Blu-ray Review: Wes Craven, The Sinister Sect, The Bathtub Snake, And Sharon Stone In 'Deadly Blessing' (1981)

Listening to director Wes Craven talk about "Deadly Blessing" is infinitely more interesting than watching the tonally scattered, sloppy 1981 slasher/supernatural thriller. In fact, the director's commentary is so enlightening, I'd advise you to pick up this terrible movie with a very good disc from Scream Factory for the sole benefit of listening to a veteran filmmaker reflect on the challenges of getting a low-budget horror movie made with intrusive producers and a constantly morphing script.

Plus, it stars the late, great Ernest Borgnine as a stern, abusive religious sect leader which you almost never see (you know, excepting the "The Devil's Rain").

Maren Jensen stars as Martha Schmidt, who goes from hot and heavy newlywed with hunky husband and excommunicated Hittite Jim (Douglas Barr) to widow after a suspicious, late-night tractor incident kills her man. Of course, she should leave her dream home on the farm and get away from the sneers and suspicious looks of the insular, actively hostile Hittite community lead by Jim's bitter father, Isiah (Ernest Borgnine), but she wants to see the harvest season through. So to help her through her grief, Martha invites two of her very attractive friends from the city, Lana (Sharon Stone) and a Vicky (Susan Buckner), only to inadvertently draw them into the web of a killer who may or may not be tied to the demonic incubus that Isiah and his sect keep going on about.

On paper, a slasher-thriller with supernatural overtones, "Deadly Blessing" is instead a series of loosely connected parts which, as we learn from Craven's commentary, were often the result of the shifting goal posts set by the producers. You can see the conscious attempt to marry the slow-paced scares of his work on 1978's "Stranger in our House" with the rural mayhem of "The Hills Have Eyes," with a little bit of a mystery killer thrown in. But lacking any plausible candidates for the killer and with the Hittites mostly defanged as wide-eyed nutjobs who seem more scared of Martha than the viewers are of them, it becomes a waiting game to see who is actually adding to the relatively small body count (one of the film's two endings answers this with a conclusion that was later lifted by "Sleepaway Camp" to more shocking effect--and that's the nicest thing I'll ever say about "Sleepaway Camp").

It's the notorious finale, though, where things get really strange, as "Deadly Blessing" pays off the whole incubus thing from out of left field (and beneath the floor boards). It's a strange move that really only tonally matches a single dream sequence in the middle of the film, and it substitutes being visually interesting for making a lick of sense (indeed, Craven admits it was a last-minute addition by the producers).

For its many flaws, Craven's film almost accidentally looks good--I say this because the cinematographer is Robert C. Jessup, who typically brought a movie-of-the-week flat style to, well, movies-of-the week, and a lot of Southern-set dramas and Jackie Chan's very first U.S. film, "The Big Brawl." Jessup was able to find some surprisingly effective shots in the darkness of the Schmidt's barn as well as Lana's dream sequence.

Special features and presentation

Scream Factory's disc does a solid job of capturing the rich foreground detail (you'll want to reach out and touch Borgnine's beard!), while delivering the mostly West Texas-set golden color palette of the farm and the harvest as best they can.

On audio, you have your pick up a 5.1 DTS HD track which I needed to crank up a little to hear (it was oddly at a lower level than the loud-ish menu music), along with a 2.0 DTS HD track.

I've gone on a little already about Wes Craven's commentary, but it remains the essential reason to pick up this disc, as the "Nightmare on Elm Street" director talks candidly about struggling to get this particular film made. Craven is self-deprecating and kind to his performers (reading between the lines, you sense that Sharon Stone might have been a chore to work with, even early in her career), and it's a pleasure to listen to his thoughtful, sometimes funny reminiscences of his work on the film.

In addition to Craven's commentary, Scream Factory has included four featurettes along with the usual archival promos:

- "Say Your Prayers!" (14:13, HD): Actor Michael Berryman reflects on working with director Wes Craven coming off of "The Hills Have Eyes" and being brought on board for "Deadly Blessing," dissecting his character of the man-child William.

- "Secrets Revealed" (13:05, HD): Actress Susan Buckner on going from a teen sweetheart in "Grease" to a horror heroine in "Deadly Blessing." Interesting fact: she hid her pregnancy during the shoot from the filmmakers and rest of the cast.

- "Rise of the Incubus" (06:40, HD): Effects pro John Naulin on his first horror job with "Deadly Blessing," creating the the movie's twist ending monster for Don Post Studios.

- "So It Was Written" (20:33, HD): Writers Glenn Benest and Matthew Barr on writing the film and collaborating with Wes Craven. The duo were on-set for large chunks of the production, and provide anecdotes about the shoot and locations.

- Theatrical trailer (02:31): Weirdly misrepresents the actual content of the film, but maybe when it was being cut this was the high-octane supernatural horror film everyone thought they were making?

- Three TV spots (01:37)

- Five radio spots (02:35)

- Photo gallery

"Deadly Blessing" will be available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory on January 22nd.

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