Ernest Borgnine, demonstrating some of that Oscar-winning subtlety.
This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! The latest film in this string of write-ups is Deadly Blessing, by the late, great Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Last House on the Left, Scream). The film was not actually suggested by anyone; it was my first free space! There have only been so many donors who contributed more than $25 to the fundraiser, so I filled in some of the gaps. And since it seemed criminal to have a month’s worth of horror movies with no Wes Craven, I rectified that inequity with a Craven film I had never seen (or really heard of) before. Deadly Blessing was rented from Queen Video. And though Deadly Blessing was not requested by any donors, the manger at Queen Video – a gentleman my friend and I know only as “Movie Bro” – said “I haven’t seen this in years, but I remember loving it,” so I think that counts as an endorsement.
A series of still photos of Hittite life opens the film. Deadly Blessing – which is one of the worst types of blessings – is a horror film set within the fictional Hittite farming community. The narrator – there’s a narrator – informs us that the rolling hills of this farming community have protected “a gruesome secret for generations.” The Hittites – a strict religious sect, who one character says make the Amish “look like swingers” – own much of the farmland in this community, tilling the soil in the traditional ways. But there is a more modern farm next door, owned by young couple Jim and Martha Schmidt (Douglas Barr and Maren Jensen). When Jim starts up his John Deere tractor, you can tell from the look on Hittite elder Isaiah’s face that he’s not going to be the Wilson to Jim’s Tim ‘The Toolman’ Taylor.
In another field, a young woman, Faith Stohler (Lisa Hartman) sits, making a terrible painting en plain air. Sneaking up behind the canvas, Hittite William Gluntz (The Hills Have Eyes‘ Michael Berryman) grabs the painting and smashes it against his knee. He yells at her, calling her an “incubus” and chases her around the field. Their chase runs across the path of Jim’s tractor, and he hops off to intervene and defuse the situation. Faith’s mother, Louisa (Lois Nettleton) arrives on the scene. Jim explains what happened and tells her to take it easy on William, who, though large and fairly terrifying, is developmentally delayed and can’t help his outbursts. Louisa is dubious. As the various parties return to their homes, Jim informs Louisa that he might be calling on her help soon: Louisa sometimes works as a midwife, and Martha is pregnant. “I hope it’s a girl,” Louisa jokes. “Boys ain’t nothin’ but trouble.” (What would Will Smith say?)
Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine at his hammiest) and a number of Hittites arrive via buggy to retrieve William. Isaiah’s son, John (Jeff East), waves to Jim. Isaiah roughly pulls John off the buggy by his ear and reminds him the Hittites “have no use for that machinery.” At the end of the day, Jim pulls his John Deere into his barn. William Gluntz is sneaking around the corner. Inside the barn, in bright red paint, someone has painted “INCUBUS.” Jim, exasperated, paints over it with more red. A few houses over, Louisa walks in on her daughter Faith, who is painting yet another weird, distorted landscape in the attic. Louisa is firmly of the mind that “girls should paint their nails, not this stuff,” but Faith won’t be deterred. Her next painting, she assures, will be her masterpiece.
Back at Jim and Martha’s, the happy couple are celebrating their first anniversary. Martha has bought Jim a gift (he forgot to get her anything): a scrapbook from their life together. They flip through it and the audience learns that Jim used to be a Hittite. He left the community and married a woman from the outside world, which got him exiled from Hittite life. Soon, they go to make sweet anniversary love. While they do, someone unseen enters the house, looks in on them in the bedroom, then makes for the scrapbook.
Faith just loves painting landscapes from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Unable to sleep, Jim wakes in the middle of the night and paces his porch. He hears the tractor on in the barn, so he arms himself with an axe handle and goes to investigate. Jim finds the tractor is running, but no one is around but some chickens. He turns the tractor off and looks around for who may have started it in the first place. Before he finds anything, the light of the tractor flashes on, blinding him, and the tractor drives forward, crushing Jim against the wall. When Martha awakes and finds no Jim in her bed, she goes to the barn and finds her husband dead.
