A horror subgenre best described as “religious horror” first emerged in the late ’60s with Rosemary’s Baby. By the time The Exorcist spit pea soup on audiences in December of 1973, religion as a symbol system for producing terror had become as much a part of the horror tradition as mad scientists and vampires.
In the ’80s, religious-themed terror took a jingoistic turn. In a decade that began with the Mariana boat lift, films like Angel Heart and The Believers fed off of fears of foreign “cults”. In other words, the fear of the immigrant Other.
Religious horror could also fuel the fear of the Other within. Americans felt threatened by more than strange religions from foreign shores. Deadly Blessing fits snuggly into this unfortunate trend with a portrayal of a homegrown religious cult, a group known as the Hittites modeled closely on the Amish (though in a snatch of dialogue makes it clear that they are not the Amish). The Hittites believe that some strangers in their midst, recently widowed Maren Jensen and her two friends from L.A. played by Susan Buckner and Sharon Stone, are aligned with “the Incubus”, an explained source of seductive evil (not, strangely, the succubus, usually the name given to feminized evil).
The plot devolves rather quickly into a cross between a slasher film and a rather pedestrian murder mystery that may or may not have a supernatural background. Meanwhile, Sharon Stone wears a lot of lingerie and other things happen.
In other words, this is not a film to snatch up. By the time Craven made Deadly Blessing, he had already directed two horror classics, The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Nightmare on Elm Street, his masterpiece before the making of Scream, would come in 1984. Craven explains the origin of Deadly Blessing as coming out of TV work that he did with producer Max Heller. Unfortunately, Deadly Blessing has the feel of a made-for-TV effort, with a bit of nudity added here and there to insure an R-rating.
In other words, there’s not much here for horror fans to love. There’s a slightly creepy scene involving a tarantula. Michael Berryman looks as disturbing as he did in The Hills have Eyes, but does little more than slink around farmhouses and barns before he himself becomes a victim of whatever exactly is happening in Hittite country.
The one real tour de force here involves Maren Jensen in the bathtub with (paging Dr. Freud) a snake. Not only does the scene successfully shows off Craven’s genius for horror, the shot will be immediately recognizable to horror fans. This sequence is, almost frame for frame, Craven’s scratch work for the infamous scene in Nightmare on Elm Street when Freddy’s glove rises menacingly between Heather Langenkamps’ legs. The snake is, if anything, much more effective.
Special features focus on how Deadly Blessing included an odd ensemble of actor ranging from Ernest Borgnine to Sharon Stone to Lisa Hartman and Craven alum Michael Berryman. Craven in the excellent audio commentary describes himself as being mostly in charge of the casting process. If this is the case, he put together a cast from which he could get good performances in the midst of a bad script and a plot that staggers like its drunk.
Craven also tells us that he himself did an extensive rewrite on the work, suggesting that it came in rather bad shape. Interestingly the disc features a short interview with screenwriters Glenn Benest and Matthew Barr. They came at the script, apparently, with some fairly half-baked Freudianism. Benest and Barr basically suggest that they shaped the story and Craven did rewrite most of the script. They give him substantial credit for the few jump scares the film pulls off.
Other features include a discussion of the unfortunate creature effects at the end (both screenwriters were appalled at the ending and you will be, too). Horror fans will be delighted with an interview with icon Michael Berryman, well known to Craven aficionados.
The surprises ending of Deadly Blessing, fairly well telegraphed in an earlier scene or two, comes with an abrupt shock that apparently cost the studio an extra hundred thousand dollars and actually destroyed what little of value could have be salvaged from the plot.
In fact, perhaps the most positive thing I can say about the special edition of the film is its packaging. Its released in a distressed DVD box that gives it the appearance of a well-used VHS tape of a trashy horror film from the ’80s. In other words, it hopes to sell itself on its B-flick origins.
Sadly, there are a lot better B-grade horror flicks from that era worth owning. This is one for Craven completists only.