The F*cking Black Sheep: Deadly Blessing (1981)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!




Off top, what’s your all-time favorite Wes Craven flick? Now, aside from personal favorites, if you had to name Craven’s most lasting and indelibly iconic horror flicks, what would they be? Gotta nominate THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and SCREAM, right? What was that? F*ck out of here with VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN! How dare you!

Japes and jests away, if we were to argue the flipside of the subject, I would make the strongest case that, apart from the obscure made-for-television joints, Craven’s least seen, rarely discussed and truly most underappreciated horror flick to this day is his 1981 sick slasher, insidious-incubi incursion of the distressing medley, DEADLY BLESSING. Damn this movie deserves more love! Not only does the film plumb the depraved depths of a subject matter Craven had never before explored, remember, Craven was set to become a preacher prior to embarking on a career in Hollywood, so it stands to reason that the film’s piously charged themes make DEADLY BLESSING one of Craven’s most personal films as well. The fact the flick has a paltry 17% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, averaging a lowly 4.4/10 rating from critics, and boasted the undignified Razzie nomination for Ernest Borgnine as Worst Supporting Actor of 1981, only reinforces how woefully disrespected the flick has remained over the past four decades or so. Not today though, folks. F*ck all that! Today we stick up for what is a criminally slept on and unwisely cast aside chiller from one of the genre’s all time masters. You know what’s up, let’s rip into why DEADLY BLESSING is a F*cking Black Sheep below!

Co-written with Craven by Glenn M. Benest (THE FORGOTTEN) and Matthew Barr (SUMMER OF FEAR), one of the things I love so much about DEADLY BLESSING that surely turned a lot of folks off is its undefined, oddball compendium of various horror subsets. On its face, the film is a religious horror flick. Yet, as it unspools, it becomes a Giallo-like slasher whodunit that also incorporates elements of the creature feature (snakes, spiders, etc.). By the time the flick comes full circle to its climactic reveal, the movie reverts back to its piercingly pious eruption of pure evil. The amorphous nature of the films substrata is among its most commendable traits, even if such a potently jolting brew left many with an odd aftertaste.

Now on to the actual story. On a rurally isolated farm known as “Our Blessing,” Martha (Maren Jensen) and Jim (Douglas Barr) live among an Amish-like religious community known as the Hittites (didn’t Venkman make a crack about Hittites in GHOSTBUSTERS?) who are so solemnly devout that make their bearded-brethren “look like swingers.” Jim used to be a Hittite but disavowed years ago. A deformed hill-dweller named Gluntz (perfect named for Michael Berryman’s scary ass) harasses Martha by repeatedly calling her the Incubus after Jim tells neighbor Louisa (Lois Nettleton) that Martha is expecting a baby. Louisa’s daughter Faith (Lisa Harman) is to act as Jim and Martha’s midwife. However, plans are wickedly wrenched when Jim is mysteriously murdered in a so-called tractor accident inside his barn by an unknown assailant. When Gluntz is murdered in kind, the Hittite leader Isaiah (Borgnine) arrives in a mortifying Pilgrim hat and bushy chin-beard, spouting all kinds of ludicrous warnings of the devil’s ascent from hell. Meanwhile, Martha’s friends Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) shows up for Jim’s funerary consolation, putting themselves in precarious positions of piously-plotted torment. To this end, the chant-like drone of James Horner’s brilliantly understated score drive right to the heart of the matter.

Before we dive into the second-half plot twists and well turned story beats, let’s get into a couple of sequences that, as far as sheer visceral terror goes, kick all kinds of ass. The first has to be the scene that Craven conjured in a dream he had one night, and one he would recycle three years later to create one of the all-time scariest horror movie sequences. Yes, that f*cking bathtub scene! For those who’ve not seen DEADLY BLESSING (we hope this article rectifies that), there’s a scene in which Martha rests and relaxes with her eyes closed while enjoying a bubble bath. Our mysterious murderer slinks into the steamy bathroom and dumps a goddamn snake onto the floor below the tub. The snake (a real snake, mind you, no fake looking CG or animatronics) slithers its way into the bubble bath with Martha completely oblivious. Just as Freddy Krueger’s glove slowly emerges from the water between Nancy’s leg, the exact same thing happens to Martha with the snake. And honestly, I think it’s a far more alarming scene than the one recreated in ELM STREET, as it not only strips away the perverted aspect of Krueger’s motives, but the battle that ensures between Martha and the snake is far more intense and protracted. Furthermore, Martha isn’t dreaming, it’s truly happening to her.

The second most memorable scene, if not the first, is the one in which poor Lana has a goddamn tarantula dropped from the ceiling into her open maw while sleeping. Yo! Word is Stone was so terrified of filming such a scene that she convinced producers to defang the spider or she wouldn’t do it. The producers complied and the shot was achieved. But the way in which the spider motif is used throughout the film, all leading up to that one show-stopping instance, really transcends the movie from being just another religious horror film, and/or just another 80s slasher joint, and instead synthesizes something altogether new. Spiders, just like snakes, are natural phobias humans have suffered from for eons, so to incorporate those fears with similarly ancient fears of the incubus/succubus, Craven is tying together a number of DEADLY BLESSINGS that work in unison with one another. I love the various incarnations of evil in the film, as it prevents the climactic reveal from being predictable and keeps the audience unsure of exactly what to expect.

But where DEADLY BLESSING remains the most underrated is in its densely divulged and deeply disquieting denouement. Just as Craven reused the infamous bathtub scene in ELM STREET, let’s be very honest, he also employed the dual-killer-culprit from DEADLY BLESSING in SCREAM. Indeed, very few third-act reveals come as shocking as that in DEADLY BLESSING (SLEEPAWAY CAMP comes to mind, which was released two years after). Not only does it turn out that Louisa and her daughter Faith are working in homicidal tandem, itself a jaw-dropping revelation for any slasher joint, but when a tussle ensues that rips Faith’s shirt open, we learn she wasn’t a woman at all, but a trans-man who was in love with Martha the entire time. Talk about an all time WTF moment!

And then, if matters couldn’t become any nastier or knottier, the film comes full circle back to the inculpated incubus. Now, we’ll have you know that the ending of the film, in which the incubus ascends from the bowels of hell up through the floor of Martha’s cabin, was foisted on Craven by producers. Wes did not intend to end his film in such a manor, which could also account for why the somewhat confusing conclusion never caught on with audiences. In the end, the religious subplot of the Hittites proves true, even when the murders in the film prove it to be a bit of a red herring as well. What we’re left with is a vengeful slasher whodunit back-dropped by an environment of abject religious zealotry. Like a Venn diagram, the two plotlines overlap in a concentrically circular way, even if both extremes (slasher, religion) have little to do with each other in the context of the story. Craven’s masterful misdirection makes all the difference!

Anyway you cut, carve, slice, dice and throw it on ice, DEADLY BLESSING is an iniquitously overlooked Wes Craven horror gem. Not only does it tackle a personal topic for Craven, a topic he’d never attempted before or much after, its multi-pronged horror assault of a slasher whodunit, secret satanic scourge, and old-school creature feature catapult the overall experience into a new, rarified air. The film features ideas that Craven would subsequently use in more commercial movies, with some aspects improving (the double serial murderers, a la SCREAM), some refining (bathtub scene, a la ELM STREET), with all of them combining to give us a similar reaction of shock and awe that we all felt when visiting THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. No doubt about it, DEADLY BLESSING has bits of the best Craven had to offer us. RIP Wes, we’re eternally grateful and terminally frightful!





Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie.