Sunday, October 30, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Deadly Blessing (Wes Craven)

There’s a reason that so many horror films are centered around religious iconography. Every religion, no matter how loose or strident, comes down to the basic tenant of using fear as a motivator. Do good and you will go to heaven to hang out with God and his hippie son Jesus with all your friends and loved ones; however be bad, or more appropriately, fail to fully follow the particular customs and rules of your particular sect, and go to hell where you will burn for eternity. More people are told these “facts” at a particularly young and impressionable age, far younger than an age when most start to watch horror films. A Mennonite community such as the Amish, with their rejection of modern technology, division from the rest of society and their uniform policy of dress (emphasis on black, with men sporting long beards) seems rife for exploiting by a horror filmmaker, but with the exception of this film, and Children of the Corn, I cannot think of another horror film set amongst the Mennonites. And after watching the amateurish, confused and mediocre Wes Craven directed film Deadly Blessing, I am still waiting for a good horror film set amongst the Mennonites.

John Schmidt (Jeff East) is a former member of an Amish like church called Hittites, led by Ernest Borgnine. Although he still lives on a property neighboring the Hittites’ camps and has a good relationship with much of his former flock, the elders are disgusted at John’s marriage to the secular hottie Martha (Maren Jensen), and believe the house is their rightful possession. The newlyweds also have to deal with Michael Berryman going around calling them “the incubus” all the time, but to be fair, Michael Berryman does that all the time anyway. Soon it becomes obvious that tactics are being taken to scare the Schmidts off the land, primarily the suspicious death of John. When two equally attractive friends of Martha (including a very young Sharon Stone) move in to console the mourning widow, efforts seem ramped up to get them out as the young women teach some Hittites’ males an unexpected lesson in sexuality.

Though by this point director Wes Craven had already created the influential duo of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and was a few years away from creating one of the two films he is now most associated with amongst the general public (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1996’s Scream being the other), the amateurish and poor craftsmanship displayed in Deadly Blessing is a microcosm for his overall inconsistent career. It’s amazing to compare Craven to John Carpenter who steadily improved from a technical standpoint and cultivated his own cinematic identity in the same era. Sure, you could say Last House was never a technical feat, but at least he was able to churn suspense and turn stomach. But here there’s no suspense, and the indifferent style seems TV movie-ish (actually Dark Night of the Scarecrow, which did premiere on television is far more cinematic). There’s no tone or rhythm, and when things get supernatural, well, they just kind of happen, in fairness the confusing piecemeal script (credited to Glenn Benest, Matthew Barr and Craven) pays the director no assistance. Interestingly though, there are at least three shot compositions that feel like beta testing for scenes that Craven would later recycle for Elm Street, I guess he figured no one was watching or would remember Deadly Blessing. The most obvious of which is a bathtub sequence that is pretty much a frame for frame precursor to the famous scene with Heather Lagenkamp in Elm Street, only with a giant python in the place of Freddy Krueger’s knife glove.

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