Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Deadly Blessing

1981
Dir. Wes Craven

Wes Craven burst onto the horror scene in the 70s with his distinctive brand of gritty, survivalist horror with such titles as Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes (both of which have been remade, with the former's 'reimagination' due in cinemas any day now). Before the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1985, Craven dabbled with a number of wildly uneven films including the made-for-TV Linda Blair vehicle Summer of Fear and his adaptation of DC Comic’s Swamp Thing. In between these two films, Craven directed the oddly interesting Deadly Blessing, a quietly haunting tale of fanaticism, obsession and fear. Starring Sharon Stone in one of her earliest roles.

Following the suspicious death of her husband John involving a slow-motion tractor accident, Martha (Maren Jensen) is visited by her two girlfriends from the city. They are slightly freaked out by the fact that Martha lives right next to an odd settlement of Amish-like Hittites ('They make the Amish look like swingers'), led by the rather fearsome and ill-tempered Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), whom Marsha believes somehow had a hand in John's mysterious death. A number of the young men from the settlement including hulking simpleton William (Michael Berryman – a stalwart of the horror genre) seem to have a morbid fascination with Martha and spy on her constantly.

Isaiah claims Martha is a marked woman and refers to her as ‘the incubus’ and constantly warns people to stay away from her. It turns out that Martha’s husband John was a member of the community and when he fell in love and married her, he was cast out and ostracised by his friends and family. They view Martha as a diabolical woman who seduced one of their own away from them. It probably doesn’t help Martha when Sharon Stone comes to stay with her. Eyebrows were no doubt raised at such a collective of brazen hussies!
It soon becomes apparent that someone, or something, is trying to kill Martha and her friends, and before long Hittites and ‘nonbelievers’ are indiscriminately butchered by a malevolent force that may or may not be human.


Deadly Blessing is by no means one of Craven’s best efforts; much of it is mediocre at best. However it does contain some of the most striking images and concepts that exist in his body of work as a whole. Preceding the immensely unsettling bathtub scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is suddenly pulled under the water by the razor-fingered Fred Kruger in a bizarre blurring of dream and reality, Deadly Blessing also has an infamous bath scene in which Martha’s relaxing soak is interrupted by the presence of a snake that has slithered into the tub with her.
Another taut highlight occurs when Martha’s friend Vicky (Susan Buckner) is stuck in a car doused with petrol and desperately trying to reverse away from a rapidly approaching trail of burning fuel.

The film’s undeniable highlight involves a darkly surreal and beautifully unnerving dream sequence in which clawed hands reach out to caress the head of a sleeping Sharon Stone while a voice eerily calls out to her, urging her to open her mouth. As she slowly parts her lips and opens her mouth, a spider lowers itself towards her face on strand of web and quietly enters her mouth. This unsettling image displays Craven at his best and demonstrates the director’s interest in the subconscious and dreams. Dreams and dreamlike imagery crop up repeatedly in Craven’s work, and this particular scene is up there with the most disturbing of them…


Craven carefully builds tension and dread with his effectively restrained direction. He masterfully lulls us into believing that the religious order are responsible for the attempts on the lives of Martha and her friends, and while his presentaion of them is largely two dimensional, it nonetheless remains cold and sinister. He makes great use of autumnal settings and the whole film is tinged with a strange melancholy, right up until the crass ending involving the ‘shocking’ revelation of the hermaphroditical killer, which is followed up with a second ‘shock’ ending (allegedly imposed by the studio) in which a demon bursts up through Martha’s floorboards and drags her down to hell, verifying that the superstitious Hittites with their talk of an ‘incubus’, were right along...


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