How does one go from the relentless, sordid brutality of Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes to slicker, more populist fare like A Nightmare On Elm Street and… um… Swamp Thing; well, if you’re Wes Craven you’ll take a brief left turn into porn under the pseudonym Abe Snake (the less said about that the better) and then launch into some empty frighteners that seem light years away from the intelligent and ferocious horrors that made your name.
As much as I love old Wes, the innovative bugger certainly had some stinkers lurking on a resume and while a fair few of them were mostly the cause of studio interference (Hills Have Eyes II, Deadly Friend, Cursed), he also was responsible for a fair few himself that belied his talent for make high concept horror extremely relatable to a wide audience. However, before the reality warping onslaughts of Freddy Krueger or the glib rampages of Ghostface, Craven tried to plow some ripe scares out of religious communities with the bland American gothic of Deadly Blessing.
On a quiet and remote farm naively named “Our Blessing”, Martha and Jim Schmidt are celebrating the news that they’ve a child on the way and live a relatively simple life – although not as simple as the devout religious community known as the Hittites who live on neighbouring land and apparently “make the Amish look like swingers”. Constantly yelling god fearing warnings and banging on about a Satanic beast known as the Incubus, the Hittites are more of an annoyance than a threat and are tolerated by the Schmidts simply because the head of the community, Isaiah, is Jim’s father even though Jim quit that life not long after marrying. However, one night, while Jim is searching his barn after hearing suspicious sounds, he’s fatally run over by his tractor and his death is chalked up to malfunctioning machinery, leaving his devoted wife to manage on her own. Finding a little solice in her eccentric neighbour Louisa and her equally squirrels daughter Faith, Martha’s spirits get a much needed boost when friends Lana and Vicky come to visit, however, the presence of a couple of hot city girls isn’t something the Hittites are particularly appreciative of, especially when Isaiah’s other son, John, starts to get the wandering eye despite being engaged to his cousin.
This seems to trigger a chain reaction that sees a shadowy figure start up a murder spree that obviously has Martha at its centre; do the increasingly threatening Hittites have her on a Hitt list or is there some other force out there that’s causing Lana to have reoccurring nightmares about getting an oral checkup by a plummeting arachnid?
With Craven himself being brought up in a strict, religious household and thus developing a sizable distrust of organised religion, you’d think that Deadly Blessing’s swipes at religious extremism would carry a lot more weight than it does. However, seeing as this is Wes during his transitional period as he attempts to leave his harrowing debuts in the past, what we get is essentially something that – aside from some bloodletting, a jarring twist and some full frontal nudity – could have easily been an out and out TV movie. Matters aren’t exactly helped by a cast that is predominantly known for their small screen work an features such actors as Maren Jensen, better known as Lieutenant Athena from Battlestar Galactica and Douglas Barr who went on to spend years backing up Lee Majors leathery Colt Seavers in The Fall Guy – even Ernest Borgnine’s eye rolling turn behind a poorly glued on chin-strap beard would probably make people from a certain generation point at the screen and go “Holy shit! It’s that guy with the happy teeth from Airwolf!” and it noticably mutes any big screen scares the story is trying to achieve. With that being said, I’m not sure the movie even knows what that actually is and ends up being a rather straight forward slasher that frequently moonlights as a paranoid thriller that leans heavily on people creeping through barns until the finale turns everything into an absolute free for all.
You get the feeling Craven’s trying to be subtle, but the Hittites particular brand of “Angry Amish” is as convincing as a con man with a nervous tic and in a presumed attempt to hold his interest, the director dumps in other layers of destracting weirdness to keep things ticking along. What do the spider obsessed nightmares that Lana (Sharon Stone in an early clothes-on role) have to do with anything apart from being the excuse for Craven to chuck in a dream sequence that will have arachnaphobes bolting for the mouth wash? Was the sub-plot about John not wanting to marry his cousin supposed to be important? What about the repeated scenes showing Isaiah to be a sadistic prick?
To get super-spoilerish, the answer, impressively, is that none of it is supposed to mean anything and that the Hittites are actually a red herring as Craven suddenly shifts into fifth gear for Deadly Blessing’s deranged ending. The director has always had a strange eye for a spot of exaggerated fisticuffs when it comes to wrapping up a movie and sometimes (Nightmare On Elm Street, Scream, Shocker) it fits the movie perfectly – however in others it just comes across as completely fucking weird, such as voodoo creeper The Serpent And The Rainbow ending with a brawl that would look out if place headlining Wrestlemania and so Deadly Blessing finishes up with a third act that, while is hugely entertaining for all the wrong reasons, feels like it’s from a completely different film. With a SPOILER WARNING in effect, we find out that it’s neighbours Louisa and Faith and not the Hittites that are doing the killing because Faith – in a twist that simultaneously beat Sleepaway Camp to the screen by two years and will piss off the Trans community – is actually a boy raised as a girl and who is murderously in love with Martha while Louisa takes a mad swing at Pamela Voorhees’ mother-of-the-year award. Its histrionic chaos that sees such deranged sights as actress Lisa Hartman kitted out with a prosthetic man chest to hide her boobs and Jensen slapping a hysterical Stone so hard she succeeds in knocking her character spark out. It’s something of a relief that a slasher this dull finally shits the bed in such spectacular fashion, but we ain’t done yet, oh no. When everything has been settled, Martha is then suddenly confronted with Jim’s ghost who attempts to warn her about the Incubus before a rubbery demon suddenly erupts from the floorboards and yanks her down to Hell…. Fucking what?
Craven would unbelievably top that ending years later with the incomprehensible twist at the end of Deadly Friend (no relation), but even though Deadly Blessing is Wes trying to find his feet in more “respectable” filmmaking, the seeds of what wonders to come are dotted about – the snake in the bath sequence is directly referenced and perfected in Elm Street and he eventually nailed far fetched killer reveals in Scream).
Deadly Blessing may be anything but, but Craven aficionados will no doubt have a giggle seeing their hero make his awkward first steps into the horrors of studio filmmaking.