At Jim’s funeral, Martha opts to stay until the gravedigger is done burying her husband. Five Hittites appear at the edge of the funeral, seemingly in mourning (though it’s hard to tell, as they always dress in black). The gravedigger is bewildered: “They usually do that when one of their own dies.” (He is unaware that Jim used to be one of them.) Meanwhile, two of Martha’s city-slicker friends drive into the farming community in a cherry red convertible. William and a number of Hittite children dare each other to enter the barn where Jim died, which they call “the home of the incubus.” They sneak in the window and gaze upon the murder site, still not cleared. They look at the murder weapon – the tractor – and William touches the blood on the ground.
Martha gets a ride home with her neighbour Louisa, and they talk frankly about being a single woman alone in the farmland, living so close to a conservative religious sect – that kind of thing. A new friendship is forming. But when Martha returns home, she realizes someone has entered her barn. She barges into the barn, furious, and grabs a pitchfork. The kids sneak out the window, but William, too large to join them, hides in the shadows. Martha is then startled at the barn door by her visiting friends, Vicky (Susan Buckner) and Lana (Sharon Stone). Taking advantage of the distraction, William squeezes out the chicken coop entrance, but loses his simple black shoe in the process.
Vicky and Lana, visiting from Los Angeles, discuss Jim’s untimely death with Martha, and ask about the farm. Luckily, Jim owned the farm and left it to Martha in his will. Some back story exposition is outlined, and viewers learn that Jim is also the son of Isaiah, and was shunned by the HIttites when he married a messenger of the incubus (their words, not mine). Vicky asks what an incubus even is, and Martha explains it as a “kind of demon that stalks the faithful in their sleep, or just comes and takes you like a beast!” The two friends decide to stay with Martha for a while, during her period of mourning. Though they may regret it, if the size of the spider Lana spots on the guest bedroom ceiling is any indication.
William, meanwhile, is getting a tongue-lashing for losing his shoe. His father, Matthew Gluntz (Lawrence Montaigne) is very disappointed: “more than the cost of the shoe is the cost of the lie.” He orders William to retrieve his shoe, so William skulks back to Martha’s barn. While he’s there, he decides he can also do some window-peeping, so he spies with his overly wet eyes on Martha undressing for bed through her ground-floor window. A knife flashes and William is grabbed by the throat and stabbed in the back. The next morning, Isaiah and Matthew take their horse and buggy to Martha’s door, seeking Matthew’s missing son. Martha offers to drive William to Matthew’s barn, should she find him. Matthew, extremely thankful, begins to provide his address, so Isaiah has to take him aside and chide him for falling prey to her “glib serpent’s tongue.” He is astonished that Matthew would allow his son in her “ungodly machine.” Isaiah pushes Matthew aside and says he’ll do all the talking here on in.
William’s quest for his shoe takes a detour.
Isaiah returns to Martha, waiting patiently on her front porch. He informs her that his son, Jim, would have wanted the land to remain with his people. He is prepared to purchase the deed from Martha. Martha gives her response to his offer in the form of a slammed door and Isaiah loses his cool: “May you burn in hell!” Lana, waking late, recounts an awful nightmare to Vicky and Martha. In it, a gray-skinned man banged on her door and called her by name. She opened the door for him and he transformed into a spider. Vicky cuts her dream story short, partially because nobody cares about other people’s dreams, and partially because they came to cheer Martha up, not scare her. But scare her they do when they open the kitchen curtains to find a face pressed up against the window. Luckily, it’s only Faith, and she’s brought some eggs.
Faith explains to Vicky and Lana that she and her mother are not Hittites; the Hittites tried to run them out of town, in fact. Faith then helps herself to a tour of Martha’s house, lingering in her bedroom. She offers her condolences to Martha, saying she once had a pet bird that died, so she knows how it is. Vicky goes for a jog in the area, running alongside Hittite kids (much to their father’s chagrin) and nearly being attacked by a stray German shepherd. (She maces her way out of that situation.) Eventually, she has a meet-cute with John Schmidt, Isaiah’s other son. John is sorrowful about the death of his brother, and Vicky convinces him to ditch his farm duties and lounge with her in the grass for a while. (I don’t foresee any issues with this.)
John and Vicky make small talk about their different lives. “I feel like I’ve been in a time warp,” Vicky marvels. “What’s a warp?” John asks. John feels like the century he lives in is more peaceful than the modern world, but the rest of Deadly Blessing will probably put that assertion to the test. Before long, Daddy Isaiah shows up and forces John back to work. He won’t even acknowledge Vicky, but eventually deigns to refer to her as a serpent. Isaiah reminds John he should shun all non-Hittite women, and focus on good women like his cousin Melissa (Colleen Riley), to whom he is engaged.
