A director’s best work might represent the high points of their filmography but it doesn’t tell the full story of their work. Sometimes, their less successful work can reveal a side that the hits don’t show.
A great example of a director that this rule suits is Wes Craven. Deadly Blessing is one of his second-tier works, a film that he essentially did as a director for hire to stay in the filmmaking game. In fact, it’s something of a forgotten item in his back catalog – but there is plenty here to intrigue the director’s fans as it shows him testing out ideas and visuals that would pay off in his better-known work. Its storyline also references his upbringing, making it personal in a way that his more famous films aren’t.
Deadly Blessing offers the audience a busy plotline that mixes slasher and supernatural motifs. Martha (Maren Jensen) lives in isolation with her husband on a farm he inherited in a rural farming community. It is dominated by the members of a Hittite church, a repressive Christian sect that the husband was once part of. Thus, they reject him and Martha as being in league with “the incubus,” an evil spirit of temptation designed to lead true believers to their deaths. The only non-Hittites around are loopy divorcee Louisa (Lois Nettleton) and her rather creepy daughter, Faith (Lisa Hartman).
The first shock happens when the husband dies in a mysterious tractor mishap. Martha’s big-city pals Vicky (Susan Buckner) and Lana (Sharon Stone) come out to take care of her and find trouble of their own. Vicky falls for a handsome, religiously conflicted Hittite named John (Jeff East) – and his desire to break away infuriates his father, Hittite leader Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine). Lana finds herself bedeviled by creepy dreams involving spiders that drive her to drink. Worst of all, a mysterious, possibly supernatural killer is picking off the cast as he circles his way to our heroines…
The script, which was originally penned by Glenn Benest and Matthew Barr but rewritten by Craven, is never dull but the story pulls in two different directions: one is an earnest, cautionary drama about the dangers of religious repression and the other is a shock-horror item. The dramatic material isn’t always a comfortable fit with the shocks and the horror side has a hard time building tension because it has to accommodate the dramatic material. Craven describes the shoot as having too many producers with too many conflicting desires and the resulting film reflects this confusion, particularly an obviously tacked-on shock coda that Craven wasn’t happy with shooting.
However, that doesn’t mean Deadly Blessing isn’t worth watching. Craven uses his for-hire gig to develop his directing style and the results show how he had developed his craft beyond his early work. His pacing is solid and he takes full advantage of the cinematic possibilities offers by the film’s suspense setpieces: a scene where Lana is tormented in a darkened barn by an unseen attacker is particularly well-orchestrated, building tension in a way that makes the audience feel what is happening to the character. Other highlights in this area include a scene where a snake is slipped into Martha’s bathtub and a skin-crawling moment involving a spider, a ceiling and an open mouth (the latter bit also inspired the film’s striking poster art).
On a deeper level, any student of Craven’s work will notice him developing ideas that would pay off later in A Nightmare On Elm Street. For instance, the way dreams are used to torment Lana’s character – and the way her dreams become intertwined with her reality – hint at what would happen to the teen protagonists in that later film. More importantly, the setpiece involving the snake, Martha and the bathtub is staged in a way that Craven would revisit for a similarly important shock in A Nightmare On Elm Street, right down to one crucial camera angle that sells the big shock.
It’s also worth noting that the religious themes of the premise obviously resonated with Craven and it is reflected in how he handles the subplot involving John, who is torn between filial/religious loyalty and a desire to experience the world on its own terms (represented by his potential romance with Vicky). Craven was brought up in a repressive Baptist community and it’s easy to see the John character as a surrogate for him. The scenes involving this character have a surprising thoughtfulness and sensitivity you wouldn’t expect from a horror film.
Finally, Deadly Blessing benefits from the kind of resources that Craven had never had before in his films. The budget allowed for a good cast: Borgnine steals many a scene with an intense, serious performance as the fire-and-brimstone Hittite leader and Nettleson and Hartman bring plenty of energy to their “rural crazy” archetypes. Better yet, the three heroines all do well: Jensen is sympathetic (and photogenic) as the main heroine with Stone hamming it up in an early role as her jumpy pal and Buckner offering an appealing, spirited turn as the strongest and most independent of the trio. It’s also worth noting that Craven regular Michael Berryman does effective work as a volatile, simple-minded member of the Hittites.
Similarly, the style of the film benefits from contribution by quality craftsmen: James Horner turns in a chilly, effective Omen-esque score and Robert Jessup’s photography creates a striking, Rockwell-esque “Americana” backdrop for the mayhem.
In short, Deadly Blessing fits into the middle tier of Wes Craven’s work but his growing sense of style and ambitious approach to his material make it well worth the watch for fans. Hindsight reveals it was a worthwhile stepping stone for things to come.