Wednesday, November 9, 2011

DVD Review: DEADLY BLESSING (1981)

DEADLY BLESSING (1981)

Release Date: November 14th 2011
Region: 0 PAL
Rating: 15 Certificate
Duration: 98 mins
Video: 16x9 Widescreen (1.78:1)
Audio: Original Mono 1.0 Audio
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Sharon Stone, Ernest Borgnine, Michael Berryman, Maren Jensen, Susan Buckner, Douglass Barr
Tagline: They'll Build A Barn From Your Bones!

Wes Craven had already established himself as a notable exploitation director with grindhouse shockers THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) when this creepy atmospheric chiller entered the cinemas in 1981. The film, featuring a young and pretty stunning Sharon Stone, takes place in a rural Hittite farming community, the Hittites being a religious sect who've sworn off the trappings of modern society, not unlike the Amish, whom live their lives in a way not dissimilar to that of the early American settlers working the land with horse and hand leading devout God fearing lives untainted by the temptations of the civilized world. This aspect of the film really intrigued me, growing up in an area of Upstate NY with a robust Amish community I was certainly mystified by the lifestyle that while not frightening, certainly struck me as a bit creepy. Then again, when they passing me on the road in their horse and buggy while I headbanged along to Alice Cooper's "Constrictor" cassette on my Sony Walkman I probably seemed a bit odd, too, just saying.


Enter into this conservative community a woman named Martha (Maren Jensen, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) whom has married an ex-communicated member of the sect named Jim (Douglass Bar, THE UNSEEN). As Jim's wife she finds herself shunned right alongside him and the bad blood between the Hittites and the newlyweds is pretty clear from the start, most of it because Jim went off to college for some book learning and has given into modern farming practices, notably working the land with a tractor. When Jim is mysteriously crushed to death by said tractor things get weird around the farm as Martha is branded an incubus by her Hittite neighbours, a demon who enters the body during sleep.

The source of the ill will towards her is Jim's father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) who appears in a scenery chewing performance that must be seen to be believed, it's fun stuff, he's completely bonkers. Issiah's son (and Jim's brother) William (Michael Berryman, THE HILLS HAVE EYES) is a dim-witted man-boy who covets his brother's sexy city-folk wife and he just can't keep himself from giving her a peep now and again much to his own detriment. Martha's only friends in the area are a crazy-eyed neighbor named Louis (Lois Nettleton, BUTTERFLY) and her painter daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman, TV's TABITHA) who offer her friendship following Jim's death.  When her city dwelling friends Vicky (Susan Buckner, GREASE)) and Lana (Sharon Stone, TOTAL RECALL) arrive to help their dear friend cope with the loss of her husband, their arrival in a red Mustang is met with little enthusiasm by the Hittites except for Jim other brother John (Jeff East, SUPERMAN) who takes a liking to Vicky right away, and she him. It's not long before a death spurs even more animosity from the Hittites and young Lana is plagued by visions of a mysterious grey skinned man and big hairy spiders, the film is filled with some great visuals. At one point someone lets loose a serpent into Martha's bubble bath in a scene that would later be copped for Craven's own A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), it's one of a handful of scenes that would later be repurposed in Craven's better known films.

It's definitely a creepy watch with a few brilliant touches of the macabre but it just never gained traction for me, as a series of interesting set pieces it's an entertaining watch with some slasher, occult and folk horror elements but as a whole it failed to consistently deliver the goods, and it's not helped by a poorly executed CARRIE-esque shock ending that felt rather tagged-on, for the most part the film's effects are pretty decent but that last bit is just short of terrible and smelt of producer interference.

