Deadly Blessing 1981
aka Bendición Mortal
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Maren Jensen, Sharon Stone, Susan Buckner
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
At first glance, one could be forgiven for believing it was fairly paradoxical that it should be Wes Craven that ended up directing Kevin Williamson’s tribute to the slasher films of the early-eighties. The polished offerings that earned him his reputation up until that point had not actually been the traditional stalk and slash flicks that Scream so lovingly references. Despite what a lot of people assume, A Nightmare on Elm Street was more of a supernatural new style of horror flick than a typical slasher. That isn’t meant as any kind of criticism, because a little originality goes a very long way in this category. At the end of the day though, Freddy Krueger was not a typical slasher movie bogeyman and neither was Horace Pinker from Shocker, which is also often wrongly confused as a formulaic Halloween spin-off. Horace’s ability to merge with electricity and possess his victims spoiled his chances of joining the brand that Mr. Myers and his knife-wielding accomplices frequent with their own stringent guidelines.
It’s a debate that could go on forever and I guess no one is truly ‘right’. For me however, with so many titles that follow the Halloween/Friday the 13th mould so closely, Freddy and the like always just felt a tad too far removed from the initial template and that’s why I don’t consider them to be true stalk and slash flicks. I mean, shouldn’t a ‘slasher’ use a blade or something to ‘slash’ with?
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that Craven did create a rarely-mentioned offering that can neatly slot itself alongside its counterparts and was indeed good enough to rub shoulders with a few of the genre giants. His 1981 opus Deadly Blessing, makes good use of the clichés that hadn’t been so severely overused at the time of its release and he also includes a few authentic ingredients of his own, which mark an intriguing addition to the formula.
This was also an early movie role for the woman who would go on to become one of the eighties’ sexiest leading ladies. She’s famous for the most memorable leg-crossing scene in movie history and also managed at least one credible dramatic performance in Scorsese’s Casino. You guessed it – one of the scrumptious females terrorised by the mystery killer is an extremely young and barely recognisable Sharon Stone.
The Hitties are an Amish-like sect who have built their own community in the secluded hills of a rural area. When a former member of their number is mysteriously murdered in the opening, they lay the blame on his wife, Martha (Maren Jensen) by calling her ‘the incubus’. In order to help with her grief and animosity from the locals, two of her friends drive up from the city to stay with her. After a while, a black-gloved maniac begins cutting his way through the locals and taking a particular interest in the widow and her visitors. Who could be the assassin?
Wes Craven mixes some neat visual flourishes and some superb set pieces to great effect throughout Deadly Blessing. The barn-scene has already made a place for itself amongst horror hits and it’s an electric and pulsating sequence. Lana (Sharon Stone) heads to the farmhouse to find a replacement spark plug for a tractor that the girls have been using for the land work. Once she’s inside, the door and windows slam shut, as if by a supernatural force. Then a mysterious assailant stalks her in one of the tightest and most skilfully crafted sequences of the slasher era. After a successful jump-scare, she finally sees a way out of the claustrophobic nightmare and heads for the exit. Just as she’s about to leave, an earlier victim’s corpse – which was strung up by rope – drops down in front of her, marking the perfect finish to a superb scene. Sharon Stone gets a pretty torrid time in this feature and when she’s not being targeted by the unseen menace, she’s having nightmares about a large spider being dropped in her mouth! (Real spider by the way)
The stalking in the barn isn’t the only moment that shines with the incandescent brim of stylish craftsmanship. There’s a ‘snake in bathtub’ sequence that was equally as spellbinding and Craven flick shows enough confidence in his storytelling to avoid making the movie a total rip-off of it’s peers. Although at heart, this is a slasher film with all the necessary ingredients that keep it in the category, the constant use of snakes and spiders as a skin-crawling alternative to masks and kitchen knifes is very inviting. There is also a satanic sheen and a supernatural twist at the end, which you may not get to see, depending on what version that you own. The IMDB states that the UK release omits that final scene (which is not true), but the Spanish copy that I own definitely doesn’t include it. Yes, the notorious incubus ending does add a bit of a desperate and unnecessary enigma to an otherwise logical story. Don’t blame Craven for this unnecessary inclsion though, apparently it was the decision of over anxious producers.
