Saturday, June 16, 2012

Deadly Blessing (1981) dir. Wes Craven

Logline: Somewhere in a small, isolated farming community, a man lies dead, squished by his own tractor. Is the religious cult that the man formerly belonged to somehow responsible? Or is it--as the cult claims--the dastardly work of a lustful, demonic incubus? The man's wife would like to find out, because she sure is sick of whoever is putting all those snakes in her bathtub.

Deadly Blessing never quite sticks, which is a shame because it really ought to when one considers all the fine elements worked into its composition. Mysterious deaths, a fanatic religious cult, an isolated community, demonic night visitations, various animals used as agents of intimidation, and Ernest Borgnine's beard are all pieces that (if well played) could have made this a worthy hidden gem. Instead, the conglomeration we're left with is rather bland. The film is missing the sort of ruthless touch Craven placed upon his earlier Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Sandwiched between Stranger in Our House (1978; his TV movie with Linda Blair) and Swamp Thing (1982; yes, that one) in his filmography, it's probable that Craven was going through a bit of a creative rough patch during the making of this piece. With themes of religion, sexuality, and fanaticism at the forefront, one would imagine Deadly Blessing having some smidgen of commentary of its own to deliver (much like Last House and Hills had concerning human nature and violence). But, it doesn't: the cult's religious beliefs are neither confirmed nor denied and the film's pair of transgressive lovers is snuffed out before the third act.* Rather, it focuses its efforts on being an effective mystery/suspense film, which it isn't. The culprits are immediately obvious among the possible suspects, and the suspense is drained out over its rather long running time when placed in relation to the amount of stuff that happens in the narrative (which is far too thin). The occasional strong scene of suspense, like when Michael Berryman brings his always threatening physicality to bear while chasing a young girl, calling her an "incubus," and threatening to do who-knows-what, ultimately fails to make up for the lack.**

But the biggest wasted opportunity in the film is its negligence in engaging with its own supernatural elements. No lie: Deadly Blessing has an incredible ending, one that is in no way earned by the film that precedes it. It is there that the supernatural elements explode onto the screen (in the most bombastic fashion conceivable). It's a jaw-dropping moment, and will immediately remind moviegoers of similar reality-bending effects that Craven would employ in the later A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). It's also a much-maligned conclusion, and it's easy to see why: this was never a supernatural mystery; the culprits were decidedly human (Borgnine & co. seem fairly satisfied that the discovery of this human menace has rid the town of demonic influence). But, at the same time, the ending isn't totally incongruous; after all, we do spend most of the movie hearing the cultish Hittites railing against just such a corporeal incubus that they're certain is hiding in town, and we are also privy to Sharon Stone's nightmare wherein she is molested by hairy demon arms and has a spider dropped in her mouth. That's about it, though. Is that enough to justify what we can otherwise chalk up to the desire for a shock ending? If more subtle supernatural flourishes were judiciously placed throughout the film, it would make such a conclusion significantly more palatable (with the added benefit of livening up the mostly mundane central story). An incubus lurking in the peripheries, steadily building up to his grand entrance after a false conclusion is far preferable to an incubus crashing the party unannounced, having taken a cab over from somewhere, probably Rosemary's place, where they were shooting an entirely different film.

Tangentially, a much better picture that this one recalls for me is Charles B. Pierce' The Evictors (1979). Pierce is the fellow behind the fascinating-but-clumsy faux documentary/fiction hybrids The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) and The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976). In contrast to those two lovably schlocky, intentionally-comedic films, The Evictors plays for real suspense and terror, to which it admirably succeeds. Aided by the ample talents of Jessica Harper and Michael Parks in front of the camera, it deftly creates the air of a quietly-threatening rural mystery surrounding a young couple that Deadly Blessing appears to aspire to. The film's vaguely supernatural undertones and 1940s period setting elevate its ambitions, which are both fulfilled and resolved satisfactorily in its grim final moments. The Evictors and Deadly Blessing weren't made all that far apart from one another, and their budgets seem to be roughly comparable, so: what is Deadly Blessing's excuse?

*the film's other engagements with sexuality are about as complex as that poster up there or its scene of Michael Berryman as a sexually-repressed peeping tom. Read: not very.

**also, while it's quite possible that I simply missed the explanation for this, it is confusing that the Hittites refer to the women as "incubus," or a male essence-sucking, sexual demon. Perhaps they simply mean to yell "you are being visited by an incubus!" but find that to be too much of a mouthful? This reading would help explain the ending, in any case.

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