The acting is pretty decent here with a strong showing from the film's largely feminine lead cast. A notably bad exception being aforementioned Ernest Borgnine whose turn as the way too intense Issiah seemed to be in his own little film separate from everyone else - did that guy have a coke problem in the 70's? There's some creepy atmosphere, some neat set pieces, an abundance of nudity (no, not Sharon Stone, sadly), including the pre-requisite shower scene, sex scene, and the trio of lady friends parading around in lingerie needlessly. Unfortunately the film lacks the visceral punch of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and doesn't really reach the heights of the surreal nightmare imagery of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET but you can definitely feel him trying to evolve from his grindhouse roots, it's somewhat successful and just a few years later he would introduce us to his penultimate creation - Freddy Kreuger.

DVD: Arrow Video present DEADLY BLESSING i9n it's original aspect ratio of 16:9 widescreen (1.78:1) presentation and the print appears really good, no discernible instances of print damage, only a few minor specs and grains dirt, it's not particularly sharp but there are no compression artifacts, the colors look accurate and the black levels fare well. The lone audio option is a an English language Dolby Digital mono track with no subtitles. Dialogue, effects and James Horner's OMEN-esque score come across balanced if a bit tinny at times, there's not a lot of depth but not too bad.


Special Features: Here in the states we still have no Region 1 DVD edition of DEADLY BLESSING so I would encourage any Wes Craven die-hards to seek out Arrow's Region 0 PAL DVD, it was a sweet bonus to get a few features on top of a nice presentation, too. Features begin with a brief Introduction by star Michael Berryman (:30) and then right into Craven Images: The Horror Hits of Michael Berryman (26:30) as the peculiar and awesome actor discusses being discovered by WAR OF THE WORLD producer George Pal whom cast him in the film DOC SAVAGE (1975), then onto ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975) before he would be chosen by Craven for the iconic role off "Pluto" in THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Berryman speaks about Craven as a director and person, the reception of the film including an encounter with a woman who received the film poorly at a screening, a lengthy recollection of some animosity onset between his then girlfriend and an unnamed starlet plus almost being cast in the sequel to THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake. He also discusses THE HILLS HAVE EYES II, Craven's body of work. It's not all gold but it's definitely interesting, particularly if your a Berryman enthusiast (and who isn't?). I'm quite a fan of the High Rising Productions featurettes, they usually grow my appreciation for a film even if it's not quite my cup o' tea, so good on 'em. Deadly Desires: An interview with screenwriter Glenn M. Benest (13:17) features the co-screenwriter of Craven's TV film STRANGER IN THE HOUSE (1978) and DEADLY BLESSING discussing the origins of the story and how the Amish were an untapped subject in film, particularly in horror, even mentioning the Peter Weir film WITNESS (1985) as a rare instance. He also speaks about Wes Craven being more a technical director and not so much an actor's director, relating the story of how Sharon Stone blew-up onset when she was became dissatisfied with Craven's directing style or lack thereof, also mentioning the film's unscripted ending and how it betrays the psychological nature of the film.


Also tucked away on the disc are two Easter Eggs, one with Michael Barryman (2:31) discussing his new film BELOW ZERO and another film titled CUT co-starring both Kane Hodder and Tony Todd, the other easter egg is with co-screenwriter Glenn M. Benest (:32) whom briefly discusses the poster artwork for the film.

Not included with my advance screener were the reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Rue Morgue magazine art director Gary Pullin, a double-sided fold-out artwork poster and collector's booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by author and critic Kim Newman. That's a bummer for me, but very cool for you if  you snag this one.

VERDICT: This is a film I've long wanted to see as it's never been given a proper region 1 DVD from Universal. It's definitely a case of wanting what you can't have and I'm pleased that Arrow Video have given the film a region 0 PAL DVD edition. It's a nice presentation with a few cool featurettes making it an easy buy for Wes Craven die-hards. Wes Craven as a director and producer is really hit or miss with me and I say this is along the lines of say SHOCKER or THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS as Craven's films go and it's certainly better than anything post-SCREAM 2 with the notable exception of the thriller RED EYE but I'm really pleased to see it on DVD at least and available to those of us wanting to check out Craven's exploits following THE HILLS HAVE EYES and pre-SWAMP THING and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. 2.5 /5

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