Martha has taken up the bulk of the farm work. The tractor, however, is running a little roughly – maybe something to do with running over a person recently – so she sends Lana to the barn to retrieve her tools. Lana finds the toolbox, but then strange occurrences befall her inside the barn. The door won’t keep open, even when she uses a large rock as a doorstop. Then the clapboards shut on all the windows, plunging Lana into the darkness. The only way out of the barn is up through the loft, but the loft is covered with cobwebs and full of spiders. Suddenly, a figure cloaked in black leaps out at her, sending her hurtling down the wooden steps. The barn door is now open for her escape, but a massive spider has landed on her bosom. Lana swats it away and runs to Martha’s voice outside. That’s when William’s body, hanging by a noose, drops down in front of her.
Still less gross than having to do love scenes with Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct.
The sheriff arrives to solve the Mystery of the Hanged Hittite, but Isaiah refuses an autopsy. “We already know who did this,” he intones. “The incubus.” The sheriff tells Martha that he’ll get a court order eventually, but advises her she might want to leave town for a spell. Lana, meanwhile, has fallen into shock, so Martha suggests she and Vicky leave. Vicky won’t have it, though, and says they’ll stay at least until the sheriff files a report. Martha draws a bath to decompress. The bathroom fills with steam and she places a damp washcloth over her face so she never sees a figure enter with a burlap sack to release a snake. (Jake the Snake, is that you?) The snake slithers into the tub, a la Shivers, and eventually pops up between her legs. Martha leaps out of the tub, retrieves a fireplace poker and – off-screen – smashes it to bits.
At the Hittite meeting house, Isaiah is on a tear about William’s death. He blames – who else? – that dastardly incubus, but also notes that someone from within their community must have brought William to the barn where he met his death. A box is passed around and one of the Hittite children slides in a note. Isaiah pulls the note from the box and calls the name of “Leopold Smith,” the child who has been outed as the one who dared William to go to the barn in the first place. In front of the entire congregation, Isaiah – Borgnine flashing his eyes like Nicolas Cage – beats his hands with a rattan cane.
Martha and Vicky drive into town for some supplies. Martha has written the snake incident off as just a risk associated with living in a rural area. John, catalogue-shopping in a store for wedding dresses with Melissa, ditches his bride-to-be when he spots Vicky in town. They talk about normal guy-girl things like Jezebel until Melissa catches on that John is making time with the outsider woman. She runs from the store in tears and John chases after her. In a nearby field John grabs her, apologizing profusely. They hold each other so passionately, Melissa’s bonnet pops off, and John starts kissing her hot and heavy. Melissa, realizing this probably falls outside Hittite protocol, freaks out and runs away. Martha, meanwhile, has bought a gun for the farm and they test it out on some bottles and cans.
When Melissa returns to the farm, Isaiah sees her dishevelled state and demands to know “who did this?” He then sees John and puts two and two together. Isaiah brings his son to the barn and commands him to kneel. He fashions a switch and begins to hit him across his back. But then John stops his arm and refuses to submit to more beating. Isaiah is revolted – “You are a stench in the nostril of God!” – and exiles him from the Hittites. “Go to your whore!” he shouts. Back at Martha’s, Vicky leaves to go to the movies and Louisa Stohler drops by to apologize for Faith bothering them. They insist Faith is no bother and Louisa complains about men, saying Faith’s dad left as soon as she was born. “If Faith had been a boy, I would have put her in the river like a sack of kittens,” she says, maybe overdoing it a bit.
John, freshly shunned, hitchhikes into town and loiters outside the movie theatre. Vicky departs her movie moments later and runs directly into him. John explains the blow-up with his dad and Vicky offers him a lift back to the farm. Meanwhile, Lana continues to have troubling dreams. Gray hands appear at the sides of her face as she sleeps and a gravelly voice instructs her to “open her mouth.” A large spider rappels from the ceiling directly into her throat, causing Lana to waken from her nightmare. Lana goes downstairs to tell Martha about the dream – Lana loves discussing her dreams, in case you hadn’t noticed – and realizes Martha is scared, too. Something frightening is happening on this farm.
