Friday, October 12, 2012

Deadly Blessing

Director Wes Craven can be a pretty hit-or-miss filmmaker. For every A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Serpent and the Rainbow, he's got a Shocker or Deadly Friend on his resume. Deadly Blessing (1981) falls right in the middle. While not an outright classic, it is made with sufficient skill and thematic subtext to make it watchable and better than his lesser works.

Craven's career can be divided roughly into three periods: the backwoods brutality and savagery of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, the fantastical and rubber-reality of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the post-modern, ironic Scream and its sequels. Deadly Blessing falls in between the first two periods, not only in terms of when he made it during his career but also in how Craven tries, not always successfully, to blend the supernatural with human violence.

After her husband is killed in what appears to be a freak tractor accident, Martha (Maren Jensen) finds her problems growing worse. Her husband was an ex-member of the fundamentalist religious group the Hittites, which are lead by his father Isaiah Schmidt (Ernest Borgnine). The Hittities consider Martha an Incubus for having lured one of their own away from the faith, and Isaiah, with threatening overtones, attempts to buy the farm she lives on. She refuses and is soon joined by visiting friends (Susan Buckner and Sharon Stone). But danger is afoot; a killer is on the loose, targeting believer and non-believer alike, a killer that might not be entirely human.

I don't remember where I read it, but someone once said at the heart of most horror is the idea of repression. Think of all the stories of buried secrets coming home to roost in the most horrible manner. A theme Craven has explored a number of time is the sins of the father, the idea that trespasses committed by parents will have drastic consequences on their children. That is represented here by Isaiah, a man whose fanaticism drives both of his sons away and causes his followers to live in fear and isolation. In this environment, where these people have deliberately cut themselves off from the safety of the modern world (the sheriff at one point notes he's hours away if anything bad happens) and they are afraid to speak up, evil can flourish and operate.

Craven draws on elements of both the then-emerging slasher genre as well his past in the savage cinema, with some supernatural horror on the edges. The final showdown is reminiscent of the Craven's early work with "normal" characters being forced to become vicious to defend themselves. We get plenty of stalking-through-the-night scenes plus of creepy crawlers involving spiders and snakes. One shot of Martha in the bathtub as a snake slides into the water would later be reused by Craven in A Nightmare on Elm Street with Freddy Kruger's claw. There's also a really freaky dream sequence (another Craven trademark) in which a figure holds Sharon Stone in place as a spider plops down into her mouth. Another rather intense sequence involves Sharon Stone again becoming trapped in a barn as someone or something tries to get at her. I also liked the rather gorgeous shots of the countryside and farmland, a nice contrast to the dark lurking just beyond the edges, as well as the ominous long shots of the black-clad Hittites overlooking Martha and company. 

But the script and pacing are not up to snuff. Events unfold slowly without a whole of action to sustain them; the narrative lacks a driving force to keep it tethered and moving. There are too many periphery characters who lack much interest. I also cannot understand why Martha chooses to remain on the farm, and I don't recall hearing any plausible reason given. She's established as an outsider, so she's clearly far away from the life and people she knows; she doesn't seem to have any particular interest or knowledge in farming; and it's not like she had any financial imperative to stay. Maybe if the Hittites were claiming the land was theirs and trying to force her out, I'd understand, but Isaiah offers to buy it. And once the elements of danger creep in, I never could fathom why she continues to stay.

My other big problem was the character of Isaiah. Now, Ernest Borgnine was undeniably a legend of the movies, and no doubt, he has a commanding presence, but there is not a trace of subtlety to the performance or the writing. He's always going on about fire and brimstone, whipping his children, and making veiled threats to Martha, and I kept rolling my eyes. He's presented as a self-righteous hypocrite - a holy man who drives his sons from his flock and shuns them, covets material possessions, and is undeniably cruel - but I think it would have been much more effective if that had been the underlying characterization and not the surface presentation. I'm thinking of something like 2011's Red State in which Michael Parks plays a preacher who we see is a loving family man and devout believer appearing almost grandfatherly, but we hear him preach the most hateful things imaginable and commit some pretty heinous deeds; there's a dichotomy, a contradiction that's s frightening as it is believable. In Deadly Blessing, Isaiah is just a cranky guy in a suit and beard.

Deadly Blessing should be of interest to Craven and genre fans. It's a rather unorthodox setting for a horror film, and the subtext is rich in themes that have always fascinated Craven, but it falls short of the classic it might have been. 

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