Deadly Blessing (1981) Retrospective

SUMMARY
Martha (Maren Jensen) and Jim Schmidt (Douglas Barr) live on an isolated farm named ‘Our Blessing’, where most of its population are “Hittites”, an austere religious community who, according to one of the characters, “make the Amish look like swingers”. Jim was a Hittite, but left the community when he got married. Jim tells a neighbor, Louisa Stohler (Lois Nettleton), who is the mother of Faith (Lisa Hartman), that his wife, Martha, is pregnant and that Louisa’s services as a mid-wife will soon be needed by them. Louisa and Faith are not part of the Hittite community, either. In fact, they do not like them due in part to the constant harassment of Faith by William, who chases her and calls her, and all “outsides”, “Incubus.” That night, Jim searches in the barn after hearing strange noises from inside, but is murdered when a mysterious figure runs him over with his tractor. This is alleged to be a mechanical accident.

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Friends Lana Marcus (Sharon Stone) and Vicky Anderson (Susan Buckner) visit Martha after Jim’s funeral. When William Gluntz (Michael Berryman) goes to the house at night to search for his shoe he accidentally left earlier when sneaking around, he is stabbed through the back by an unseen figure. The following day, William’s father and Jim’s father and the leader of the Hittites, Isaiah Schmidt (Ernest Borgnine) come to the farm looking for William after he does not return home after being sent by his father to retrieve a “lost” shoe. Martha tells the men she has no idea where William is and they start to leave, Isaiah goes back to the door and offers to buy back the farm from Martha but Martha refuses, after Isaiah insults her and calls her the incubus, she asks him if he would like his answer immediately, and “answers” by slamming the door in his face.

Martha is now being accused of being the incubus. Lana enters the barn the next day to look for something in the barn, inside a toolbox for the tractor but all the doors and windows suddenly close, trapping her inside. In a panic, she searches for a way out but encounters a figure dressed in black. When escaping out the now open barn door, William’s corpse swoops down at her, hanging from a rope. The police clean up the mess as the sheriff (Kevin Cooney) advises the three friends to leave town, as someone may be after them. However, Martha decides to stay where she is and buys a gun for protection. Multiple events follow, such as a snake being put into Martha’s bathroom while she’s taking a bath by an unseen figure who creeps in her house. She manages to get out of the bath tub and kill the snake with a fireplace poker.

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John Schmidt (Jeff East), Martha’s brother-in-law is unwillingly engaged to Melissa (Colleen Riley) his cousin. However John feels attracted to Vicky. John is eventually sent away from home and the community when he retaliates against his father who begins hitting him. John meets Vicky outside the cinema and she lets John drive her car, giving him a sense of freedom. They stop at the side of a road and begin to make out but they are attacked by an unseen figure who stabs John multiple times and sets fire to the car, which eventually blows up with Vicky still inside.

Lana has a nightmare in which a pair of hands take hold of her head, forcing her to open her mouth as a spider falls in. When she wakes up she finds blood in a milk carton as Martha finds a scarecrow tied in her room with a flower that was buried with Jim. When Martha hurries to Jim’s grave she finds him dug up. Martha also discovers it was Louisa and Faith who committed the murders as they attack Melissa. Martha is chased back to her home where she engages in a quick battle with Faith. During the struggle, Faith’s shirt is ripped open, revealing her to be a man who has been in love with Martha. Lana and Martha have to fight Louisa and Faith. When Martha shoots Faith she is confronted by Louisa with a shotgun. Fortunately, she too is shot by Lana. However, Faith has survived her gunshot and tries to kill Martha once more, but she is killed when Melissa stabs her in the back. Isaiah turns up and tells them that the messenger of incubus is now dead. The day after, Lana leaves Martha to go back to LA. When Martha enters her home a ghost of Jim warns her about the incubus. The film ends immediately after the real incubus bursts through the floor and pulls Martha back into the floor.

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DEVELOPMENT
“Max Keller of Interplanetary Productions owned a property called Deadly Blessing. It was really sort of reminiscent of Charlie’s Angels, with three girls in the country, one of them married to an Amish fellow who was murdered in the first act. The two girl friends come to stay with her, more murders happen, and they solve the crime and survive the picture. I did a one-week rewrite on it, as a favor to Max.

The script for Deadly Blessing then floated around Hollywood for about a year, looking for a studio; Craven meanwhile became involved in the Swamp Thing script — his first film as writer-director since The Hills Have Eyes. But when Swamp Thing met with several delays early in preproduction. Craven took on Deadly Blessing. And since the film was financed by Universal, Craven would have the kind of equipment that he had heretofore lacked on his productions, so Deadly Blessing would at last give him a chance to show off his technical proficiency.

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PRODUCTION
The film has many of the hallmarks of Craven’s films: dream sequences, shocks piled on shocks, Michael Berryman in a small but important role, etc. The most peculiar thing about Deadly Blessing is that after the hermaphroditic killer is revealed and dispatched, a real incubus suddenly appears and carries Jensen away. It is the only supernatural element in the film and it is a surprise since the audience assumed that the Hittites’ claptrap about an “incubus” was meant to be a designation for Jensen and the outside evil of sexuality” she was bringing into the community. Sometimes, this last ironic twist is omitted from the film by distributors or theater owners. The effects for it were originally to have been done by John Dykstra, but he had to bow out when Firefox had its schedule moved up and so the effects were actually performed by Everett Alson and Ira Anderson with an assist from costumer Tony Masters.

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0001“I wanted to show, first of all, that I know how to do it (make a slick film), and second of all, it was a very different kind of picture. I wanted a big, smooth, sort of Philip Wylie look to it. We very consciously went in with that intention. Robert Jessup, the cinematographer, and I went through Philip Wylie’s books and paintings by Van Gogh for the looks of the house down the lane and young woman’s paintings. I directed the artist to paint like a combination of Van Gogh and Walter Lance. I wanted it to look very cartoony, but sort of strange and twisted, reflecting her own mentality. That was the girl who was killed, who turned out to be a hermaphroditic painter whose paintings kept changing and getting more distorted.” – Wes Craven on The Faith Stohler Paintings Lisa Hartman

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Craven05The original problem with it was that, when I originally got involved with it in the rewrites, they already had an incredibly complex story,” says Craven. “Suspects everywhere, scenes casting suspicion on the girls from out of town, and many more scenes with the Hittites creating more Hittite suspects. Many more scenes than were needed for a film that was never intended to study the differing lifestyles of the people involved; it was really just setting out to scare people. In rewriting it, I tried to simplify it somewhat, and went back and added scenes that would liven up the long scenes of exposition. But the flaw that I saw upon finishing it. which I think everybody sees in the picture, is that, while individual scenes work well, and it’s well-acted, the story as a whole just sort of clunks along.” – Wes Craven

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CAST/CREW
Directed
Wes Craven

Produced
William Gilmore
Patricia Herskovic
Max A. Keller
Micheline H. Keller

Screenplay
Glenn M. Benest
Matthew Barr
Wes Craven

Story
Glenn M. Benest
Matthew Barr

Maren Jensen as Martha Schmidt
Sharon Stone as Lana Marcus
Susan Buckner as Vicky Anderson
Jeff East as John Schmidt
Colleen Riley as Melissa
Douglas Barr as Jim Schmidt
Lisa Hartman as Faith Stohler
Lois Nettleton as Louisa Stohler

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Screams & nightmares – Brian J. Robb
Nightmares on Elm Street The Freddy Krueger Story
Fangoria#17

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