(This review of Deadly Blessing was written to participate in the Final Girl Film Club! Do yourself a solid; go to Stacie Ponder’s Final Girl blog and check out what she and other smart and funny posters have to say!)
There’s a fairly clever idea inside Wes Craven’s 1981 film Deadly Blessing.
Unless there isn’t. I’m still trying to puzzle that out.
The possible clever idea has to do with the nature of “the Incubus,” the demon-figure whose anticipated appearance on Earth to commit evil and mayhem motivates many of the characters. The characters doing the anticipating are all members of the Hittites, your typical agrarian Not the Amish Really religious sect. (One of the characters addresses this head-on with a line to the effect that “the Hittites make the Amish look like a bunch of swingers!” I would have said “the Amish make the Hittites look like a bunch of thinly veiled Amish stereotypes,” but po-tay-to, po-tah-to, etc.)
Interestingly, the film chooses right away to demolish some of the ambiguity it could have had with a voiceover just at the end of the opening credits, telling us that a “simple farming community” (i.e., the Hittites whose farming we’ve been watching a montage of, under the credits) has for generations been hiding “a gruesome secret.” Oddly, I’m pretty sure the distinctive voice that provides this voiceover, talking about the Hittites in the third person, is that of Ernest Borgnine, who plays the role of fire-and-brimstone-and-occasional-“thou”-peppering-his-speech Hittite leader Isaiah. For a movie that revolves so much around the conflict between the Hittites and the outsiders to put its most notable actor on both sides of the divide this way is … an interesting choice, to say the least. (I have a theory on how that voiceover came to be, but I’ll share it later.)
Anyways, the conflict between the Hittites and the not-Hittites in the valley is dramatized shortly thereafter when hulking addle-pated Hittite William (played by Michael Berryman, a go-to guy for “hulking and addle-pated” roles) sneaks up on not-Hittite teenager Faith as she’s painting in the fields and destroys her canvas and easel, calling her “Incubus!” as he chases her with menace.
And that’s where I went “uh-oh.” Because while an incubus is a demon from mythology, it’s specifically a male demon that seduces and corrupts women in their sleep (the female counterpart who corrupts males in their sleep being the succubus.) A Watsonian (that is, an “in-universe”) explanation might be that manchild William is not too clear on the differences between males and females. The Doylist explanation that seemed far more probable, however, was “the filmmakers just grabbed a cool-sounding demon name and didn’t give a damn whether the mythology attached to that name matched their fictional demon at all.” (Later on in the movie, we’ll find out that the Doylist explanation is at least partly true; as described, the Incubus of the Hittites is a far more general-purpose demon than the seduction-demon it is in mythology.)
The chase is soon stopped by Jim, the farmer in whose fields all this is taking place. Judging by the weary efficiency with which Jim (himself an ex-Hittite) makes William stop the chase, and Jim’s discussion of the clash with Louisa (Faith’s mother), these sorts of conflicts between the Hittites and their neighbors aren’t uncommon. Jim then reveals that he and his wife Martha are expecting a child, news which Louisa greets immediately (disconcerting Jim) with a hearty “I hope it’s a girl! Boys ain’t nothin’ but trouble!”
And that’s where I went, not “uh-oh,” but “oh-ho,” and started wondering if this movie was cleverer than it had seemed to be. Suddenly “the Incubus is real and is in the form of a male child Martha’s bearing” seemed a pretty plausible (and Watsonian) hypothesis. The hypothesis received a boost shortly thereafter when Jim, hearing his tractor turned on at night when it shouldn’t be, goes to investigate and finds the word “INCUBUS” crudely painted in red on the barn wall. Unfortunately, he also finds someone that he recognizes but we the audience don’t get to see, who uses the tractor to crush Jim against the wall, making the ex-Hittite farmer an ex-ex-Hittite ex-farmer.
Two friends of Martha’s, Lana and Vicky, come to the farm to help the new widow out. Now in a cheesy 80s quasi-slasher movie, characters like this would exist and enter the narrative just to raise the body count. But how could you even let yourself think that would be the case here? This is a Wes Craven movie, folks; Lana and Vicky are no mere ciphers but deep, subtly limned characters, rich in characterization like, uh… um… well, like one starts flirting with Jim’s brother John who’s still in the Hittites, pissing off John’s fiancée Melissa and the Hittite leader Isaiah, and one doesn’t! And one has a scary dream where a spider enters her mouth, and one doesn’t! And one is played by Sharon Stone (I think it’s Spider-Mouth), and one isn’t! If you’re not satisfied with characterization like that, well, I just don’t know what’ll please you.
Speaking of characterization, I would be remiss if I did not observe that the film is filled with beautiful scenery, and whether lush and glorious or melancholy and haunting, every inch of that scenery is chewed by Ernest Borgnine. I doubt it’s his fault; the late Borgnine was a talented actor, and he certainly knew how to underplay a performance for a more moving effect, but apparently Wes Craven in the director’s chair didn’t want him to. I can just imagine the conversations on the set:
Craven: “All right, Ernest, this follows the scene we shot yesterday, where your fellow Hittite was piteously pleading that his son, the simple-witted William, could be returned safely to him, and you tore him a new one for daring to suggest that if William were to be returned in one of those new-fangled Devil-contraption ‘cars,’ the fact that he was returned safely would be the really important thing. Now, in this scene, you’re trying to talk a new widow, the widow of the man you personally expelled from the community, into selling his lands back to you. So whenever you start to think ‘am I playing my character as enough of an A-hole?’ you should always answer yourself ‘No, let’s push the A-hole meter up a notch.’”