Vicky, in the interim, has given John the keys to her red convertible, and he is learning to drive the hard way, weaving all over the dirt roads at great speeds to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.” Despite his ringing endorsement of cars – “much better than a horse” – John is not a natural driver, and slips the car out of gear moments before nearly crashing into a tree. He asks Vicky how to start it again and Vicky – real suave – says, “What’s your hurry?” Vicky then puts the moves on her Hittite hottie.
I don’t where this masseuse studied, but I don’t think it was accredited.
This romance has not gone unnoticed, however, as Melissa, in her bed at home, wakes with a start and yells, “John!” She goes downstairs to take a ceremonial dagger from her drawer. Back in the convertible, John and Vicky are busy rounding second base when they hear a noise. John insists its a raccoon and leaves the car to scare it away. He returns moments later with no incident. The incident happens seconds later, when they pick up where they left off and knife stabs through the soft top of the car, nearly killing Vicky. John covers Vicky with his body and is stabbed repeatedly in the back for his heroism. The unseen assailant then begins to douse the car in gasoline. Vicky desperately tries to start the ignition, but the killer has already lit a match. Vicky starts the car just as the flames start to chase her car. She nearly outruns the flames but runs into a rut and, “Karma Police” style, is drowned in fire.
Back at Martha’s farm, Lana offers to make her friend a PB & J. But when she pours a glass of milk, she discovers the carton is full of blood. Lana promptly drops the glass and bugs out. She becomes convinced that Death is after them, and there’s no way they’ll be able to stop Him. Martha goes to her bedroom and when she opens the door, a booby-trapped Hittite scarecrow pops out at her. Taking the flower from the scarecrow’s lapel, she whispers “Jim.” She travels to the cemetery and finds her husband’s grave unearthed, the flowers missing. Instead, two bullets are resting by the open pit. She enters the grave and opens the coffin. Instead of her dead husband, she finds several chickens, angry at being cooped up. She runs to the Stohlers’ barn and discovers a painting – a Faith Stohler original – that appears to depict her as some kind of space goddess. She also finds Faith’s reference material: her and Jim’s wedding photo from the scrapbook. Worse, she turns around and finds Jim’s corpse, strung up in the barn like a marionette!
Melissa, meanwhile, is walking across the Stohlers’ lawn, her dagger outstretched, her mouth reciting the words of some sort of protection prayer. Martha spots her, then sees Louisa walk out her front door to immediately start choking Melissa. Martha cries out to stop Louisa when Faith attacks her from behind. Faith and Martha struggle, with Faith screaming, “Why are you keeping us apart, Martha?!” When Martha hits Faith with a rock, Faith falls backward, popping her shirt open, revealing the type of hairy chest usually associated with a man. Martha flees from the scene.
Faith rouses awake and argues with her mother, saying she’s tired of pretending to be a girl. She accuses Louisa of attempting to kill Martha with the snake. Clearly, Faith has become obsessed with Martha. Louisa, in her extreme dislike of men, raised her son as a woman, and that son only recently began acting out when he started to lust after the next-door neighbour. Inside, Martha grabs the panicky Lana so they can make their escape, but there’s a knock at the locked door. They hide, but a shotgun blasts open a hole in the door and Louisa’s hand slips through, trying to unlock the door. Martha uses her pistol to keep Louisa’s hand away. She then takes Lana and they retreat to the telephone to call for help. That’s when Faith smashes through the window to attack. Martha shoots her without much of a second thought. Louisa then leaps in with a shotgun and chases Martha up the stairs.
Louisa catches up to Martha in the guest bedroom and they battle on the floor. Martha strikes with Vicky’s mace. Louisa attacks Martha with a bedpost, but Lana – surprising everyone – rushes in at the last moment with Martha’s gun and shoots Louisa to death. Martha then returns downstairs and spots a blood trail from where Faith was shot. Faith is still alive! She leaps out with a knife, so it’s up to Melissa, who runs in out of nowhere and stabs Faith through the chest. Melissa turns to Martha and Isaiah enters the front door and declares, “the messenger of the incubus is dead.” (Thanks for showing up, Isaiah.)
