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Deadly Blessing
cast: Maren Jensen, Sharon Stone, Ernest Borgnine, Douglas Barr, and Lisa Hartman

director: Wes Craven

100 minutes (15) 1981
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
In this early film by Wes Craven, the Hitites are a religious sect not unlike the Amish, who loathe modern machinery and technology. They live in a farming community and are at odds with their neighbours because of the religious beliefs. A slumming Ernest Borgnine plays the Hitite leader Isiah, a man whose wrath can be savage and whose eyes bulge so far from his head that I feared they might pop. The sect seems to believe in (and fear) an evil female entity they call the incubus, and see evidence of her/ its work everywhere.

Jim Schmidt (Douglas Barr) is an ex-Hitite who left the order to marry a city girl called Martha (Maren Jensen). This evidently caused a lot of unrest between him and the Hitites yet still he returned to live next door to their land. Tom is killed by his tractor (no, really), leaving Martha to survive as a widow. A small group of the Hitites watch his funeral from afar, accompanied by James Horner's Omenesque score (echoing gongs, mournful strings, and sub-Gregorian chants).

A young and fresh-faced Sharon Stone and her friend Vicky (Susan Buckner) turn up for a summer break with the amazing well-adjusted widow Schmidt, ignorant of the Hitites nasty overtures. The sect now regards Martha as the incubus and blames her for seducing their brother and taking him away from their holy community. They watch her at night and break into her empty farm buildings, regarding her with fear and barely disguised hatred.

In a neat turnaround of expectations, it is the Hitites who start to die first, bumped off by a mystery assailant. Borgnine chews so hard on the scenery that he gains weight in every frame; by the time the film ends you imagine the sets have bite marks. Stone looks absolutely beautiful and thankfully spends 90 percent of her screen time in a rather fetching silk nightgown. The plot gets sillier as we progress into the film and we are treated to some tame moments of made-for-TV scares and a minimum of mild violence.

There's a rather impressive sequence set in a dark old barn in broad daylight, during which Stone is menaced by spiders, shadows and an unknown tormentor. Not long afterward there is a scene in a bathtub that is surely the prototype for a similar sequence in Craven's later A Nightmare On Elm Street (here with a snake standing in for Freddy Kruger's famous razored glove), even as far as having exact shots duplicated in the latter film. This makes for fascinating viewing and adds a sense that Craven was merely limbering up for greater things.

After the raw excesses of Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes, it's obvious that Craven was flexing his commercial muscles, trying to win over a whole new audience rather than preach to the drive-in converted. Years later, in Scream and its sequels, he would successfully parody and reinvent the type of film Deadly Blessing so clearly is; but here Craven managed to suffuse some familiar material with the sort of integrity a lot of his later work lacks.

Despite a clumsy end note, where a supernatural element previously only hinted at becomes absurdly overt, this is a solid early effort from a director who would go on to make better, and much worse, horror movies. I often wish he'd return to his roots and give us another of these witty little chillers that made his name.
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