Review: Deadly Blessing (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #732

Number of Views: One
Release Date: August 14, 1981
Sub-Genre: Psychological Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $2,500,000
Box Office: $8,279,042 (USA)
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Wes Craven
Producers: William Gilmore, Patricia Herskovic, Max A. Keller, Micheline H. Keller
Screenplay: Glenn M. Benest, Matthew Barr, Wes Craven
Special Effects: Jack Bennett
Cinematography: Robert Jessup
Score: James Horner
Editing: Robert Bracken
Studios: Polygram Pictures, Inter Planetary
Distributor: United Artists
Stars: Maren Jensen, Sharon Stone, Susan Buckner, Jeff East, Colleen Riley, Douglas Barr, Lisa Hartman, Lois Nettleton, Ernest Borgnine, Michael Berryman, Kevin Cooney

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Megadeth “No More Mr. Nice Guy”

[2] James Horner “Deadly Blessing”

” Horror films don’t create fear. They release it”

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since Wes Craven passed away. He may not have been my personal favorite of the in-demand eighties horror directors, but I had massive respect for both his craftsmanship and for being a bloody nice fellow. When he first emerged on the scene in 1972 with the notorious The Last House on The Left and followed it up five years later with The Hills Have Eyes, folk were quick to dismiss him as something of a raging wrong ‘un.

Craven was taken to task for his brutal depictions of violence and deeply unpleasant characters, when in fact, he was simply acting out, having been raised in a strict Baptist family. By the time the eighties were upon us, he had settled into more commercially acceptable genre fare and it was here he found his true niche.

Looking back over his vast body of work in retrospect, it was nothing if not varied. On one end of the scale you have the front-runners such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent & The Rainbow, The People Under The Stairs, Scream and Red Eye; all of which performed well theatrically and earned Craven no end of new fans. Slightly south of the summit were Swamp Thing, Deadly Friend, Shocker, Cursed, My Soul To Take and the unanimously despised Vampire in Brooklyn and each struggled to find its audience.

Then we have the made for TV fodder; The Summer of Fear, Invitation To Hell, Chiller and Night Moves, seemingly only undertaken to keep him busy while he worked on his next big project. It’s a chequered résumé for sure but with almost thirty directorial credits to his name over a career spanning five individual decades, he certainly couldn’t be accused of not putting in the legwork.

Occult chiller Deadly Blessing arrived in 1981 and showed Craven very much in a transitional period as he was beginning to shift more towards the mainstream. It was devised with a theatrical release very much in mind and went on to do reasonable numbers at the box office. However, fans never seemed to know what to make of it, as there wasn’t a whiff of the on-screen brutality that had become synonymous to his brand.

Consequently, it didn’t linger long in the audience’s thoughts and is perhaps best known for providing us introduction to a certain Sharon Stone, long before she went on to become a household name. To be honest, there was little evidence in this performance that she would wind up a global phenomenon. That’s not to say she sucked, more that she was clearly an actress still finding her feet, and no better or worse than others around her.

“In the rolling hills of a sinful farm community, untouched by time, a gruesome secret has been protected for generations”

In actual fact, she isn’t even on leading lady duties for Deadly Blessing and that dubious pleasure falls to Maren Jensen, as one time city girl with a country heart, Martha Schmidt. Along with her devoted husband Jim (Douglas Barr), she resides on an isolated farm named ‘Our Blessing’, where the happy couple are preparing for the arrival of their first-born. Alas, while their house is a happy one, not everyone on the settlement is exactly hospitable.

You see, the community is run by the “Hittites”, a decidedly austere cluster of religious nuts who, as one character puts it so eloquently, “make the Amish look like swingers”. Led by wild-eyed blatherer Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), who as luck would have it, is Jim’s father, they make it more than clear that both Jim or his pregnant bride are no longer welcome and take great joy from branding her an “incubus”.

When Jim suddenly turns up stone cold dead, and in frightfully suspicious circumstances, best friends Lana (Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) decide to temporarily vacate their lives of leisure and pay her a visit, just until she gets back on her feet. However, the thing about Martha, is that she’s one tough cookie and not about to be run out of her home by the Hittites.

Instead, she digs in her heels and flat-refuses to show signs of vulnerability, despite the fact that Isaiah and his cronies are beginning to turn the screw. Tensions on the plantation are fast approaching breaking point and, sooner or later, something simply has to give.

To make matters even more sticky, Vicky has her eye on local farm hand John (Jeff East) who, as luck would have it, just so happens to be Jim’s younger brother and still just about in favor with pops. Despite the fact that he is already engaged to be married (under considerable duress I might add), it is clear that he’s concealing a boner for the fun-loving city girl and this only adds fuel to the fire.

Meanwhile, Lana is suffering from all manner of lucid night terrors and is spending her downtime wandering around the farmhouse in a world all of her own. Something fishy is evidently going on and, after two slow and steady acts of not a great deal to write home about, Deadly Blessing finally arrives at the all-important meat and potatoes.

Craven’s direction is sound, Robert Jessup’s free-range photography more than adequate, and the score from the late, great James Horner is positively packed with foreboding. As for the actors, well our trio of ladies pout and scream in all the right places, Borgnine is perfectly cast as the bearded totalitarian, and Michael Berryman has a whale of a time in his thick-headed simpleton role.

Sadly, this is as good as it gets for Deadly Blessing as, for all its creeping dread and well orchestrated shocks, there’s precious little memorable about it. That may be a tad harsh as it does have its moments, but seems unsure whether to play out like a standard slasher or further explore the supernatural path it increasingly hints at. I’m not sure even Craven himself knew where to pitch his tent as the extreme left field ending goes against pretty much everything that preceded it.

When you place Deadly Blessing in chronological context, it’s a well-made and played chiller, the likes of which seems hand-made for late night cable. Gone is the grungy seventies exploitation feel of his earlier work and, in its place, is the kind of spit and polish evocative of the early eighties. It’s evident that Craven was in mid-metamorphosis when he secured this gig and there are numerous flashes of a more than capable filmmaker priming himself to break free from his chrysalis and spread those wings. Of course, he would go on to far bigger and better things in the years that followed and never regarded this as anything more than a stepping stone, but the fact that this is one of his least remarkable motion pictures shows just what a blessing he truly was.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 1/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Does a tin of deep red emulsion exploding in bullet time constitute as grue? If not then Deadly Blessing is a decidedly dry run. That said, should you harbor an illogical fear of either arachnids or serpents, then you may find a couple of key scenes just too much to stomach. You know the old myth about humans swallowing an average of eight spiders a year while they sleep? I’m guessing this film only served to fuel that hearsay.

For The Pelt-Nuzzlers: Craven more than caters for our perversions here although Stone actually keeps her kit on for this one. Instead, step up the optically pleasing Jensen as she offers us a flash of her scrumptious wares – top, middle and bottom. Now that’s what I call a blessing.

Read The Last House on The Left (1972) Appraisal
Read The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Appraisal
Read A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Appraisal
Read The Serpent and The Rainbow Appraisal
Read Shocker Appraisal
Read The People Under The Stairs Appraisal
Read Scream Appraisal
Read Red Eye Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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