In the denouement, the sheriff drives Lana to a bus station (we can assume) and Martha returns to her home alone. As soon as she walks in the front door, however, the room falls dark and the ghost of Jim appears, covered in blood. He warns Martha to “beware the incubus,” which is weird because Isaiah pretty much just told us all the threat was over. But what does Isaiah know? The room suddenly starts shaking and a literal demon – claws and fangs and all – shoots up from the floorboards and drags Martha down to hell. The End. (Wait, what?)
You know what they say: once you go Pennsylvania Dutch, you never go back.
- The Hittites, the agrarian religious sect featured in Deadly Blessing, are completely fictional, though quite obviously modelled on the Amish, even down to the notions of exile and shunning. And, as it turns out, they’re also a bit of a red herring. Though they are not fond of outsiders and pretty horrible to women – labelling them all serpents and messengers of the incubus and whatnot – they’re not, as it turns out, killers. (Though we never really find out who murdered Vicky and John. That could have been Melissa.) I should also note that Deadly Blessing predates Amish pop-culture touchstone Witness by a few years.
- Deadly Blessing is one of the many films included in a genre we might title “trans horror.” That is, slasher movies in which the killer is revealed to be a different sex than he/she presents him/herself, and – in fact – their gender “confusion” is usually the source of their homicidal tendencies. Sleepaway Camp is the most notable of these “trans horror” films, though Deadly Blessing was released a couple years earlier, as were many Italian gialli with a similar reveal. The ending is telegraphed from the beginning if you pay attention: William refers to Faith as an “incubus,” a male demon, even though she presents as female. Though the gender reveal makes for a good twist ending, I can’t help but lament the untold difficulties it must have caused (and continues to cause) the trans community. Imagine growing up trans in the 1980s, when every horror movie that features a trans character presents them as a monster, so confused about their gender, they’re driven to murder. When, in fact, the reveal that this character was born another gender is the horror itself. You can read a way more intelligent essay about horror and transphobia by Willow Marclay at Cleo Journal here.
- I can’t quite figure out the imagery of spiders that runs throughout Deadly Blessing. The use of the snake in the tub makes sense: there’s all sorts of religious imagery regarding asps and serpents in the Bible. Some is explicitly referenced by Isaiah. But not so much spiders. Spiders do come up often in the talks of Puritan preachers like Jonathan Edwards (who famously compared people to spiders that God dangles over the flames of Hell), so the imagery is fitting for a movie about Puritan-esque farmers. But I think it’s more likely that Wes Craven just thinks spiders are scary.
- Much more than his earlier films, Deadly Blessing betrays a giallo influence. The killer is a mystery to the end, which was not the case of, say, The Hills Have Eyes or Last House on the Left, where the baddies were obvious the moment they’re seen. Likewise, there’s an unnatural interest in black leather gloves, flashing knives, and weird paintings, as there is in many of the Italian predecessors to slasher movies.
- One aspect of Deadly Blessing that I felt could be further explored was the horror of Jim and Martha living next door to Jim’s father, Isaiah, who just happens to be the corporal-punishment-happy leader of an ultra-strict Amish-like group. At points, the movie read like a horror version of Everybody Loves Raymond.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Deadly Blessing is not a particularly scary movie, nor a particularly good one. It’s certainly not one of Wes Craven’s best. Perhaps if you were afraid of spiders or snakes you might have a few nightmares from this one. (Indiana Jones, do not watch this.)
Best outfit: The Hittites tend to stay in basic black. But Martha, Vicky, and Lana wear some pretty excellent fashions. If I had to choose one winner, I’d go with Martha’s blue cowgirl look, complete with string tie.
Best line: “She’s so dumb, she couldn’t pour piss from a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel.” – Louisa, proud mother, on her daughter Faith
Best kill: The suspense-filled lead-up to Vicky’s in-car immolation was the best kill by far. Deadly Blessing is short on gore, but that scene wasn’t short on intensity.
Unexpected cameo: Obviously a very young Sharon Stone as Lana Marcus is a pretty good find. She even eats a spider! Jeff East, who plays John Schmidt, is probably best known for playing a young Clark Kent in the original Superman movie. And this film marked the last acting role for Maren Jensen, who you may recognize as Athena from the original Battlestar Galactica show. She contracted Epstein-Barr Syndrome shortly after filming this, and didn’t return to acting after she recovered.
Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Don’t store your chickens in a coffin.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Brimstones for Breakfast
Next up: The House with the Laughing Windows (1976).