Deadly Blessing

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The original one-sheet for Deadly Blessing (1981) is probably more widely seen than the movie itself. This highly sexualized image of Sharon Stone adorned not only posters but also the covers of videocassettes, DVDs, and Blu-Rays. This single image is the key to understanding the importance of Deadly Blessing within the context of Wes Craven’s filmography.

Craven’s films can be divided into three different categories. First, there are the highly visceral films that operate on the shock value of physical brutality and torture (The Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and The People Under The Stairs). Generally speaking, the second act of Craven’s career was more focused on spectacles of the supernatural that were motivated by psychological traumas (A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Serpent And The Rainbow). Then, in the nineties, Craven shifted his style towards metaphysical horror comedies like New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996). Deadly Blessing is Craven’s transitional film from the externalized threats of The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to the eerie dreamscapes of A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984).

In Deadly Blessing the threat of the unknown and of home invasion is epitomized by the “Hittites” (a Christian sect who maintain a nineteenth century lifestyle and world view). However, the violence that the film attributes to these characters in a masterful stroke of misdirection originates within the minds of the victims. Quite literally Craven is internalizing the machinations of his genre work, drawing some disturbing correlations in the process.

For instance, Deadly Blessing equates the threat of physical violence with the subconscious desire to surrender one’s will. It’s no accident that so many of the scares in Deadly Blessing are sexual in nature as Craven navigates the viewer through a Freudian version of rural America. The threat of rape looms large in dramatic economy of Craven’s early films as victims struggle to maintain their sexual autonomy while the villains endeavor to possess their prey’s mind, body and soul. In Deadly Blessing the physical act of sex is equated with the spiritual act of faith (or Faith in this case). Spiritual belief and submission empowers Faith (Lisa Hartman) to exert her will externally/physically on Martha (Maren Jensen).

The thematic and philosophical development of Wes Craven’s style is coupled with technical shifts as well. The fantasy sequences that occur in the minds of characters play out as literal dress rehearsals for A Nightmare On Elm Street. This is particularly obvious in the snake scene which is infamously repeated later when Freddie’s hand emerges between Heather Langenkamp’s legs in the bath. As Craven continued to pursue horror in a more fantasy oriented vein, the nature of his fantastic images morphed into a less subtle iconography. A phallic serpent is replaced by a man’s hand, removing the metaphor entirely yet still embracing the impossibility inherent to Freudian surrealism.

Although Deadly Blessing is an essential film to understanding Wes Craven’s career and contributions to the horror genre it remains one of his lesser works. Deadly Blessing is poorly paced and often badly acted. Its merits as a stand alone work of escapism leave much to be desired so that its only true value is as a prelude to Craven’s latter films. Though I suppose for us Ernest Borgnine fans Deadly Blessing is a little more fun.