Last year Shout! Factory’s horror branch Scream Factory came out of the corner swinging. They dropped a series of well-received releases focused mainly on 1980s films that hadn’t been shown any love on home video, including Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Tobe Hooper‘s The Funhouse. Their first release for 2013 is Wes Craven‘s 1981 tale of farmland terror Deadly Blessing – a film that’s never been released in the U.S. on DVD or Blu-ray. Find out how this overlooked, pre-Nightmare on Elm Street film fares on Blu-ray after the jump.
It’s the one year anniversary of farmer John Schmidt (Jeff East) and his wife Martha (Maren Jensen). John used to belong to a traditionalist Christian group known as the Hittites – a group that makes “the Amish seem like swingers.” Unable to stomach his overbearing father, Hittite leader Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), John ran away to NYC. There he met Martha. They fell in love and decided to move to an isolated farm…directly adjacent to the Hittites.
It would be super awkward to live right next to the loopy religious family who abandoned you, so who the hell knows why John and Martha chose that tract of land to work. It’s made even worse by several factors. The most obvious being William, a spiteful Hittite rascal played by Craven staple Michael Berryman. William is always snooping around the Schmidt’s farm, sniffing around for any excuse to call Martha an “incubus.”
After their anniversary celebration, John hears some ruckus in the barn and gets up to investigate. He discovers the tractor’s been started and someone has painted “INCUBUS” on a wall. So like any seasoned farmer would do, he gets right in front of the tractor and yells “Who’s there!” RIP Farmer John.
After the funeral, Martha’s two city slicker friends Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) come to stay for awhile. They try to convince Martha to ditch the farm and move back to the city, but Martha refuses to give in to the Hittite’s pressure to turn the land over to them. She’s got a gut feeling they had a hand in John’s demise.
Living on the other side of the Schmidt farm is Louisa Stohler (Lois Nettleton) and her tomboy daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman). They’re wicked friendly and have to deal with their own headaches brought on by the damn Hittites. After the murder of John, the Stohlers console Martha as best as they can. Especially Faith, who’s awful friendly towards Martha.
Once all these pieces are in place, a series of creepy omens and occurrences go down. This is where the film starts to display some of the flourishes Craven would later become known for. Lana experiences terrifying dreams that bleed over into reality. There’s a particularly eerie sequence in the Schmidt barn that possesses a very Elm Street tone.
Fans will easily pick out the scene that had the heaviest influence on Elm Street: the bathtub scene. Freddie’s glove getting all phallically symbolic while Nancy takes a bath is a visual icon and it was done first in Deadly Blessing (only with a snake). In the commentary, Craven explains that he figured he could recycle the scene in Elm Street because so little people saw Deadly Blessing.
And just like the ending of Elm Street, Craven was also forced to change the finale of Deadly Blessing. The ending is so entertainingly outta left field that makes up for any dull moments experienced beforehand. It actually manages to make the film better and adds a world of weight to all of the Hittite’s “incubus” ramblings. It’s just so much damn fun I know you’ll be hitting the rewind after you first see it.
I mentioned “dull moments” just now and there are plenty. I don’t think Craven really knew how to handle character development at this point in his career. He seems to replace development with periods of drab dialogue. But, like I mentioned in regards to the ending, drabness is cut off at the ankles thanks to Craven’s penchant for shocking moments.
Even the ever-likable Borgnine gets to do some wicked shit of his own. Few actors could scowl like the mighty Borgnine. He leads the Hittites through fear, both of the physical and spiritual nature. He hams it up like a cartoon villain, but he’s sadly underused. He’s the strongest actor in the lineup and he only gets a couple of scenes to shine. Showing some more of the Hittite’s inner-camp with Borgnine berating the heathens next door would have given the Deadly Blessing universe some more depth, but on the other hand it does keep us on our toes as we’re never sure what they’re up to at the dark farm next door.
Craven’s fundamentalist Baptist upbringing (he was forbidden to watch movies as a child) surely influenced the film’s anti-traditionalist leanings, but they’re never made to look like total dicks. Except Borgnine. His character’s a total dick. And Berryman. He’s a dick too. Aw hell, it’s a whole farm of dicks.
While it doesn’t have the terrifying punch or playfulness or Craven’s later work, Deadly Blessing is a fun horror film featuring capable performances and some really fun sequences. It’s worth watching to pick out the hints of Craven’s developing style and for Borgnine’s cartoonish wickedness. Horror fans and Craven completists will definitely want this on their shelves.
Scream Factory presents Deadly Blessing in 1080p HD Widescreen with DTS-HDMaster Audio Mono. They must have acquired an excellent print because scratches, dirt, and other imperfections are at a minimum. There are loads of contrasting light and darks in the film and they all look terrific. The mono mix has nothing remarkable o speak of. James Horner’s melodramatic score fits the film’s campiness nicely.
Like their Halloween II and III releases, Scream Factory’s packed Deadly Blessing with features. But like those previous sets, it’s kind of annoying how every interview gets it’s own unique title and credits. Even a six minute interview with creature designer John Naulin has a dramatic title sequence. The one feature deserving of one is the 20 minute interview with writers Glenn Benest and Matthew Barr. They discuss the four-year ordeal of writing the script and trying to get it made. The duo is humble enough to acknowledge that Craven rewrote a ton and that the majority of scary part were his idea.
The feature length commentary with Craven, moderated by Sean Clark of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, is a fun time. Craven looks back on the film as a learning experience that put him on his way and remembers struggling to direct rookie Sharon Stone. The disc also features interview with Berryman (14:00), who has an awesome story about Borgnine crushing an apple with his bare hands, and actress Susan Buckney, who discusses her atypical approach to playing a woman in a horror movie. Rounding out the disc are some TV spots and trailers.
Overall it’s a must-own for Craven fans and horror aficionados, but casual viewers should opt to rent it.