Summer Shocks 1981: Deadly Blessing

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Looking back at a pre-Elm Street Craven effort

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

Nubile young women in an isolated locale terrorized by an unknown stalker. Recurring POV shots from a hidden killer’s prowling eyes. A body count marked by creative murder methods. A cast full of potential red herrings. All this and a shocking last minute reveal of the killer’s identity. Does any of this sound familiar to you? At first glance, 1981’s Deadly Blessing appears to have the full laundry list of slasher clichés and, in fact, it does. It’d be hard to name a lot of horror movies from 1981 that didn’t have their fair share of these elements – that summer alone, the slasher pics Graduation Day, Happy Birthday to Me, Hell Night, and Friday the 13th Part 2 were in theaters. But while Deadly Blessing shared plenty of common elements with its competition at the time, in the hands of director Wes Craven, it was not a formula slasher film at all. Instead, it defied any easy description.

Set in a rural area with a young farmer and his wife living next to a bizarre religious sect known as the Hittites (a group that “make the Amish look like swingers,” according to one character), Deadly Blessing hits the ground running in showing the clash of two cultures. The farmer, Jim Schmidt (played by Doug Barr of TV’s The Fall Guy), is a former member of the sect but he abandoned his people in order to marry his wife from the secular world, Martha (Maren Jensen, best known as Athena from the sci-fi sensation Battlestar Galactica). Although Jim’s property borders on that of his former kin, for his embrace of the world of sin, he is permanently barred from contact with the Hittites.

Jim’s father, Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine) is Hittite’s stern, imperious leader. His devotion to his faith is all consuming and he expects the same unquestioning devotion from all his followers. Although Jim’s mother and two younger brothers are still with the Hittites, Isaiah forbids them from communicating with him. As Jim uses his tractor to farm, Isaiah admonishes Jim’s on-looking brother John (Jeff East) not to covet what his brother has. The modern world and all its ways belong to the devil and impurity must be shunned (as Isaiah says, “We are the children of God; we have no business with the serpents!”).

As you can imagine, there isn’t much in the way of mutual understanding and tolerance here – despite the pastoral beauty of the land itself. If it’s true that good fences make good neighbors, then this land is in dire need of some outstanding fences – as high and long as they come. Despite the cold shoulder from his kin, though, as a couple Jim and Martha have an idyllic existence. When their happy life together is ended by a suspicious late night “accident” in Jim’s barn as he’s crushed by a tractor, two of Martha’s oldest friends – Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) – arrive on her doorstep to lend Martha some much-needed emotional support while putting the Hittites up to their pious eyeballs in troublesome skank-ho’s – or “liberated modern women,” depending on your point of view.

As Lana and Vicky settle in for a lengthy stay with their girl, they get a taste of what it’s like to have the warm, welcoming Hittites for neighbors. Rule #1 – don’t try to strike up a conversation with Isaiah. He doesn’t like small talk with serpents. More problematic is that, despite whatever the local law might think, an intruder aimed that tractor at Jim and whoever it was is still out there stalking this isolated community, leaving Martha and her friends as the most vulnerable targets. As the local sheriff tells Martha, given her home’s distance from town, if anything were to happen, there’s no way that he could get to her in time to do anything about it (sure enough, he proves to be right). In the meantime, viewers are left to puzzle out exactly who or what the real threat is (the film’s conclusion is so confounding that even the most attentive viewers will still be puzzling out what happened long after the end credits – when the closing narration states “…they that dwell on the Earth shall wonder,” it’s no lie!). According to Isaiah, the “Incubus” that has crept into their fold is the source of the problem but who listens to what religious zealots have to say? Well, besides other religious zealots, that is.

The presence of the Hittites – with their Old World ways (like, really old!) and pathological disdain for anything resembling earthly pleasure (I bet they don’t even like jelly on their toast – that’s way too rock and roll!) allows Craven an opportunity to amp up the already puritanical morals of the slasher genre. Such common transgressions as premarital sex and drug use had been depicted as capital crimes in horror movies since Halloween (1978) but in step with the hard-assed Hittites, Deadly Blessing is a horror movie with an even lower tolerance for sin. Whereas in typical slasher films, a pair of lovers would find themselves gruesomely dispatched post-intercourse, in Deadly Blessing when a Hittite and his new lady friend get to first base, that’s far enough to warrant a death sentence. Actually, I think what already sealed this Hittite’s fate is that he took a spin in an automobile (a big Hittite no-no) prior to locking lips with the serpent. The slasher rules have to be adjusted for the Hittite community. If you ride in anything that isn’t pulled by a horse, you die. In a normal horror movie, sex equals death. In a slasher movie with religious fanatics, speed kills.

Over the years, Craven has frequently commented to interviewers on the effect that his strict upbringing as the son of Fundamental Baptists had on him (for instance, he never saw a movie until his college years). Even though the Deadly Blessing script originated with other writers – Glenn M. Benest (who penned Craven’s 1978 TV movie, Summer of Fear) and Matthew Barr – it’s clear that Craven’s life experience found its way into his rewrite.

Further identifying Deadly Blessing as a Wes Craven film and not just a mercenary assignment is its dream imagery. Dreams had played a part in Craven’s films from the start (see the “dentist” dream in Last House on the Left – a moment guaranteed to make anyone slap their hands over their mouth) but Deadly Blessing saw Craven developing a greater interest in their surreal cinematic potential. With the film’s most talked-about scene being a dream sequence in which Lana is lying on a bed, unable to move as a spider slowly drops from the ceiling into her open mouth, Deadly Blessing was the true testing ground for A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Although only sparingly used, Deadly Blessing‘s dream imagery also helped to excuse the story’s lack of logic. By Deadly Blessing‘s conclusion, a plausible, if outrageous, real-world explanation for the film’s killings (one that anticipates a similar twist in 1983’s Sleepaway Camp) is trumped by a last minute shock ending that gives the supernatural world the upper hand (Go Incubus!). Craven claims the producers forced him to tack on Blessing‘s nonsensical ending, which is ironic, as he’d only go on to face a similar problem again on Elm Street.

Nonsensical or not, Deadly Blessing is ominous (love James Horner’s Omen-esque score), creepy-crawly (there’s enough spiders and snakes on hand to do a Silver Shamrock mask proud!) and not to be messed with (even on repeated viewings, its jump scares still work). Although Summer of Fear was the first production to bring Wes Craven into the Hollywood fold, Deadly Blessing is the movie where he really proved that the director of some of the most savage films of the ’70s could work within a more mainstream framework without completely losing his edge. In some ways, this eccentric, erratic shocker rates as a mixed blessing but I’ve always counted it as a welcome one.

Click here for Ryan’s thoughts on 1981’s Wolfen!

Other horror films released in the summer of ’81:

Graduation Day (May 1st)

Happy Birthday to Me (May 15th)

Hell Night (August 7th)

An American Werewolf in London (August 21st)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)




Source: Jeff Allard