'Deadly Blessing' is an unusual concoction of murder, suspense, and drama, set in what appears to be Amish country. It largely plays out like a made-for-television melodrama, placing equal weight and importance on both the strange goings-on in an austere, intolerant and self-righteous community as it does to the plot's central mystery. In fact, many times throughout, the movie's focus seems to shift away from its horror and thriller aspects to sensationalize the interpersonal conflicts of that religious group, who call themselves Hittites. According to one character, their 18th-Century, fundamentalist views are so rigid they make the Amish look like a swinger's club. This apparently causes serious rifts between family members when they wish to live in the 20th Century.
At the movie's start, a young couple is celebrating their first wedding anniversary on their farm, which neighbors the strict religious community. Their conversation explains how serious the rift can be when the husband, Jim Schmidt (Douglas Barr), reveals to us he's the son of the group's main leader Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine chewing every scene as a frighteningly pious fanatic). He was banished for receiving a college education and falling in love with an "outsider" who conveniently happens to be our heroine Martha (Maren Jensen). A little later, his death by tractor — a rather comically amusing way to die — gives impetus to the story proper, a murder mystery possibly connected to those creepily bizarre Hittites.
Referred to as an Incubus, a mythological figure which seduces men in their sleep, Martha is the peaceful, loving type now pulled into the group's family drama after Jim's murder. Jensen's presence adds to the production's TV-drama feel since at the time, she would be better known — and still is — for her role as Athena on the original 'Battlestar Galactica' series. She also made a few appearances on other shows before trying her hand at the big screen with the completely forgettable 'Beyond the Reef' and this lesser-known Wes Craven catalog flick. Interestingly, she retired from acting altogether after this starring role, in which she does a surprisingly great job carrying the movie. As the story progresses, Jensen's Martha believably grows from the peaceful city girl to a self-defense, gun-toting woman protecting her farm from threatening "outsiders."
One rather neat and curious characteristic of the script, which has Craven co-writing with Glenn M. Benest and Matthew Barr (a pair with TV writing history), is the way in which Craven setups the always entertaining Michael Berryman as the story's potential murderer and then has him killed early on. It's as if echoing the similar beginning of Hitchcock's 'Psycho.' I can't say for certain if it's intentional, but it sure feels that way. Then, there's also a very young and lovely Sharon Stone as Martha's friend, Lana, who has disturbing nightmares about demonic voices and spiders falling into her mouth, making up the movie's most visually impressive aspects. Another friend, Vicky (Susan Buckner), strikes up a romance with another Hittite, John Schmidt (Jeff East), leading him into temptation and creating further tension within the group.
In the end, 'Deadly Blessing' has its moments of creepiness with an intriguing idea about a strict traditionalist community and an unexpected twist in the mystery, but ultimately, it's more an oddity to watch than it is a gratifying horror thriller, and the conclusion is asomewhat confusing mess with a sudden jump-scare that feels out of place at the closing credits. Part of the movie's oddity comes from where it falls in Wes Craven's canon. Rarely mentioned in discussions about Craven's career, 'Deadly Blessing,' along with 'Swamp Thing,' is one of the director's early works while making his evolution into mainstream filmmaking, promising the visual style and quality he's later celebrated and admired for.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Deadly Blessing' to Blu-ray as a Collector's Edition package under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the normal blue case with brand new reversible cover art and a cardboard slipcover.
At startup, the disc goes to a generic main menu selection on the left side with the movie's music and full-motion clips. Also, if you buy direct from the Shout! Factory website, fans can get an exclusive, limited edition poster of the newly commissioned artwork with their purchase and while supplies last!
'Deadly Blessing' is blessed with a strong, often great 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1). Given its age and low-budget origins, the print used for this transfer is in great shape, minus the occasional white spot and vertical brown line. The natural grain structure is consistent and visible from beginning to end, but is more prominent during indoor and nighttime sequences, sometimes to the point of looking like noise, such as the scene when Isaiah whips a boy in front of his congregation. Nevertheless, the video has an attractive film-like quality to it.
Contrast is mostly spot-on with crisp, clean whites while blacks are true and often penetrating. However, several poorly-lit interiors suffer some with less than satisfying delineation, as shadows tend to engulf a good deal of background information. Then again, with consideration to the cinematography — the movie was largely shot with a mildly soft and shallow focus — it's possible such deep, eerie shadows are deliberate. The color palette comes through very nicely with bold rendering in the primaries and warm secondary hues. Facial complexions appear natural with good textural details. Overall definition and resolution are actually excellent and distinct bearing in mind the photography. All in all, it's a worthy and pleasing high-def presentation for a Wes Craven catalog.
Shout Factory gives the horror mystery thriller two listening options for fans to enjoy, and whether in the original mono or the 5.1 remix, both DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are surprisingly excellent. The only significant difference between them is that the latter offers a wider imaging, and James Horner's music very lightly bleeds into the back speakers, subtly enhancing the soundfield. Also, despite being a 5.1 track, it remains a front-heavy presentation, as it should be. Discrete effects spread into the other channels with good, well-balanced separation, creating an active and engaging soundstage.
The rest of the lossless mix comes with sharply rendered dynamics and appreciable distinction in Horner's orchestration. The few actions sequences sound clean and detailed with better than expected room-penetrating clarity. Low bass is adequate and appropriate for a movie of this vintage, providing some nice depth and weight to the music, bullets and the one scene of explosion. Voices are loud and clear in the center throughout, making either high-rez track a joy to listen to.
Not often thought of or remembered alongside Wes Craven's more popular horror movies, 'Deadly Blessing' is still a decently well-executed mystery thriller with amusing performances from Ernest Borgnine, Maren Jensen, Michael Berryman, and Sharon Stone. The movie is more of an oddity than anything else, with promising visual styles and qualities from Craven which were later admired in other, better-known horror projects. The Blu-ray arrives with strong video and an excellent audio presentation. Supplements aren't very extensive but they're engaging nonetheless, making the package one that fans will enjoy, while the curious may want to give it a rent.