The next film in the Cravenous line-up is Wes Craven’s 1981 offering, Deadly Blessing.
Could your poster be any more sexualized?
[Loba Tangent: Here’s a treat that might not be around for a while. I couldn’t find this Wes Craven movie on DVD, but the whole thing is currently on YouTube. Go now. Watch it while it’s still available, denizens.]
Right off the bat, you’ll notice several differences between Craven’s first two mainstream films and this one. First, it looks far more stylish and professional. Pays to have a far larger budget. Whereas The Last House on the Left came in around $90,000 and The Hills Have Eyes edged closer to $230,000, this one clocked in at an impressive $2.5 million. Switch up from 16MM to 35MM film, get yourself a big-name star with Ernest Borgnine, get yourself a big-name composer with James Horner (this was actually one of his first composing gigs), and, hell, while you’re at it, treat yourself with a couple of newly minted actresses: Sharon Stone and Lisa Hartman.
Craven actually got this movie after impressing one of the producers from his previous directing gig, a 1978 made-for-television movie called Summer of Fear (or Stranger in Our House, depending on where you look). Unfortunately, the only way I could find to watch this one is to buy the DVD, which is currently ridiculously priced because clearly people want to make money off the fact that Craven is now dead. Because people suck. It’s a shame, though, because this sounds like a movie I would totally dig, if only for that movie-of-the-week nostalgia. Based on a Lois Duncan novel, it stars Linda Blair as a young woman coming to terms with the fact that her recently orphaned cousin who moved in with the family might possibly be a witch. I’ve seen a couple of clips from it. Totally groovy late 70s style. Also? A beautiful classic Dodge Charger. Clearly, someone had reason to have some spare Chargers setting around, waiting for some screen time. Luckily, this one hadn’t been painted safety orange just yet.
Anyway, Max Keller decided he wanted Craven to direct the next picture he produced, which ended up being this somewhat sleek yet somewhat clunky “religious horror” tale set among a fictional fundamentalist religious sect known as the Hittites. This time, Craven was only a co-writer, working on revising a rather messily composed screenplay by Matthew Barr and Glenn Benest, the latter of whom was responsible for adapting Duncan’s novel for the Linda Blair MOTW. Even though Craven was only a co-writer, there’s little room for doubt that he took this script as an opportunity to this time explore some of those fundamentalist demons that haunted his own past. You also can recognize Craven’s aptitude for naturalistic dialogue. That was always one of the beautiful things I loved about Craven’s writing: He had this enviably innate sense of rhythm when it came to character dialogue. Even when dealing with the stilted delivery of green actors, that rhythm still made it through.
Ultimately, I would consider this movie the first major disappointment from Craven’s directorial oeuvre, thanks to several factors that were completely out of Craven’s control. First, of course, was the script, which he fixed but clearly did not write. Second was the too-late realization on Craven’s part, which he discussed in later interviews, that basically this film’s larger budget came at a much larger cost to his creative freedom. The linchpin evidence of this truth? The ending of this movie. It’s appalling. Seriously, it makes absolutely no sense at all. Slight spoilers ahoy: The movie, which as I have already mentioned, was a religious horror akin to movies like Rosemary’s Baby or The Sentinel, and moves along at a fairly logical pace, playing out more like a mystery thriller but with some solid scares and some appeasing horror gore. The ending, though? It’s like it came from a completely different film. It suddenly veers off onto some bizarre supernatural horror tangent, complete with cheesy demon rising from the pits of hell to capture our heroine in the final scene. It’s such a ludicrous moment that swings in so far from left field, you’d think Pluto was closer in orbit than this ending. It was shockingly ill-conceived and jars you completely out of the movie, which might not have been spectacular but was at least tolerable up to that point.
I get what the producers wanted. They wanted a purely shocking surprise ending that none of the viewers would expect. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it’s done with some modicum of logic. Even the most fantastical stories need to have some kind of logical structure or you’re going to lose your audience. Supernatural horror, when done well, can be incredibly frightening and satisfying. Craven would prove this point more than adequately when he finally decided to venture on his own terms into the realm of the supernatural with his greatest solo contribution to horror mythology. This, however, misses the mark in a surprisingly ludicrous fashion.
Besides, this film already contains a twist that works in context with the story laid out before its reveal. This is the tricky part though. This particular reveal is pretty significant and one that is telegraphed ahead of the reveal to the audience but in a way that some might miss. There’s another horror movie that came out a few years after Deadly Blessing with a similar, though more tantalizing, version of this film’s surprise reveal. I don’t really want to say more. Suffice it to say, this could have passed as the one mostly satisfying surprise of the movie.
As I mentioned previously, this time we get more familiar faces, with Ernest Borgnine pulling a quick “Dr. Loomis” guest role for Craven and Lisa Hartman and Sharon Stone in one of their earliest movie roles. Stone would never physically appear in another Craven movie, but we’d encounter her in mention many years later in another iconic Craven-directed movie—made all the more humorous thanks to those titillating rumors about Stone’s role in Craven’s divorce from his second wife, Mimi; Craven even confirmed part of the rumor but denied that it was entirely true…and that’s all that I’m going to say about that piffle. Best Sharon Stone moment from this film? Craven having a live spider dropped into her mouth during a pivotal dream sequence. Stone insisted the spider be de-fanged first, but still…mayhaps this is what drove her to such later animosity toward Craven?
Additionally, we see the return of Michael Berryman to the Craven fold, this time playing a rather lackluster character who doesn’t really contribute much to the story before being quickly snuffed out (spoilers). Oh, and Jeff East, who was most recognizable to me as the young Clark Kent from the 1978 Superman film. Finally, Craven cast as his lead actress Maren Jensen, who will be recognizable to sci-fi fans as Athena from the original Battlestar Galactica. Random, pointless trivia moment: This role was Jensen’s last before she retired from acting.
There’s not really a whole lot of substance to this film the way there was for the previous two movies. It’s a shame, because I would have loved to have seen Craven delve more into his own religious upbringing for this story. I also would have loved to have seen his solo take on the schism between the patriarchal religious clan and the secular, independent women depicted in this movie. We get a bit of this examination through the Borgnine character’s rejection of his son for marrying outside the sect and the subsequent shunning of his widow and her friends. Plus, there are some interesting conversation starters about how the religious sect views female sexuality versus female acquiescence.
Clearly, however, Craven was not really driving this train even though he still brought a great deal of technical acumen to the actual filming. Once more, he delivers a nicely paced film with excellently timed scares. I’d also like to point out one scene in particular that will be instantly recognizable to fans of Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a bathtub scene, this time involving a serpent rather than a knife-gloved hand. The setup and execution of the introductory moments of the scene are almost identical between these two movies. My vote is for the latter version being more compelling, but it was a joy to see the spark of the idea catching fire in Craven’s mind.