Of all the horror-movie titans who came to prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s, none were quite as canny about explicating their own sensibilities against their background as Wes Craven (except perhaps Vietnam War vet Tom Savini). Craven has repeatedly referenced his strict upbringing under devout Baptist parents, and how even though he would eventually get his start making pornographic reels, as a child he was forbidden from even seeing films. The extent to which humans will generate fear by insisting the unknown can actually be known (and how confronting that discrepancy can quickly escalate into violence) colors much of his work, but few of his films so explicitly confront organized religion as his place-holding 1981 schlocker Deadly Blessing.
Razor-cheekboned Maren Jensen stars as Martha, a recently widowed farmer who lives adjacent to a neo-Amish band of zealots called Hittites, referencing both the bibilical tribe and possibly the Hutterites. Her husband, the prodigal son of Hittite leader Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine, flaring his nostrils enough to cast shadow puppets with them), was recently killed in a highly suspicious tractor accident, and Martha’s two closest city girlfriends swing up to comfort her. Their conspicuously braless presence only seems to confirm Isaiah’s apparent suspicion that Martha is in league with “the Incubus,” a voraciously sexual demon who can only be shut out of their ranks by taking switches to pubescent boys’ knuckles. One of the two friends, Vicky (Susan Buckner), starts flirting with Martha’s former brother-in-law, while her travel companion, Lana (Sharon Stone), makes PB&J sandwiches between nervous breakdowns.
Craven evidently reworked the original script, but little of Deadly Blessing‘s events makes much sense other than guiding the trio of shapely young women to their next panic-inducing set piece (one of which involving a snake in a tub should look awfully familiar to anyone who’s ever mimicked Heather Langencamp muttering “warm milk” while taking a bath). That incoherence can occasionally be to the film’s Freudian benefit, as when Lana imagines herself lying in bed while disembodied hands caress her head, bidding her to open her mouth wide and let a giant spider drop into her throat. But more often than not, the movie only glancingly burrows beneath America’s attitudes toward rural evangelism that surfaced concurrently with the advent of the Moral Majority. And given the psycho-sexual nature of its twist ending and the literal-minded (studio-imposed) gotcha ending, the film finds Craven perhaps unsurprisingly unable to shake off he shackles of his early spiritual guidance.
Arriving on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory's side project Scream Factory, Deadly Blessing looks as handsome as possible, given it was shot with that ubiquitous combination of film stock and filters that resulted in the sun-kissed early-'80s Dallas look. Blacks are obviously not especially strong and saturated, and some of the darker night shots have a tendency to dissolve away into just barely perceptible pixelation. But the print is clean, only once in awhile revealing speckles and dirt. The monaural sound is presented in 5.1 or 2.0 uncompressed Master Audio.
Wes Craven may not have as many fans as his contemporaries like John Carpenter or David Cronenberg, but there's no doubt the man spins off an intelligent quip. His commentary track is a blisteringly honest one. Suffice it to say, he doesn't regard the movie being particularly notable in his back catalogue, but he does a bang-up job explaining why. And of the contributions of Sharon Stone, the woman who rumor has it ended one of Craven's marriages by seducing his soon-to-be ex, he offers: "Enough said." Night shade! In addition to the commentary track, the disc includes roughly an hour's worth of featurettes on cult favorite Michael Barryman, the evolution of the movie's screenplay, an interview with Susan Buckner (who's a treat), and a bit of background on that infamous, last-minute creature.
The script may be strictly A Touch of Satan, but Wes Craven's deep-seated ambivalence with his own religious upbringing sometimes sparks the rote Jesus freakery of Deadly Blessing to life.