Director: Wes Craven
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Wes Craven’s first studio pic DEADLY BLESSING finally makes its Blu-ray (and DVD) debut stateside – after years of unavailability – and gets the full special edition treatment from Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line.

City girl Martha (Maren Jensen, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) is left alone when her farmer husband Jim (Douglas Barr, THE UNSEEN) is tragically (and mysteriously) crushed by his own tractor. Jim’s kin – the Hittites who “make the Amish look like swingers” – who disowned him for going to college and marrying Martha, regard her as the personification of the incubus (a demon that seduces the faithful in their sleep). His father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine, THE DEVIL’S RAIN) – also the leader of the flock – is angered when Martha refuses to sell the family farm back to him; but is he responsible for the terrifying events that befall Martha and her city friends Vicky (Susan Buckner, GREASE) and Lana (Sharon Stone, BASIC INSTINCT), or is the incubus lurking in the shadows?

The answer should be obvious, but motivations of the characters and the filmmakers were jumbled in the gestation. Writers Glenn Benest and Matthew Barr and director Wes Craven are interested in the class of cultures and the personifications of destructive sexual repression (of which there is plenty to go around here). A subplot involving Vicky’s blossoming relationship with Jim’s younger brother John (Jeff East, PUMPKINHEAD) also allows for another potential suspect in his own disturbingly devout betrothed Melissa (Colleen Riley, THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II); but there’s also Lois Nettleton’s (TV’s DAYS OF OUR LIVES) man-hating midwife Louisa and her sheltered daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman, WHERE THE BOYS ARE ’84). Secret drinker Lana also starts acting very strangely after a number of nightmarish – possibly imagined – encounters with the incubus in the form of spiders (spiders and spider webs are a recurrent visual motif throughout the film); in fact, she’s downright drugged during the climax but the nuttier ones are always the least likely suspects… The end result is a somewhat hackneyed thriller that succeeds through misdirection (the guilty party shares the same psychological motive with all of the suspects) and probably would have made a more memorable TV movie than theatrical release (and garnered a larger audience). The extended climax – full of full-on fights, knives, blunt instruments, and gunplay – seemingly reveals the guilty party, but some dialogue delineating responsibility for some of the attacks may be missed by viewers the first time around; but the producers seemingly didn’t care since they had Craven tack on a shock ending that anticipates the final shot of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET three years later. While two later slasher films would also utilize this film’s twist (to reveal their titles would give it away), it was already used in an earlier lesser-seen Sandra Locke film.

Craven, working with a budget that was still low but more than he had to work with on LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or THE HILLS HAVE EYES, delivers a handsome-looking mainstream horror picture thanks in part to RACE WITH THE DEVIL cinematographer Robert Jessup’s atmospheric photography – substituting desolate wintry Texas landscapes for New England – and the OMEN-esque score of James Horner (WOLFEN). Craven already seems to have a handle on the jump scares, but his nightmare sequences are not quite as polished as similar bits in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. Although Borgnine garnered a Razzie nomination for his role here, he’s enjoyably menacing. Berryman, on the other hand, starts out as a bully but it is his character’s child-like nature and his repressed upbringing that makes him misinterpret the truth and renders him incapable of conveying it to his elders who are just as disregarding of him as the non-Hittite characters. Stone is absolutely gorgeous here, perhaps too glamorous as her hair and make-up are never less than perfect during the nightmare scenes and in spite of some rough treatment during the climax (Hartman, while sympathetic, also seems almost too pretty for someone forced to stay a little girl by her man-hating mother). No less lovely “girl next door”-types Jensen and Buckner give the better performances (although more than one participant in the extras will tell you that Stone repeatedly demanded direction from Craven). Nettleton gives her broadly-written role her professional best, while East is so likable he has “victim” stamped on him from the get-go.

Released on tape by Embassy Entertainment, DEADLY BLESSING became one of the pre-1996 Polygram titles that went to Universal (others went to MGM). Although it has had DVD releases in Australia, Germany, and the UK (first a barebones release from Arrow Films and then as one of Arrow Video collector’s editions [a combo pack reissue with new features is forthcoming from Arrow]), DEADLY BLESSING made its digital debut stateside courtesy of streaming services utilizing an old tape master (even though the imports originated from a Universal 16:9 master); and I admit that my somewhat disappointed reaction to the film may stem from building it up in my mind (from a single videotape so many years before) in comparison to much of Craven’s subsequent work. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray debuts a new 1080p24 HD master (a DVD edition is available separately) opened up to 1.78:1 (the imports were matted 1.85:1). The previous master sported a subtle green tinge that gave the rural vistas and the nightmare scenes a chillier look. The new master looks a bit warmer, giving everyone healthier fleshtones. The new look robs Stone’s nightmare sequence of the cool hue seen in the older transfer, but the lighting is still unnatural enough to have been a deliberate choice. The additional digital clarity (also true of the previous transfer) does the shock ending no favors. The DTS-MA 5.1 track is an upmix of the original mono track (also available as a DTS-MA 2.0 option), mostly giving Horner’s score room to breathe in the surround channels while keeping the dialogue in front (optional English subtitles are also included). Although licensed from Universal, the new transfer opens with the original United Artists TransAmerica and Polygram logos rather than the awful modern Universal logo appended to the earlier transfer.

While some of the imports featured a commentary track from Craven, Shout! Factory has recorded a brand new commentary track with the director for this release (moderated by Sean Clark of Horrorhound Magazine). I have not heard the import commentary track, but this more recent track finds Craven fondly remembering his first studio film (realizing the advantages of shooting on sets instead of practical locations and learning how to choreograph and shoot a fight scene with professional stunt performers in contrast to the staging of similar scenes in his previous films). He has some amusing anecdotes about Stone working with the film’s insects and reveals that Jensen disappeared from acting after this film because of a serious illness (although she has reportedly recovered since then and devotes her time to charity). He laments that Jeff East didn’t have a bigger career and conjectures that it was because of the 1980s era’s preference for bad boys. On rewriting the screenplay, he admits to fixing structural problems and also reveals that even his original cut of the film had a final chill before the producers insisted on tacking on a final shock (the original “it’s not over yet” ending also flies in the face of the film’s logic, yet it feels like it would have better suited film than what we get in the final cut). Clark prompts Craven to connect the film to his running theme of the darker side of the American family, and Craven frames it in the context of his Baptist upbringing (he says he learned a lot about repression) and his idea that horror within families – particularly from elders who do not have your best interests in mind – provides for more powerful situations than among a group of friends. Since Craven was a teacher and other actors and crew have referenced his professorial/intellectual character, one wishes that he had been a bit more prepared to answer the thematic questions; however, he does say that he had not thought about the film in a long time and even he had difficulty getting ahold of a copy of it in order to prepare in advance for the track.

In “Say Your Prayers” (14:13), actor Michael Berryman focuses on the film with only scant mention of THE HILLS HAVE EYES. He says he knows he was cast for his looks, but felt he had more to work with character-wise in DEADLY BLESSING since his character was the only one who knew what was really going on. He also discusses the shoot (the owners of the farm insisted that the set dressers remove everything they added to the property for fear of their property values going up), and also alludes to some friction between the trio of lead actresses. On the other hand, in “Secrets Revealed” (13:05), actress Susan Buckner says that she got on well with her co-stars and that she liked her role because she seemed to be the smart one (although she does point out her character’s poor decisions during the climax). She also points out a covered body double insert. Like Berryman, Buckner says that Stone radiated star quality from the moment she met her. “Rise of the Incubus” (6:40) is a brief, not-particularly-revealing interview with creature designer John Naulin who was working at Halloween mask-makers Don Post Studio at the time. Naulin was brought in to work on the creature effects for the reshot ending and briefly describes working with Craven on the final design. He also claims to have directed the mask-making scenes in HALLOWEEN III (the factory interiors were shot at Don Post Studio) since the filmmakers knew nothing about the process. Although some stills appear during the segment, they offer no clearer view of the incubus than the feature (Naulin would go onto provide effects for RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, MANIAC COP as well as some smaller eighties horror films like THE OUTING).

In “So It Was Written” (20:33), writers Matthew Barr and Glenn Benest discuss the origins of the project. Barr had made some films as a child before pursuing a film degree at UCLA, where he roomed with Benest who was in the playwriting program. Barr had seen a National Geographic story on the Amish and the two spent the next four years working on the script before it went into production. Co-writer Glenn Benest was working in development at Inter Planetary (who co-produced the film with Polygram Pictures) when Craven was being considered for some of their projects, specifically A STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE, adapted by Benest from the Lois Duncan young adult novel “Summer of Fear” (which was also its European theatrical title, and the title on a poster outside the movie theater where John runs into Vicky in town). As associate producers, Barr and Benest reveal that they had absolutely nothing to do; however, they did experience the thrill of being on-set to see their film produced. Benest recalls tough Borgnine returning to work after a head injury on the set, and Stone – discovered by Polygram’s Guber and Peters in a small role in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES – angrily demanding that Craven give her some direction. While Craven cops to fixing structural problems in the rewrite, Benest and Barr credit him with the addition of the effective scares. Besides the cool original theatrical trailer (2:31), the disc also includes three TV spots (1:32), and five somewhat repetitive radio spots (2:35). A stills gallery closes out the package. The Blu-ray comes in a slipcover with newly commissioned artwork with okay renderings of Borgnine, Stone, and Jensen, but rather unflattering ones of Buckner and Berryman (who looks more like the unmasked “Punisher” of the Italian gothic horror film THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG). (Eric Cotenas)