempt to tackle some evocative psycho-sexual themes, if only in an ultimately confused and confusing manner.
The acting of the female trio at the core of the narrative may not be up to much -- though, in truth, Benest’s screenplay isn’t exactly bursting with insight and characterisation: Jensen’s performance is probably the strongest out of the three, although there is very little attempt to make us understand why a former college girl from the big city would be so eager to stick around and attempt to make a farm viable singlehandedly, even after her husband was killed on the same site; and even less why she and her friends continue to sit it out once it becomes evident there is a murderer on the prowl, as well as a bunch of hostile religious fundamentalists bent on making their lives as hard as they possibly can. Sharon Stone was a novice actor at this point in her career, a former fashion model tentatively looking to change direction. Her striking looks were probably the main draw that landed her the role and the fact that she is the subject of the film’s memorable theatrical poster and not the main stars or any of the higher billed actors is telling, and certainly helps give the movie an added charge now that she has become probably the most well-known person associated with it. A lush and evocative, richly orchestrated score by James Horner and a Texas landscape captured in muted autumnal hues of brown and grey by cinematographer Robert Jessup, at a push help makes this play like a distant cousin to Piers Haggard’s 1971 British film for Tigon “Blood on Satan’s Claw”, where the supernatural elements associated with repression felt more at home than they do here. But all in all, deeply flawed as it may be, it’s hard to dislike a film that takes such an unpredictably crooked path towards its own eventual unravelling.
The DVD release from UK’s redoubtable Arrow Video offers a very nice print and an acceptable transfer in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with a strong 1.0 mono audio track which doesn’t distort. The extras are sparse but interesting and start with a somewhat rambling introduction from Michael Berryman -- which is probably the reason why it’s been assigned access from the extras menu rather than attached automatically to the start of the film, as Arrow’s director/cast intros normally are. Berryman is also the subject of a 25 minute interview produced by High Rising Productions, “Craven Images: The Horror Hits of Michael Berryman”, in which the cult star talks candidly about his life and career, and about his experiences shooting “Deadly Blessing”. A cultivated and thoughtful man, as well as extremely frank about letting his opinions be known, Berryman is quick to pay tribute to the man who got him into acting in the first place: the “War of the Worlds” producer George Pal, who walked into the LA arts shop he was working behind the counter in at the time, and persuaded Berryman to take a role in his current project “Doc Savage”; then a role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” led to his most famous appearance in Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes”, as a member of a deranged cannibal clan in Nevada -- and a horror legend was born.
When it comes to his thoughts on “Deadly Blessing”, Berryman’s attention turns mainly to the bitchiness he claims existed between the young female cast members, especially with regard to his own girlfriend at the time, who apparently didn’t get on with the ‘Hollywood attitude’ of Stone et all. Berryman is also scathing about the two recent remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes”, particularly as he was promised a cameo in the second one, flew all the way out to California at his own expense to meet with the director (who didn’t turn up), only to then learn, later on, that shooting had already started without him and that the director didn’t want anyone involved with the original film after all!
Screenwriter Glen M. Benest is the subject of an equally revealing interview lasting 13 minutes: “Deadly Desires” sees Benest filling in the production background details and revealing a little about how Craven worked on set. Benest sees the director as someone perfectly attuned to the technical aspects of producing major set-pieces such as the ones that populate this film, but not too confident in dealing with actors, preferring to cast roles to type on trust that the performer will simply deliver what is expected of them. This approach didn’t sit too well with Sharon Stone, according to Benest, who, though a complete unknown at the time, delivered an almighty strop when she felt that she wasn’t being given enough direction!
Keen-eyed viewers can also find two brief Easter eggs hidden on the main menu, one featuring Berryman discussing upcoming projects he’s involved in and another with Benest talking about the distinctive theatrical poster with Sharon Stone on it, a framed copy of which he has hanging on his wall. The Arrow Video packaging strategy you’ll probably be familiar with by now: Gary Pullin, art director of Rue Morgue, supplies original artwork for one side of a reversible sleeve that features the original artwork on the other; there’s a double-sided fold-out poster of said artworks; and also a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing by the mighty Kim Newman.
A neat package for an enjoyable piece of early Craven hokum, that’s not to be taken too seriously.
Read more from Black Gloves at his new blog, Nothing but the Night!