The works of Wes Craven are almost like holy writ to we Fellow Fans; his forty-plus year range of films have marked significant milestones for us, and we can quote chapter and verse the bulk of his work. Although there’s admittedly been a dud or two along the way (Vampire In Brooklyn comes to mind), there’s no question that the man has made quite the impact on our favored genre; The Last House On The Left, his first effort (along with Friday The 13th progenitor Sean S. Cunningham) made cinematic shock waves whose ripples are still felt today. The Hills Have Eyes was another landmark for him, turning the concept of “family values” on it’s head, and of course with A Nightmare On Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger, he pretty much completed the generally accepted “Unholy Quartet” with Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees, chronologically. And let’s not forget Deadly Blessing…
…what’s that? You’re not familiar with this 1981 film, starring a plethora of former TV stars and a young ingenue named Sharon Stone?
Well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger, Tonto; a great deal of folks aren’t overtly aware of this little flick from the golden age of the slasher; only a small percentage of those folks that I’ve talked to knew Craven directed it.
Our story begins in a rural setting similar to Amish lands here in North America; the secular people in this case are called “Hittites”. Martha is a “city girl” who’s moved to the heartland with her former-Hittite husband, Jim; the pair intend to have a go at the farming life on his plot of the family’s land, albeit without the Hittite ways of shunning any kind of technology.
You see, Jim has completely let go of the beliefs of his father (and clan patriarch) Isaiah’s ways, and embraced the modern world, complete with a tractor and indoor plumbing. Predictably, this doesn’t go over well with the Hittites, and both Jim and Martha are shunned by the religious people, most staunchly and painfully so by Isaiah himself and Jim’s brother, John. They’re not the only “godless” folk about, however; local waitress Louisa and her quirky, artsy daughter Faith are also the targets of derision from the fanatical zealots, although the “outsider” status that these people share doesn’t stop the half-witted Hittite William from sneaking a peek at the ladies when chance permits it; William isn’t the only thing stalking the darkness though. After Jim is killed in an unfortunate “accident” with his obviously godforsaken tractor, a couple of Martha’s friends, Vicky and Lana, come to help her through her grief; Vicky even catches John’s eye, causing him a crisis of faith. This, of course, creates a further rift in the religious community and in the already traumatized family. Finding themselves branded as “incubus” for both this and her refusal to sell Isaiah the farm, Martha and friends begin to be haunted by terrifying, surreal dreams and strange events; of course, it’s not long before people begin to die in horrific ways around the farm.
Before all is said and done, dark revelations of bizarre secrets come to the surface, and death will mar the isolated farming community…but is the killer something of this earth, or beyond it?
I mentioned that this movie hit in the midst of the slasher era, and it shows; the POV shots of a black-gloved voyeur pull to mind many a giallo flick; the frenetic movements in some scenes coupled with the glint of a blade in the darkness would sit well with any fan of Friday the 13th…but there’s more going on here: we also get some pretty inventive psychological horror, the conflict of old religion and new ideas, something of a precognitive Sleepaway Camp moment, and even possible supernatural activity! While all of this sounds great on paper, it was really, really too much for one film; the script at times seems as though it was written by three people who had no direct contact with each other, working instead through a go-between who had some moderate-to-severe ADHD issues. All of these factors combine to make the plot something of a convoluted mess, and it’s not really obvious with just one viewing precisely what the hell is going on; the seriously WTF?? ending puts a definitive cherry on top of this confusion.
Having had nothing to do with the writing, Craven did the best he could with the material he had, and a lot of the genius that we know and love showed through; he was leaving behind his more grindhouse roots and moving on to bigger and better things, and his direction here is certainly indicative of this.
There’s a bathtub scene that’ll have you yelling at the screen (and will be very familiar to fans of A Nightmare On Elm Street); this and several other scenes will most certainly stay with you. The dream sequences (of course) and one especially spooky scene in a darkened barn are particularly nail-biting (there’s one scene involving an arachnid that will put you off sleeping without your head covered for a while), showcasing Craven’s talent for building terror. Although the film tends to drag in a lot of areas, one of these chilling moments is typically balanced in at just the right time to hold your interest. The relationships between the characters are also pretty convincing, with Maren Jensen (Martha), Susan Buckner (Vicky), and Sharon Stone (Lana) playing off the trio of old friends realistically. Jeff East (John) does a good job with his conflicted conscience, and Lois Nettleton (Louisa) and Lisa Hartman (Faith) are more than serviceable in their smaller roles; and when is it not good to see Michael Berryman (William)? The standout is Ernest Borgnine as Isaiah, in one of the most over-the-top and snarling performances of his career…albeit the character is a bit overdone, I wasn’t pushed out by it; indeed, it served to make the fanatical religious leader more sinister to me. Sadly, this was somewhat wasted; although there was a lot of potential in the story for the Hittites and their leader, it really kinda fizzles out of the story as it goes on.
It’s not a great flick, peeps; like I said, the plot is all over the place; the film seriously lacks in coherence. Still, I can’t find it in me to say I don’t like it; whereas it’s not a flick I plug in often, I enjoy it every time I do. There’s something about it, some bit o’ pizazz that makes it a film that I don’t mind checking out again from time to time. Is that Craven’s influence? Undoubtedly some of it is…but the very confusion the flick inspires also contributes to it’s mystique somehow…
…it’s odd that the movie’s biggest failing is also something that compels me to keep coming back to it…but we all know that there’s something wrong with me.
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