Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Reserved Seating: DEADLY BLESSING

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo that makes the Amish look like swingers.

Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our final #ScaryMovieMonth 2018 review is Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing (1981). It stars Maren Jensen as Martha, recent widow of Jim (Douglas Barr), who walked away from his traditionalist Christian community when the two married. Martha’s friends Lana (Sharon Stone, in her first major film role) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) soon arrive to help her cope with her husband’s mysterious death, but the three women find themselves continually harassed by Jim’s father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), the strict leader of the Christian community. Isaiah labels Martha the “incubus,” a demon that tempts the faithful with sinful acts (Side note: I’m pretty sure he means “succubus,” as the incubus is traditionally male, but whatever), and warns his flock to avoid her at all costs. However, Jim’s brother John (Jeff East), who is set to wed his cousin Melissa (Colleen Riley), quickly becomes infatuated with Vicky. As tension builds within the community, a masked killer begins picking them off one by one.

This was my first viewing of Deadly Blessing, and while I didn’t find it all that engaging on its own, I can definitely appreciate it as an early technical display from the man who would direct A Nightmare on Elm Street only a few years later. Wes Craven’s work here is economical yet stylish (featuring the “between-the-legs-in-the-bath” shot that he’ll later steal from himself for Nightmare), creating a nice baseline for what would come next. It’s a good looking movie, at least, even if there are a few too many characters and subplots to really engage with it on a human level.

Adam, what did you think of Deadly Blessing?
Adam: This is both a difficult and easy movie to talk about because there are so many directions we can go. Compared with other entries in his filmography, Deadly Blessing is not one of my favorite Wes Craven movies. On the other hand, it may be more interesting than films of his I think are better than Deadly Blessing (e.g. Red Eye). I’m a really big fan of Wes Craven (of the Masters of Horror, he’s the one whose movies I like the most), so I’m predisposed to appreciating his films even when I can’t engage with them entirely. I was interested while Deadly Blessing played, but I was having trouble connecting with it. I think it works best as (same as what you said) a Wes Craven word search, where references from his later films are across, backwards, vertical and diagonal in this movie. To name a few, the two killers instead of one (Scream), the bathtub shot you mentioned (A Nightmare on Elm Street), deceased loved ones coming back to warn the living (Shocker), etc.

My two favorite aspects of the movie are the lead performance by Maren Jensen, who is pleasant, naturalistic, and resourceful (plus, looks like 1981 Lucy Hale), and the film’s sense of mystery. Deadly Blessing is a movie that is so all over the place that you feel like anything can happen in every scene. I read a review while I was watching the movie and it pointed out the Incubus being the Ernest Borgnine character’s id, which is something I would have never thought of on my own, but makes just as much sense as anything else, so why not?

Did you think the movie was “about something” in terms of theme? I felt a lot of ideas, but I’m not sure if it streamlines into something or if it’s more an artist spilling everything onto the screen because he has so much he wants to say.
Rob: See, that’s a really great way to approach my issues with the movie. Just look at the premise: A fire-and-brimstone religious sect squaring-off with a trio of free-spirited young women as a faceless slasher picks them all off? There’s so much potential there! Is it the girls? Is it the disciples? What’s motivating the murders? It’s juicy as hell. But does Deadly Blessing really interweave and explore those themes in an effective way? It’s debatable. For one, the religious extremism only affects the plot in as far as it keeps certain characters (who don’t last long, anyway) apart for a brief period of time. The characters most affected by Isaiah’s proselytizing (Jim and John, his sons) don’t end up with significant character arcs, or at least not arcs that influence Martha’s after the first act. And does Martha have meaningful interactions with Isaiah? Not really. She has these fleeting encounters with the matronly Louisa (Lois Nettleton) which, while they serve a purpose later, feel so nebulous and cryptic that nothing feels satisfying at the end. So many of the opportunities for mystery and drama are totally squandered by this kind of sloppiness.

Nor do the men tempted by the free-spirited, braless-jogging women get time to explore the nature of that temptation. There’s so much to the idea of repressed, religious aggression boiling over into violence, but Deadly Blessing isn’t about that, either. I’m edging around spoilers again, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in taking a side when it comes to the religious and social elements it presents, which makes it even harder to figure out what we’re supposed to take away. And then there’s a final scare that (like Nightmare) muddles things even more! It’s so frustrating. It points me toward the movie not actually being “about” anything.

But we know Craven can do this right. Take Scream, for example: The characters are constantly debating the influence of scary movies on real behavior. Randy, Stu, Tatum, and Billy make references and callbacks, trying to navigate their way through the mystery using the genre savvy they’ve already demonstrated. Sidney pushes against that; Her life is an actual horror movie. It’s not cute. It’s not a joke. She resists her role as a Final Girl until the last possible moment. This is what makes the last act of that movie such a brilliant confrontation of ideologies! This isn’t to say that all movies have to be metatextual inversions, but nothing in Deadly Blessing really approaches that level of thematic complexity. Which, again, is okay! Craven is practicing. But that’s all this really is. Practice.
Adam: Now I want to watch Scream. That movie is so damn good!

What I got most out of Deadly Blessing thematically is that religion is (brace yourselves everyone and I don’t mean to offend) an easily corruptible force. I don’t think the movie executes this well, but the biggest problem is that the Hittite community in the film can’t not bother those outside of their faith. Even if the women are looking to mind their own business, this supernatural demon, or the killers, or Ernest Borgnine are bugging them and it all goes back to the Hittites.

