Blessed With a Plot Twist, Cursed With the Main Plot

by Arthur B

Deadly Blessing is kind of a weird transphobic mess.
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Out somewhere in the vast American countryside is a little farming community where the agrarian Hittites - a religious commune with a similar distaste for modern technology and dress sense to the Amish, but with substantially stricter internal rules - live next door to neighbours of a far more conventional and modern bent.

Caught between the two communities are Martha and Jim Schmidt (Maren Jensen and Douglas Barr). Jim is the son of Hittite leader Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), and inherited from his family the farm and farmhouse called Our Blessing. But he is no longer with the Hittites; the first of the sect to go to the big city (Los Angeles, in this case) to get an education, he learned worldly ways and met and married Martha, an outsider, and brought her back as his wife. That was more than enough to get him expelled by Isaiah - causing greatly conflicted feelings in John (Jeff East), Jim’s brother who stayed at home and remains a devout Hittite.

One day, a nasty incident - I hesitate to call it an accident when there’s so much implication there isn’t - happens in the barn, killing Jim. Martha is pregnant with Jim’s child, and reaches out for support - both to her neighbour Louisa Stohler (Lois Nettleton) and Louisa’s daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman) and to a pair of her old college pals, Lana Marcus (Sharon Stone) and Vicky Anderson (Susan Buckner). Martha wants to at least stick around on the farm until Jim’s child is born, but has to contend with various troubles, the most obvious being the hostility of the Hittites. Isaiah makes it clear that he’ll gladly buy Our Blessing from her at a very generous price - with the unspoken corollary that she go far away back to the big city - but she refuses; tension also arises from Vicky and John being very obviously attracted to each other.

And then there’s William Gluntz (Michael Berryman - perhaps most famous as the iconic lead cannibal from The Hills Have Eyes). William, who won’t stop pestering Faith (who, for her part, exhibits a decidedly unusual view of the world through her painting - one more appropriate to a macabre surrealist than the unsophisticated farm girl she appears to be). William, from whom Martha first hears the word “Incubus” - denoting some evil force that the Hittites regard Martha and much of the outside world to be under the influence of. William, who can’t seem to leave the Our Blessing farm alone. William… whose stabbed corpse is discovered hanging in Our Blessing’s barn, under circumstances which make it clear that someone or something is out to terrorise Martha and her friends. Just what are we dealing with here - a slasher with a grudge against Martha, someone out to hurt both her and her quasi-Anabaptist neighbours, or something outright supernatural?

Deadly Blessing is an odd beast. I watched it once on television some decades ago, but I really don’t think I had the grounding in horror cinema necessary to fully appreciate it. Director Wes Craven and his co-writers, Glenn M. Benest and Matthew Barr, seem to be cooking up here a melange of the classic slasher movie with its artsy giallo predecessors, combined with a heavy dose of a sort of Americanised take on the folk horror of late 1960s and early 1970s British horror cinema. (In fact, I’d put it next to Children of the Corn as an early stab at an American form of folk horror.)

Part of that horror hails from a mistrust of small religious sects, and in particular the scope for extreme insularity, bigotry, authoritarianism and unchecked abuse and cruelty which happens when people set themselves apart from the rest of the world and place their safety and well-being in the hands of extremist religious leaders. The Hittite service, presided over by Borgnine in perhaps the most malevolent performance anyone has ever evoked from him, is a terror to behold, particularly in the corporal punishment meted out to congregation members - even children. We see further instances of his cruelty later - such as in his willingness later to mete out similar punishment to his adult son John (John having behaved like an utter shit to his cousin Melissa (Colleen Riley)), and the immediately following sequence in which he formally expels John from the community. Such scenes present the absolute worst side of Isaiah as a tyrant - someone who has used his theological leadership role in the community to effectively set himself up as a priest-king over his community.

And yet this isn’t quite the anti-Anabaptist hit piece it might otherwise have been. (And no, you don’t get to claim your movie isn’t making grim suggestions about a real demographic of people just because you change the name of the religion involved - if they’re all dressing like Amish, it’s going to look like you’re saying something about the Amish.) Let’s not forget that the Hittites are victims of the killer here too. In fact, when you recall that Jim was an ex-Hittite, the first 3 people who die are either active members of the community or have Hittite origins.