Borgnine: “Gee, Wes, I just don’t know. I mean, it’s your call, you’re the director, but don’t you think Isaiah might come across more believable if I played him as someone who has, at some point in his life, felt some emotion besides righteous anger?”
Craven: “No no no. Ernie – may I call you Ernie? – that sort of subtlety may have worked for the highbrow, intellectual productions you’ve been in, like McHale’s Navy, but we can’t afford to confuse our audience on this picture. The black broad-brimmed hat, the blue broadcloth shirt and black vest over it, the constantly jutting eyebrows and the beard that makes you look like a Schnauzer – those are all parts of that whole stern inflexible Amish/Mennonite stereotype. But we need more than parts, Ernie! We need the whole stereotype! We’ve got to bring our A-game stereotyping! If there’s a single moment that you’re on the screen and you don’t have every single person thinking ‘rigid religious fanatic A-hole,’ we’ve lost everything.”
I seem to have digressed from discussion of the plot, but from about this point on, that plot simplifies to “creepy things happen inside the house, like a snake in the bathtub; people get killed outside the house, like Jim’s brother when he’s getting lucky with Martha’s friend in her car; and eventually we find out who’s behind all the creepy things and killings.” Or at least I think we do; I’m still trying to puzzle it out. There’s a shocking revelation about who’s doing at least some of the killings, but while the reveal is truly unexpected, and does make some of the killings very clear, it leaves others still baffling. I’m still scratching my head and saying to myself “So where did the snake come from? And who made the switch in the refrigerator?”
I won’t give away the real ending of the movie. However, I will, with malice aforethought, give away the crappy stupid last-minute shock ending that according to Craven, studio execs insisted be tacked on to the movie. After the big reveal of Who Dun At Least Some Of It, everything appears to be getting back to normal. The ineffectual sheriff has finally shown up and done the little he can do to clean up afterwards; Martha’s remaining houseguests depart; everything appears to be settled and back to normal. Time for a fade to black, while we have closure, right?
WRONG! As soon as everyone who could help Martha has left, her late husband’s ghost shows up to deliver a quick, useless warning (nice timing, Ghost Jim), then BOOM! and a bear, I mean an Incubus, comes out! Inky pops up through the floorboards, grabs Martha and drags her back down into the hellhole he came from, the floorboards even obligingly un-exploding themselves back into place and into perfect condition through the SFX miracle of reversing the film. And then the movie ends. ARE YOU KIDDING ME.
Whoever it was that decided to tack on that cheeseball ending is, in all probability, the same someone who inflicted the opening voiceover on us. I have a bone to pick with each.
Let’s begin, perversely enough, with the ending. Admittedly, there are plenty of other horror movies that have used what Maxwell Smart might call “the old ‘Pull the Rug of Restored Normalcy Out From Under Our Heroes and Therefore the Audience Just Before the Movie Ends’ trick!” Some of those movies actually use it well (including Craven’s own Nightmare on Elm Street, made just a few years afterwards.) Why does it work in those movies, and fall flatter than the mountains of Kansas in this one?
To be honest, I’m not sure. I suspect, however, that the last-minute swerves which do work do so because they a) keep the audience engaged with the protagonists up until the very end, b) keep the tension level high and remind the audience they’re watching a horror movie up until the very end, or c) do both. Blessing’s end really does neither. I suppose if you as a viewer happened to have developed a deep emotional investment in Martha as a character, her struggle in the arms of the Incubus would be pretty involving… but then that’s over, and the anticlimactic silent closing shots of the undamaged farmhouse floor might as well as have been designed to break that emotional investment. It’s as if the movie is shrugging its shoulders, saying to you the viewer, Sure, you were supposed to care through the movie about whether she lived or died. Sure, we killed her off pointlessly, for no good reason on either side of the fourth wall. But that’s the way it is, so what are you gonna do about it? I have to think that “throw popcorn at the screen” was probably the response in more than one theater when this came out.
And now let’s bring things full-circle and end with the beginning. Those who have read my earlier blog post where I discuss, among other things, the narrative trick of an initial flash-forward to capture interest and establish expectations, may be surprised that I object so much to the voice-over in this film, used to similar effect. But that one, I have no trouble at all explaining why I boo and hiss: It. Cheats. Remember how the voice-over told us that the Hittites have been keeping a gruesome secret? They haven’t! The “secrets” that come to light during the film, whether you call them “gruesome” or not, aren’t kept by the Hittites! One could argue that it’s referring to the fact that the Incubus turns out to be real, and that almost works… until it dawns on you that the Hittites haven’t been keeping that a secret at all; they tell everyone, including people who have no interest in hearing it!
I don’t know if it makes sense for me to get as peeved as I do at the voiceover, considering that most viewers have probably forgotten all about it fifteen minutes into the movie. But while I can give the movie credit for some things it does well, even when I’m not sure they were done intentionally, the voice-over sums up the problem I have with Deadly Blessing: ultimately, it doesn’t care about keeping the promises it made to the viewer to convince them to watch.