The experienced cast members do a good job here, especially Ernest Borgnine who is restrained when handling a potential ham-feast. Obviously someone saw enough in Sharon Stone’s somewhat amateur portrayal, which would begin her on the road to mega stardom. It’s worth noting that Lana is probably the most approachable and sympathetic character that she’s ever played. She’s certainly a lot different from the ice-cold personas that Stone would later become famous for.
Blessing has an interesting moral compass with an unusual and authentic pathway on who to root for. The plot touches on subjects such as marriage and adultery, but doesn’t reward either as a rightful path and has no defined stance. Glenn Benest’s script also builds very strong female players and this is especially evident in the climax, which I won’t spoil here. Placing the synopsis around such a religious and respectful sect explores various intriguing notions. Whilst the elders are disgusted about the modern and what they consider to be reckless ways of Martha and her alien city folk friends, the younger males are captivated by their style and easy-natured beauty. Because of the difference in the views of morality between the opposing lifestyles, there are obvious clashes and the slasher rules like ‘have sex and die’ seem all the more prohibited and stand out because of that. Although this is nowhere near as dream focused as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven’s obsession with our sleep subconscious is also utilised here in the aforementioned spider sequence and there’s almost always some nightmare imagery incorporated somewhere in his features. ( Remember the dentist part from Last House on the Left?). In fact, even if the incubus finale does somewhat destroy any coherent structure, it does leave the feature with a dreamlike surreal tone, even if it was unintended.
The only real let down is the somewhat intermittent pacing. A lot more screen-time should have been given to the assailant and the murders are too infrequently placed for my liking. With a fantastic score and good cast to play with, I would have perhaps liked to have seen a few more killings. Still though, it boasts an intriguing story, hot Sharon Stone, polished production and adept direction, so it’s everything a slasher movie needs to be. The jump scares here are very well delivered and the suspense is teeth-clenching. If you can find Deadly Blessing, then it’s definitely worth checking out.
Final Girl √√√√
Scream Uncut 1996
Directed By: Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Rose McGowan
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
When I was growing up on the mean streets of London, I never really shared my love for slashers with the kids that I associated with. I guess it’s because it can be considered a strange hobby. Why do I spend so much money and effort tracking down these rarities? I mean they hardly ever offer any artistic reward. It’s also a topic that can be somewhat misinterpreted. Does the politically correct brigade think it is right for someone to watch horror movie after horror movie? Nowadays I couldn’t care less, but back in those times, it wasn’t something that I particularly wanted to broadcast.
When my girlfriend of the time came around and told me that she’d just seen Scream, she unwittingly opened a crammed can of worms that she probably regrets to this day. I revealed to her my darkest secret – my love of the humble slasher – and took great pleasure in setting up a planned viewing schedule for the next twenty years.
I had an excuse from then on to roll out the stalk and slash collection with lines like, ‘It’s just like Scream’ or ‘Remember, you said that you loved Scream…’! Now you know why we are no longer in contact…
We all know by now that Wes Craven’s tribute to the slasher genre reinvigorated the cycle and gave it another gallon of petrol in the tank that would keep DTV merchants in business long after its day of release. Looking back though after all these years, is it really that good? Does it deserve to share the stage with Halloween?
A small Californian town that is still reeling from a ruthless murder a year earlier becomes the target of a masked killer. A group of youngsters realise that the psycho is playing games that follow the rules set out in the movies. Do they have enough knowledge of the guidelines to know what they need to do to survive?