Berryman’s role as William is small but notable, and is key to establishing that the Hittites are sinned against as well as sinners in this scenario. Having made him a figure of fear in The Hills Have Eyes, Craven seems to have wanted to give him a bit of a more nuanced role to chew on. It’s not quite Lennie from Of Mice and Men - Berryman’s performance is somewhat more nuanced and broad than the narrow stereotype of the character - but it’s in the same realm. When he starts peeping in on the women undressing in the Our Blessing farmhouse, Craven’s bluff that William is going to be the slasher reaches its peak - but as we see that his fascination, whilst inappropriate, is basically that of someone having a nervous sexual awakening rather than some sort of eruption of misogyny, we also realise what the scenes with him so far have implied - that his physical difference is also the mark of cognitive and developmental issues, that the description Isaiah later gives of him as an “innocent man-child”, whilst problematic in a bunch of ways, is an unfortunate way of expressing something about the character which is basically more or less true. There’s something outright endearing about seeing Berryman scampering about with the boys of the community, and it’s evident from his interactions with the kids that if anything

The extent to which the supernatural at work is in the movie is really hard to assess - it may, indeed, be partly a matter of faith. In its earliest scenes, with William and others issuing dire warnings about the Incubus and Faith painting her eldritch paintings and grim choral chanting breaking out on the soundtrack as the Hittites mass at Jim’s funeral which I swear was deliberately designed to remind the viewer of The Omen, all the signals seem to be setting us up for either overtly supernatural horror or a curiously inverted version of The Omen itself - one in which the Hittites have become convinced that Martha’s child is the spawn of the Devil, and Martha must contend with their efforts to save the world from her offspring.

Then there’s the weird gear shift that happens when the knife slides home in William’s back. At that point onwards the movie switches to slasher/giallo mode (the latter coming out in the classic “dark shoes, dark coat, dark gloves” shots of the killer), with every indication that the main worry is entirely natural. But there’s these curious incidents which don’t entirely let us forget the supernatural implications. Lana’s been having these awful dreams, for one thing, and for another Melissa seems to have a curious awareness of what John is up to in the dead of night. Thus, very late in the movie when a final twist sets everything into a different context, it doesn’t feel like the cheap “aha, gotcha!” moment that it might come across as if you just read a full synopsis of the plot.

Before you get to that ending, though, there’s a glibly transphobic and homophobic angle surrounding the killer’s identity. It’s one of those 1980s takes on LGBT+ issues that are really sloppy about the distinction between gender and sexuality, possibly because society in general was fuzzy on the point at that time, and it kind of ruins the movie for me. There may also be an anti-feminist spin to it to - with the implication that a particular character was raised as a woman because her mother really, really hates men.

Weirdly, though, whilst in most other movies the revelation of the killer's identity would be the culmination of the main plot, the final twist combined with the supernatural implications of the first act means that the whole thing was a prolonged red herring which got out of control. The sheer audacity of the final sequence makes all that have come before seem like mere shadows on a wall next to an ultimate reality which cares neither for the mundane explanation of who the real killer is or the theological clutching at straws of the Hittites (who, it turns out, don’t really seem to know who the true Incubus is at all). That’s even considering the sheer cheesiness of the monster itself - beaten for sheer unconvincingness only by the fake rubber chest the killer’s actress wears to hide her actual boobs when she goes topless.

Nonetheless, as audacious and trollish as the twist ending is, in retrospect I just don't feel like the movie holds up when it comes to rewatches. The transphobia has dated horribly, and too many incidents are not really properly connected to the rest of the movie; for instance, the aforementioned public punishment in the worship service, whilst a powerful scene taken in isolation, doesn't advance either the apparent main plot or the actual supernatural story and doesn't seem to have any consequences. Ultimately, Deadly Blessing doesn't present a fully developed narrative so much as it offers up a bunch of ideas from the writers' notes with only scanty connecting tissue stringing them together. It says something for Craven's skill as a director that he's able to hide this on a first viewing, but not even he can conceal it on a rewatch.
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at 01:48 on 2018-11-19
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