Rob: Agreed, which made it so much more frustrating that the movie doesn’t do much with them. I don’t want to say they’re a red herring, but they’re kind of a red herring.

Adam: I know Wes Craven grew up very religious and later turned away from his upbringing, so the movie can’t help but feel rich in that personal experience. I just don’t think his storytelling sensibility is there yet to express these emotions in a clear way through a plot. The movie is as confused as its author and that’s ok. It makes for a fascinating experience. I’ll take this movie all day over his other Deadly movie.

Rob: I’ve never seen Deadly Friend. Not even Kristy Swanson can save it, huh?

Adam: It’s not very good at all. Going back to Deadly Blessing...what did you think of Sharon Stone? For me, every sentence was an adventure. She reminded me a lot of myself when I did my one and only play in Chicago where I got very actor-y with my script and wrote/rehearsed ACTIVE CHOICES, but the problem was everyone watching my performance could see my ACTIVE CHOICE in every beat. I wish I had a documentary during my “An Actor Prepares” phase. You specifically would find it very funny. I was bad. It’s why I have so much respect for actors.
Rob: I refuse to believe anything you do is bad, but I can definitely see that footage having a certain unpracticed charm to it. Anyway, I have to admit that I didn’t think much of any of the performances (next to Jensen and the bug-eyed Ernest Borgnine, of course). That probably has more to do with the writing than the acting, though. It’s all so thin. Speaking of barely there (Transition!), how about that poster? I like the way it takes an iconic image from the movie and adds excessive cleavage. It’s somehow both insincere and more honest than many slasher posters.

Adam: Is that even Sharon Stone?
I’m going to give Deadly Blessing a marginal Mark Ahn. Three questions for you as we close, and you give your rating:

1. Now that we’re at the end of Scary Movie Month, what were some of your favorite new discoveries?
2. Is there a Wes Craven movie you feel is his most underrated that you want to call out here?
3. What are your three favorite Incubus songs?

Rob: The only new favorite that I’ll add since our last discussion is The Return of the Living Dead. I know I’m a garbage person for not having seen it already, but it was one of those movies I never bothered sitting down for because I’d already ingested so much of it through pop culture osmosis throughout the years. It’s amazing, obviously. That’s not news to anyone.

Adam: Yep, that’s a good one. RIP James Karen. My favorite new-to-me’s (that I didn’t mention last week) have been Vampire’s Kiss (even though I have a lot of problems with its office abuse subplot), The Monster Club, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which took me a week to finish, but it’s good and better than its lukewarm reputation.

Rob: I’m probably the wrong person to ask about underrated West Craven movies, as he’s the Horror Master whose filmography I have the least command of (Major gaps include the aforementioned Deadly Friend, Swamp Thing, and Vampire in Brooklyn). But I’ve been wanting to revisit Red Eye since I used a few clips in my class a while back. I haven’t seen it since the theater.

Adam: I remember loving Rachel McAdams in that movie and thinking everything on the plane was strong, but it derailed when it got to the third act. My underrated Wes Craven is The Serpent and the Rainbow. It’s legit scary and kind of fades into the background in conversation about Craven because A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream are so seminal.
Rob: Speaking of 2005, I was going to Google “Incubus songs” to remind myself of some of their hits. I’ll try to do it without that, though. Did they have a song called “Excuse Me”? I’m not talking about “Pardon Me.” I know that one. I thought they had another one with those lyrics. Maybe not. “Wish I Was Here”? Wait. That’s the Zach Braff movie. It’s something like that. I just remember a girl I worked with at my high school supermarket job being obsessed with them. She had peace signs all over her vest and said she was going to name her first kid Brandon. I wonder if she actually did that. Anyway, I’ll leave the rankings to you. I’m Mark Off on Deadly Blessing.

Adam: You should never guess Incubus songs. I was WAY into them my freshman year of college. Their angst made sense with my angst. My favorite songs of theirs are "Anna Molly," "Isadore," "Stellar," "Warning," and "Wish You Were Here." I’m going to listen to some Incubus now as I work on this spreadsheet. What are we talking about next week?

Rob: Our All Pacino series returns with a bang as we cover Dog Day Afternoon. John Cazale alert! Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. I was looking forward to this and it certainly did not disappoint. This was my 5th favorite first time watch for the month. I loved it. I agree with all of the cons you guys stated, but the movie was just working on me with so much positive feelings. I had just watched The Devils Rain also w/ Borgnine and although hes playing a satanic character, he's basically giving the same performance in Deadly Blessing, or, at least to the same effect, so that may have made me more excited for what I was seeing. I loved the weirdness of the end, with the gender reveal aspect. So weird, so 80s. All the female characters were just killing it in some way or another. Sharon Stone's first performance and as the story goes she and Wes didnt get along and he literally wouldnt direct her at all and that shows, but it didnt derail anything for me.

  2. Also, since you watched Frankenstein, one of my favorite De Niro stories comes from the production of that movie, told by Branagh. Before the filming, when they were trying to figure out what they wanted the Monster to look like and the direction they were going to go in, De Niro wanted him to look a certain way but he couldnt really describe it or get out in words what his specifications were. The next day in meetings, De Niro came equipped with some photos of a recently slain man on the site of a grisly murder, and said "this is it. Make me look this poor guy." According to Branagh, he said something like "Jesus Christ, Bob, this just happened like, a few hours ago how in the hell did you get these? And De Niro just said, "I know a guy."

  3. Maybe Deadly Blessing needed a Rumspringa sequence to tie thing together.(I've never seen the movie, maybe there is?)