Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1981)

4. Deadly Blessing

“Deadly Blessing” is the third part of what I like to refer as Wes Craven’s Savage Wilderness Trilogy. Starting with “Last House on the Left,” continuing into “The Hills Have Eyes,” and concluding here, each details acts of violence in rural areas. Strengthening my theory is that most of the director’s films from this point on would be set in suburban, urban, or even exotic locations. The thematic trilogy also clearly shows the director’s evolution. His premier and sophomore efforts are rough and nasty. “Deadly Blessing” is his most competently shot and made film yet. To show his complete transition into a fully commercial filmmaker, Craven only co-wrote “Deadly Blessing.”

The film follows Martha, a normal girl who lives near a community of Hittites, an Amish analogue. Her husband, a former Hittite, is killed mysteriously, prompting two of her friends to come and keep her company. The murders continue, the girls are haunted by strange nightmares, the Hittites claim Martha is an Incubus, and members of the religious community struggle against sexual and social repression.

“Deadly Blessing” is somewhat uneven as a horror film. There are some effective horrific sequences. The scariest moment takes place in the barn. It features several nice jump scares, like black shutters slamming suddenly over the windows. A character running into a spider web or the spider climbing over her exposed cleavage will probably make arachnophobes squirm. The scene pays off fantastically when a corpse on a rope suddenly drops into frame. Spiders show up again in an effectively creepy nightmare that plays on common fears. The moment was memorable enough to make the poster. It’s the only time that the musical score actually elevates the horror.

Sadly, most attempts to be scary fall flat. James Horner’s score is deeply overdone. Ominous “Omen”-style chanting features heavily when Horner isn’t indulging his love of sweeping strings and horns. The music frequently undoes any tension the movie could have created. The director made another odd choice. During two of the attacks, the action lapses into slow motion. It’s a bewildering and distracting decision. The movie piles on the jump scares near the end. There’s blood in milk, a scarecrow at the door, and a casket full of chickens. All of these moments border silly and are very loud. Craven’s direction is usually solid, making good use of crash-cuts and slow pans. However, one moment features a cheesy fade-to-black which makes me think Wes had been spending too much time in TV-Movie-ville.

The movie willingly indulges in the clichés of the, at the time, still young slasher sub-genre. There are multiple POV shots from the killer’s perspective. Lovers in their pure bedroom are stalked by an unseen killer. Later on, a peeping tom is stabbed in the back, punished for catching a glimpse of naked flesh. A stand-out moment near the end is directly patterned after the Dead Boyfriend urban legend. The image of a black gloved hand, knife brandished, stabbing through a convertible’s cloth-top recalls Italian giallos. When a trail of flames is following a car, the driver isn’t smart enough to just jump out. Adding the perfect cherry on the slasher movie clichés sundae, the movie even throws in a Useless Authority Figure.

“Deadly Blessing” sometimes plays like a prototype for “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” A moment were a girl is menaced in the bath by a snake was almost recreated shot-for-shot in the more famous film. Personally speaking, while all the spider stuff creeps me out, I have no fear of snakes so the scene doesn’t work for me. Your mileage may vary on that one, I guess. There are other signs of “Elm Street,” like the repeated nightmare scenes or young girls discussing dreams of menacing strange men. Those looking for further Craven call-outs will notice a cameo from Beast and a brief appearance of “Summer of Fear.”

Maren Jensen of “Battlestar Galactic” fame, stars in her last role before disappearing from film work. Jensen is never overly charismatic, flat once or twice, but eventually proves likable. If nothing else, the film uses Jensen’s brilliant blue eyes nicely. Sharon Stone spends most of the movie nearing a nervous breakdown. It’s hard to read the performance and the character eventually becomes irritating. Susan Bruckner is easily the most likable of the cast. Bruckner has great chemistry with Jeff East. Their romance is a highlight and Barr’s subplot, a man bristling against his religious convictions, is frequently more interesting then the horror storyline. Lisa Hartman and especially Lois Nettleman come close to overdoing it, with their country accents. Michael Berryman plays another mentally afflicted man-child. He’s a little comical, running around screaming “Incubus!,” but he works better when interacting with kids.

Ernest Borgnine received a Razzie nomination for his performance which is very unfair. It might be easy to criticize him, especially when delivering lines about God’s nostrils. However, he’s actually quite good. He plays a man that control his community through religious prosecution and threats of violence. I love how he turns on a dime, being a kind father one minute and a wide-eyed religious fanatic the next. Borgnine believes his words, imbuing the fire-and-brimstone sermons with real intensity.

The script is somewhat muddled. The plot doesn’t start rolling until 22 minutes in and an opening and closing narration is obviously tacked-on. I dislike the gender bender plot twist. It comes out of nowhere, makes little sense, awkwardly fits into the film’s themes, doesn’t provide a satisfying motive for the murders, and might honestly be offensive to transgender viewers. Horror always has an uneasy relationship with superstition and religion, criticizing those beliefs while frequently playing them straight. “Deadly Blessing” wants it both ways, a critique of overbearing religion that also uses those ideas for cheap scares. The screenwriters also misuse the word incubus, a very male demon that is used to refer to a group of women.

If nothing else, “Deadly Blessing” has got a hell of a last minute jump-scare. I really doubt you’ll see that one coming. Only available for years as a grainy VHS tape, or internet rips of a grainy VHS tape, “Deadly Blessing” was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time. The film has never looked or sounded better. While it’s unlikely that the movie will ever be reevaluated as a lost classic, it’s not without merits. [Grade: B-]   

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