All great horror movies need the right opening sequence. It’s an unwritten rule. How many truly scary films have you seen that don’t start with an edge of your seat intro? That’s right, there are none that I can think of either. Scream raises the bar from that terrific and startling launch scene; – and the first victim to get slashed is a seasoned Hollywood star. I remember being intoxicated on my initial viewing, especially with the line, ‘I want you to drive down the street to the Mackenzie’s house‘. It was like all my secret passions were being rolled out for examination for a new generation and it captivated me.
Whilst we are on the subject of rules, Scream is notorious for underlining the majority of them and twisting them inside out to make good use of their repetition. Almost every victim here puts up a good fight with the antagonist and none of them fall foul of making the usual bad route of escape decisions. What sets Scream apart from the likes of Return to Horror High and April Fool’s Day, which also attempted to mock the trappings, is that it pays homage with more intelligence and a higher form of cinematic energy that only an adept horror craftsman could have provided. Craven uses every trick in his repertoire and let’s none of them go to waste. Some of the photography here, like the shot of Sidney’s house in the sunset, is breathtaking and I loved the bouncing movement in the looming tracking shots. Despite Craven’s standing in horror as one of the greats, he is not the most consistent filmmaker and is as capable of releasing a big miss (Shocker) as he is of helming a skilled submission (Deadly Blessing). Here he finds the perfect balance of his trademarks and it’s among the best titles of his illustrious resume.
The film’s true quality is in its witty self reference and ability to take each mood to its maximum potential. The gags are fresh and don’t feel overdone, but when Scream wants to be scary, it does so with ease. There’s something foreboding about the way that the killer is always one step ahead of his intended prey and his ruthless ‘games’ take the development of his victims to a new level. These guys don’t want to die and through good acting and smart scripting, you share their suffering. During the first sequence, Casey is dragged to her doom whilst still clenching her phone. When her parents return to the smashed up abode, the first thing they do is attempt to get on the line to the police. What they hear is the dying breath of their daughter as she is pulled along the ground, because she is still connected. It’s a grimly disturbing set-piece and sets a tone that plays in stark contrast with the lighter moments. The fact that a recognised movie face was the one getting slaughtered gives Scream an ‘anything can happen’ vibe and it continues with its panache for breaking limitations. Newcomer Kevin Williamson’s script is sharp, but is guilty of perhaps expecting a tad too much from some of its gimmicks. With that said, it is never feels underwritten or lacking in continuity.
The performances are excellent throughout, with a career best (in movies) for Courtney Cox and a solid turn from all of the youngsters. I especially appreciated Matthew Lillard’s ‘break all boundaries’ portrayal and Skeet Ulrich handled the different depths that we were meant to see in his character with finesse. What I didn’t like about the movie and it is perhaps due to personal taste was the conceited MTV style of its charecterisations. I much prefer a set up like Freak or Coda that casts its characters as normal everyday folk, because it makes the terror seem much closer to home. Take a walk through your local town on a Saturday afternoon, how many rich, beautiful people do you see? Are they the type that fill you with sympathy? Can you truly relate to someone with a sugar daddy and a smug air of arrogance? Maybe it’s because I am a working class kid that grew up in worst parts of London, but personally I prefer to go for realism. I can’t remember the last time that I felt true bonding with a modern day slasher heroine. Perhaps I am just getting old.
Scream’s comedic style hasn’t aged well and it’s interesting that whilst being the launch pad for the modern day slasher, it suffered the same fate as it’s forefather, Halloween and was blatantly copied to death. After not watching this for ten or more years, the movie had lost some of its impact, but that’s only because I have seen all these tricks more recently in poorer clones. Scream still made my heart beat rapidly, which is a feeling that I’m always looking for, but struggle to find in the newer flicks that I watch. Perhaps my biggest regret is that I never saw this at the cinema when it was first released, because I can imagine it being an absolutely amazing experience, especially for true fans of the genre like us.
This is still a SLASH above when it comes to horror films and shows what can be done with the slasher genre if it is well funded and competently produced. Buy some popcorn and a few beers and give it another blast. I’m glad that I did.
Final Girl √√