Color, 1981, 102m.
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Maren Jensen, Sharon Stone, Susan Buckner, Jeff East, Ernest Borgnine, Lisa Hartman, Michael Berryman, Lois Nettleton, Colleen Riley, Douglas Barr
Arrow (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Scream Factory (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Umbrella (DVD) (Australia R0 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Released at the height of the slasher era, Deadly Blessing marked the first studio film for director Wes Craven after the vicious indie hits Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and came at a strange point in his career, with projects only coming along every couple of years or so. Here he tones down the brutality a bit to instead focus on a gothic tale about religious repression, superstition, and the growing independence of women in recent years, all packaged as a twisted murder mystery with a few grisly kill scenes for good measure.
Martha Schmidt (Battlestar Galactica's Jensen) has settled down in a small farming community populated by an extreme religious sect called the Hittites, whose domineering leader, Isaiah (Borgnine), happens to be the father of her husband, Jim (Barr), now an ostracized ex-member. Martha is regularly tormented by the members, especially a creepy peeping tom (Berryman) who keeps calling her the servant of an incubus, and can only find normalcy with two of her neighbors, Louisa (Nettleton) and her painter daughter, Faith (Hartman). When Jim is violently killed in what appears to be a barnyard accident one night, Martha is comforted by two of her best friends visiting from the big city, Lana (Stone) and Vicky (Buckner), with the latter catching the eye of Isaiah's other son, John (East). However, Lana is haunted by terrifying dreams each night, and someone now appears to be on a bloody murder spree whose motives are far more perverse than Martha could imagine.
Though hampered by some narrative hiccups, especially a producer-imposed shock ending that contradicts the entire message of the film, Deadly Blessing still holds up as an effective example of Craven's ability to string together a succession of potent shock scenes. One of the most memorable, a nightmare sequence involving the young Stone and a creepy spider, was wisely used as the main hook for the film's promotion when it was released by United Artists, while another squirm-inducing bit with Jensen sharing her bathtub unwittingly with a snake was later repurposed by Craven for A Nightmare on Elm Street. (It's also worth noting that Jensen, who retired from acting after making this film, uses a very blatant body double for two scenes here.) The cast is still exceptionally strong for an early '80s horror film, with Borgnine gleefully chewing up scenery left and right and Hartman (who would soon go on to a gig on TV's Knots Landing) ably handling a role that probably made a lot of her fans do a major double take. Also noteworthy is the effective music score by a young James Horner, who had just gotten his start with Roger Corman films like Humanoids from the Deep and Battle Beyond the Stars and was starting to move to the big time with this and Wolfen. Of course, he would soon team up with James Cameron for Aliens, and, well, the rest is history.
Despite its pedigree, Deadly Blessing had a tortured history on home video as it passed through a number of different owners over the years (Polygram in Europe, Embassy and Universal for a while in America), even dropping out of circulation entirely around the world for the first several years of the DVD era. Eventually a DVD first appeared in Australia in 2007 from Umbrella, sporting a decent widescreen transfer and an audio commentary featuring Craven and moderator David Gregory from Severin Films. The same transfer and commentary later popped up on a 2011 UK DVD from Arrow, complete with additional video extras (more on those shortly).
A 2012 Blu-Ray and DVD release from Scream Factory (the spectacular genre-oriented arm of Shout Factory) marked a welcome jump to HD for the film, with a solid boost in detail and an appearance very close to the texture and color balance of the 35mm theatrical prints. Interestingly, this American release contains a new, completely different solo commentary by Craven, who hadn't watched the film again in the ensuing five years and had obviously softened slightly in his outlook on the jarring, tacked-on ending. The basic points between the two commentaries are about the same, but the details tend to differ a bit as his memory obviously shifted a bit between the two. On both Craven talks about the origins of the screenplay by Glenn M Benest (who wrote Craven's earlier made-for-TV horror film, Summer of Fear), the state of his career at the time, his view of the film as a flawed but admirable effort that paved the way for his future horror work (after the odd detour of Swamp Thing and a particularly wacko sequel), and his thoughts on working with such a diverse cast. Also on the Scream Factory release are the trailer, a trio of TV spots (in one reel), radio spots, a stills gallery, and a quartet of newly-created HD featurettes: a Berryman interview ("Say Your Prayers") about working with Craven and becoming a cult horror icon, a chat with Buckner ("Secrets Revealed") covering her role in the film and particularly her big nocturnal car scene, a brief chat with FX designer John Naulin ("Rise of the Incubus") who created the monster glimpsed in the final scene, and Benest and co-writer Matthew Barr (who share final screenplay credit with Craven) talking about their ideas behind the film including the obvious Amish influence ("So It Was Written").
A UK Blu-Ray from Arrow followed swiftly in early 2013 (packaged as a dual-format release with the DVD carried over as a second disc), featuring a very similar HD transfer that's a shade brighter but otherwise very, very close to the Scream Factory one. Both releases include optional English subtitles, while the Scream Factory has a DTS-HD 5.1 mix and a DTS-HD 2.0 one; the Arrow has a two-channel LPCM mix. Either of the stereo options sound similar to the presentation in theaters, while home theater buffs might get more of a kick out of the subdued but still flashier 5.1 redo. The first Craven/Gregory commentary is retained here, while on the video side you get a brief HD video intro by Berryman, a 12-minute video chat with Craven about looking back on the film, a different and earlier 14-minute discussion with Benest, the trailer, and perhaps most substantial of all, a nearly half-hour chat with Berryman about his work with Craven focusing on everything from The Hills Have Eyes to its trouble-plagued sequel. Horror writer and critic Kim Newman also provides an essay covering the film's genesis and its placement coming on the heels of the '70s horror wave while also discussing its British theatrical release, which (perhaps wisely) trimmed off the final moments before the end credits. (Sadly, that version has never been issued on home video.) The booklet also sports cover art duplicating the French poster and a great promo shot of the three female leads looking an awful lot like a shot from Valley of the Dolls. Since there's virtually no overlap at all between the supplements, horror fans would do well to go with either - or both! - Blu-Ray options to experience an underrated, often very effective little chiller worthy of rediscovery.
Reviewed on March 14, 2013.