Sins Like Scarlet: On Wes Craven’s “Deadly Blessing” (1981)

by cwellum

When Wes Craven admitted his reluctance to helm a horror film as his first feature, his producing partner Sean S Cunningham assured the then college professor that he was perfect for the job. “You were raised fundamentalist …Use it!”[1], Cunningham declared. The resultant rape-revenge film, a fractured retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1961), Last House on the Left (1972), was a film that critics (Roger Ebert [RIP] was a notable exception) at the time decried as reprehensible, repugnant, repulsive; in other words, box office gold. The film became an audience litmus test for permissible cinematic material.[2] Nine years later, Craven’s third feature would take themes from his Baptist upbringing: apostasy, fear, intolerance, repression and bring them to the fore in his film Deadly Blessing (1981).

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The film opens with a black and white montage of still images. The impression is of watching a succession of slides from an old 16mm educational film about an antiquated rural farming community. As the images progress from b/w to color and from still imagery to movement, sonorous narration informs us that this is an agricultural populace “untouched by time”: a community of Hittites, Craven’s fictional sect (and most likely modelled on the Huterittes)[3]; staunchly traditional and steadfastly insular, this is a society which embraces the rustic simplicity. If the opening moments of the film seem a paean to the wholesome pleasures of the bucolic, Craven belies this instantly with the beginning strains of James Horner’s score, discordant notes with a satanic-sounding choir. He furthers this impression with the film proper opening on scenes of the presumably quotidian lot of these individuals: phalanxes of sartorially (drably) and similarly dressed individuals bent-forward in backbreaking fashion, hoeing and raking the fields. Craven depicts lines of Amish automatons bound by conformity and overseen by the community elder Isaiah Schmidt (Ernest Borgnine). Borgnine’s performance is a series of severe scowls. He is so gruff, stern, and dyspeptic; he is like a Mennonite Yosemite Sam. Elder Isaiah is so unyielding in his veneration, so unswerving in his command of his flock he mars the solemnity of a funeral to make a public display of corporal punishment; thrashing repeatedly a little boy across the hands for his perceived disobedience.

Ernest Borgnine as the dyspeptic Isaiah Schmidt.

Ernest Borgnine as the dyspeptic Isaiah Schmidt.

The sameness of these men, the children who are miniature simulacrums, the impression of an assembly line, this drudgery elicits a feeling of monotony, tedium and cultishness. This ascetic farming work ethic is mocked by Craven with the first clue that this is not a period piece. Amongst the raking and hoeing is the sound of an engine starting. A massive John Deere tractor is deliberately juxtaposed with the work of the Hittites. Driven by one man, the machine can do the work of dozens of apostles. Riding the tractor is Jim (Douglas Barr), an excommunicated member of the sect, and former son of Isaiah (“He is dead to us”), but now happily married to his city-gal Martha (Maren Jensen), and living in a somewhat uneasy propinquity with his former congregation. When Jim’s brother John (Jeff East), still among the flock, waves at him from his horse-drawn buggy, Isaiah, admonishes John, ‘Do not covet what he has, we have no use for that kind of machinery’. Craven makes obvious the foolishness of such a position: a farming community shunning something that would make their life that much contented: an example of their stubborn traditionalist philosophy. This is made manifest when a group of young Hittites sneak into John’s “forbidden barn” and marvel at the magnitude of the machinery therein.

What Craven manufactures is a larger community of disparate individuals living in agrarian antagonism with each other. The deserter Jim lives alongside the Hittites, and beside them all are a couple of true outcasts, Louisa (Lois Nettleton) and her daughter Faith (Lisa Hartman). Boundaries are barely observed. William, a man/child Hittite, continually pesters Faith by calling her an ‘Incubus’, an ancient demon in male form who lies with sleeping women and has intercourse with them, basically a rapist. His exhortation ‘Death to the Incubus’ will prove surprisingly prescient when Faith is indeed killed at the end.

The ironically-named Faith is of course the fulcrum of the film. When first seen she is painting a landscape, an image of Jim’s homestead ‘Our Blessing’. Her canvas, with its inwardly warped and skewed imagery suggests a contorted Wyethesque landscape. Seen through her eyes, this is not surprising. Faith who, by the film’s climax, is revealed to be “half and half” as her mother describes her, is an oddity that a backward thinking community of traditionalists such as the Hittite’s would never know how to deal with. Faith’s hermaphrodictic biology would naturally be viewed as a deformity, unnatural and demonic by such an especially stringent and rigid thinking sect. Her feminine guise is the easiest pretense for her to maintain, and thus the one her mother Louisa insists upon. Her inherent gender amalgamation provides the sexual politics in the film; a commingling of the misandrist and the misogynist. Finding her daughter painting, Louisa asks why Faith “can’t paint her toenails like other girls do”. It’s clear that Louisa is doing her best to maintain the illusion of having a daughter. Abandoned after the birth of her strange baby by her husband, it is not surprising Louisa has misandrous feelings: “Men around here are hopeless..I swear if Faith had been a boy I think I’d’ve stuck her in the river like a sack of kittens…I guess my old man made me hate the whole breed”.

The patriarchal hegemony of the Hittites makes its female folk virtually invisible. Cloaked from head to toe in black with a white bonnet, they are a rabidly desexualized group. The one female sect member given any prominence is Isaiah’s niece Melissa (Colleen Riley). Betrothed to John, she suffers a near-rape by him, when he tells her how difficult it is ‘to wait’ for sexual release. Left slightly unhinged by the near sexual assault, she eventually unmasks Faith and kills her.

While Jim and Martha make love, someone, presumably Faith (Craven settles for the standard horror film P.O.V. shot) observes from outside the open bedroom door. Afterward, hearing a noise in the barn, Jim decides to investigate and is killed. Ironically he is crushed by his John Deere. Isaiah’s symbol of modernity, ease and technology ends the life of the former Hittite.

Devastated by the death, Martha is visited by two of her city friends Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner). Now ‘Our Blessing’ is home to a Trinity of attractive females. While the three lovely ladies have the look of Angels, the Hittite’s view them as Demons, whose biblical counterparts recall temptresses and witches such as Delilah, Jezebel, and Lilith. Their appearance, predictably, brings about a rift in the Hittite community; a seismic release in sexual pressure. John, unused to seeing a woman jogging braless and in short shorts, (and this being standard running garb, Vicky is unaware of her allure amongst this group of repressed males) is instantly besotted with Vicky. Although betrothed to Melissa, he is besotted by the modern, urbane woman. Shopping for wedding apparel with Melissa, he suggests the more revealing dress, the one with the low neckline. Melissa wants the “proper” dress, one that is far more modest. It is evidently his acquaintanceship with Vicky that roils inside and explodes in his sexually aggressive behavior; getting Melissa alone, throwing her on the ground in broad daylight (he is beyond caring about propriety) and pleading with her about “how hard” it is to wait. He rips her maidenly attire, but Melissa escapes back home. John is assured by Isaiah that he is now a “stench in the nostrils of God”. He deserts, and runs off to find Vicky.[4] Man/child William (Michael Berryman) sins by spying on a naked Martha. Craven plainly shows William’s voyeuristic act as transgressive by having continuous close ups of William’s eyes engorging with the sight of Martha’s disrobing. For his iniquitous behavior, he is promptly stabbed to death by an unknown assailant (clearly Faith, who we later learn is in love with Martha). Stone’s Lana is perhaps the cipher of the troika. With her boozing and pill popping (her vices/sins) she is the one most attuned to the possibility of the supernatural. These weaknesses seem to make her a catalyst (magnet?) for the imposition of the diabolical. Her first night at ‘Our Blessing’ she is confronted with a spider creeping slowly along her ceiling. The next morning she relates her nightmare about an arachnid metamorphosing into a man. Alone in the barn, she is stalked by an unseen presence; and there, is again victimized by spiders (one crawls inexorably across her chest making for her face, before she swats it away). She also warns continuously about someone coming for them (the Incubus?).

With Jim barely in the ground Isaiah offers to buy his property from Martha. She refuses. Martha’s independence and determination to continue to work the farm, to do a ‘man’s ‘work, leaves Isaiah condemning her to eternal damnation. There is certainly nothing neighborly and Christian about Isaiah’s sway over this rabidly insular community; as Faith tells Martha, the “Hittite’s tried to drive us out like everybody else”.

Like Last House on the Left which dealt with the brutality and humiliation of rape, sexual assault is a feature of almost all horror films according to Jason Zinoman:

“Rape has long been a theme of horror films, usually lurking right below the surface. At the intersection of sex and violence, the precise spot where the most disturbing horror films operate, anxiety about rape is on the minds of many audience members watching a young woman being chased on a dark night”[5]

Sharon Stone as Lana Marcus.

Sharon Stone as Lana Marcus.

The threat of rape, or subjugation of women, is not surprisingly a major theme of this film, given its depiction of the Hittites’ staunchly defended patriarchal ideology. The film’s most unsettling sequence takes place in Martha’s bathroom. Trying to find time to unwind, Martha decides to luxuriate in a bubble bath. Craven shoots this scene for maximum discomfort. While relaxing, an unknown intruder enters the house (apparently Martha never locks her doors) and releases a snake into the bathtub. Beyond the obvious biblical allusion of the serpent as Satan, Craven uses the herpetological threat for metaphorical rape (the elongated reptilian phallus). Martha is positioned less like someone enjoying a bath and more as a female undergoing a gynaecologic al exam. Her feet appear to be in stirrups awaiting the inevitable penetration. Likewise, Lana’s recurrent dream is presented as a disquieting rape fantasy. The first time she has the dream she describes it to Martha and Vicky in a breathy whisper; she seems equally unsettled and excited. This aforementioned dream involves a man who metamorphoses into a massive spider which, nevertheless, retains the human ability to whisper her name “as a lover would”. Craven shows us the next instance of her dream/nocturnal visitation. In an overhead shot, we see Lana lying prone in bed. We hear the same caressing voice whispering her name.

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A pair of hands grips the sides of her head, holding it immobile. That same lover’s modulated utterance implores her to open her mouth, wider and wider, until a spider from the ceiling drops into the inviting orifice. This is a comparable illustration of Martha’s near violent violation. Since Lana has already explained the mysterious dream man’s ability to shape shift into a spider, it is obvious that she is not merely swallowing an insect, but a representation of maleness. While the command may be given in the caressing tones of a lover, the two hands shown forcibly holding Lana’s head immobile for the assault repudiates any romantic or consensual intimacy.

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Deadly Blessing is a film of ambivalent notions of tolerance. The finale justifies Isaiah’s harsh position on interlopers and outsiders. The tacked-on, and tacky, just-when-you-thought-it-was-over climax vitiates any sympathy Craven engenders in film for the ‘different’, in favor of bolstering Isaiah’s deranged, paranoiac and hysterical religiosity against those perceived as odd or unique. The appearance of the actual demonic Incubus is shown to be a very real threat, and therefore validates the notion of Faith, the ‘other’ as conceivably being one of its minions.

The film exhibits a moralistic and inflexible perspective on sexuality and enforced gender. Near the end of the film, one finds sympathy for Faith and her predicament, as she cries to her mother: “I tried to be a little girl, I tried so hard”. Since the feminine half of her persona is the more prominently apparent, Faith has been forced to live in the world as a female, despite her biological sexual persona being masculine. Louisa, in maternal mode, says they have to silence Martha now that she knows about Faith’s real nature: “we ain’t got no secret no more, not if she lives”. Louisa is a woman betrayed by men, forced to singly parent a wholly different child in a prejudiced and hateful world that shuns and despises the unique, abnormal and unusual. Louisa, like every mother, merely wants to protect her child from ridicule, scorn and hostility. When Melissa stabs and kills Faith, and Isaiah pronounces “the messenger of the Incubus is dead” , the link between Faith’s distinctive self and her demonization is abundantly clear.[6]

– dszostak –


[1] Zinoman, Jason, Shock Value, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011 p. 74

[2] At least, perhaps, on commercial American cinema screens

[3] The Hittites were an ancient group of non-Semitic people of Asia Minor and Syria

[4] They are eventually both killed in one of the film’s numerous ‘What-the-fuck!’ moments

[5] Zinoman, Jason. Shock Value , The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, p.74

[6] I suppose some may point out Faith’s earlier denunciation of man/child William as a “pig-brain Hittite” as evidence of her intolerance for someone simpleminded. I see it more as a defense against constant verbal abuse and continual torment

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