Wes Craven’s underrated 1981 shocker gets a decent DVD release from Arrow.
It should be stated right at the start that Deadly Blessing isn’t about the Amish. Oh no. The Hittites in the film have absolutely no resemblance to the Amish in any shape or form. Except in their dress. And their beards. And their language. And their whole lifestyle. But apart from those, the two groups have no resemblance whatsoever. The Hittites is a name which comes from the Old Testament, the most famous of them being Uriah whose wife, Bathsheba, was stolen by King David. Anyway, these Not-Amish people live in splendid isolation, refusing the use of any modern technology to farm their lands and denying their members the right to leave and transact with the outside world. It transpires that one of their members has rebelled, gone to college and met an outsider, Martha (Jensen), before returning to become a farmer. It seems somehow unlikely that he would choose a location right next door to the people who have cast him out but, anyway, he does. When he’s killed by a tractor, Martha is forced to cope on her own and battle the ignorance of her neighbours who blame her for stealing one of their own. They call her the “incubus” and despise her.
The basic idea of the film is a very strong one; a group of repressed, fiercely religious people have so suppressed their baser feelings that they eventually erupt in violent mayhem. Indeed, some of it played is played out rather well, the repression of the Hittites mirrored in the character of Louise (Nettleton), a woman whose deep-rooted hatred of men has caused her to make some drastic decisions about the raising of her child. The strongest scenes of the film are those which feature the frighteningly credible rituals of the Hittites who are led by a surprisingly restrained and generally convincing Ernest Borgnine – he does, incidentally, look absolutely iconic in his beard and costume.
The weaker side is the more traditional genre stuff involving characters behaving in the classic manner by wandering about in dark places and generally putting themselves in danger. Maren Jensen is a good heroine, strong and likeable, but she doesn’t get much help from the actresses playing the friends who come to look after her. Sharon Stone in particular is pretty dire, although it should be stated in her defence that this was only her second film and she apparently didn’t have much help from director Wes Craven. She does, however, get a particularly memorable horror moment involving a spider which arachnophobics would do well to avoid. Another potentially classic scene – Maren Jensen being menaced by a snake while she’s in the bath – is slightly neutered by the fact that she’s obviously still wearing her pants.
So it’s a film which, on the whole, doesn’t quite make the most of the strengths of its setting. But Wes Craven’s direction is sharp throughout and he rarely misses a beat during the scare sequences. His visual talent shows through too in the more expansive sequences depicting the world of the Hittites. He’s helped throughout by two collaborators; Robert Jessup, the cinematographer who did such sterling work on Race With the Devil, and composer James Horner, whose strings-heavy music score is often quite inspired. Generally speaking in fact, Deadly Blessing is made with some panache and it deserves a better reputation than it seems to have.
Incidentally, in the original UK release print, the spectacularly daft final twist was omitted. It’s back here in all its ridiculous glory and it makes no sense at all. It stands as a classic example of a studio completely failing to understand the subject of the film they are releasing but it will certainly give horror fans a satisfying giggle.
Deadly Blessing was originally released by Arrow back in 2007 on a barebones disc with an adequate transfer. This new edition adds the usual frills of Arrow’s genre packaging and a couple of interesting special features.
The 1.78:1 transfer looks the same to me as the one on the earlier disc. It’s anamorphically enhanced and offers a presentation of the film which ranges from good to disappointing. The main negative point is the presence of blocky artifacts during the darker sequences. Otherwise, it’s not bad at all with strong, natural colours and a pleasing level of detail. It’s a shame that Robert Jessup’s excellent cinematography wasn’t given the benefit of a full HD remaster. The mono soundtrack is absolutely fine throughout with James Horner’s music coming pleasingly to the fore without obscuring the dialogue.
The extras are not numerous but they do definitely enhance the disc. There’s a short introduction from the irrepressible Michael Berryman who also gets a 25 minute interview feature, during which he discusses his career. He’s a man of hidden depths – he has a degree in Fine Art – and he talks amusingly and eloquently about his film experiences and his disillusionment with modern Hollywood. Also present is a 13 minute interview with screenwriter Glenn M. Benest who also wrote Wes Craven’s TV movie Summer of Fear. He explains that the film had its origins in his love of horror films, especially Carrie and in his reading a National Geographic article about the Amish. Benest is enlightening on the directing process of Wes Craven and his lack of interest in the actors.
The retail package contains a reversible poster, a range of DVD covers and a booklet – I didn’t get these with the review copy but I would hope that they come up to the usual standard.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum