Wes Craven seems the ideal name for the director of a horror thriller like "Deadly Blessing," which never makes a subatomic particle of melodramatic or psychological sense yet nevertheless provokes an overwhelming proportion of women spectators into screaming fits. Is it possible that Craven spent his formative years taunting classmates, especially girls, with fake spiders and snakes? If so, the film medium has given him a rare opportunity to magnify creepy and shocking forms of sexual teasing.
Spiders and snakes figure prominently in the Craven bag of tricks, along with hanging victims or scarecrows who spring into view from the top or sides of the frame. The spider and snake routines are exploited with remarkable lewdness. One of the heroine's chums, a baby-faced, puckery-lipped blond starlet (Sharon Stone), opens her mouth wide, wide during a nightmare sequence to accommodate a spider falling from the ceiling. The heroine herself is interrupted during a steaming bubble bath by a big snake that slithers into the tub while her eyes are closed and pokes his head out of the suds between her legs.
The highlight of TV trailers for "Deadly Blessing," now at area theaters, the snake in the tub is presumably the tease that attracts most of the customers in the first place, although some may recall that Craven was also responsible for two earlier exercises in schlock-shock, "The Last House on the Left" and "The Hills Have Eyes." Even if you feel safely detached from his scare tactics, which tend to be obvious and preposterous to a fault, it's impossible to deny that Craven establishes a distinctive malicious rapport with the audience.
Patrons at "Deadly Blessing" were as eager to be set off as the jovial crowds at "Friday the 13th, Part II." Moreover, it didn't matter that the victims often laughed at the devices being planted to set them off (they're especially tickled in "Deadly Blessing" when the heroine ventures out to a cemetery and hops into an open grave to take a peek inside the casket) and then at their own susceptibility to the sadistic hokum. The payoffs are expected to be terrifying show-stoppers. It's not essential that they make sense, too.
Still, Craven may leave a residue of contempt in the back of everyone's mind by making it too easy to separate his shock effects from the plot, characters and settings contrived to justify them. Basically, it's him against the audience. He would be playing a stronger hand if he could fabricate a horror plot clever enough to rationalize the shocks in dramatic terms.
"Deadly Blessing" tries to fake it. The most persistent and plausible menace appears to originate in a fanatic rural religious sect, the Hittites, nastily costumed to suggest a loathsome variation on the Amish. The heroine, Martha (Maren Jensen), has married a stalwart young farmer, Jim (Doug Barr), who broke with the faith, angering his tyrannical father Isaiah, a Hittite elder hilariously embodied by Ernest Borgnine. Although he stalks the fields threatening his remaining sons and snorting invisible brimstone from his nostrils, Borgnine's vehement oratory also gives the film its most consistent silly streak. His best line: "An incubus has crept into our fold and defiled our flock." Try saying that five times in rapid succession.
A mysterious intruder of some kind lures Jim into the barn, where he's fatally pinned under a tractor that suddenly slips into gear. Martha, reported to be expecting their first child, is joined by two old pals from Los Angeles -- Stone as the sleepy, ineffectual Lana and Susan Buckner as the robust, cheerful Vicky, who puts disobedient notions in the head of Isaiah's second son John, played by Jeff East. The arrival of the girlfriends allows the trio to be tormented in turn, with Lana drawing the spiders, Martha the snake and Vicky a knife-wielding arsonist. Borgnine continues to behave like a tyrannical monster, but the competition gets frantic down the stretch. Lois Nettleton as a widowed neighbor begins acting suspiciously cuckoo, and she's soon rivaled by Lisa Hartman, who plays her daughter. We're also led to believe that John's infatuation with Vicky may have unhinged his devout Hittite fiance' Melissa, played by Coleen Riley. It's quite a free-for-all, but ultimately it doesn't matter which suspect is singled out as the lurking psycho. Craven is determined to play a supernatural kicker that reduces the plot to diabolical nonsense anyway.
The most perplexing mystery is the choice of Maren Jensen as the heroine. A peculiarly spooky young actress, she would be more appropriate as a vampire from outer space or a shill from Satan. It's Buckner, who looks a great deal like Candice Bergen, who possesses the common touch and an appealing, vulnerable presence. There's a weirdly disillusioning moment right before the climactic rabble-rousing payoff when Stone turns to Maren and says, "You're just as scared as I am. Look at you -- you're shaking." As a matter of fact, neither actress looks discernibly distressed by the encompassing madness of it all. If they're shaking, the shivers are too submerged to register on their shellacked, impassive little faces. There are far more responsive actresses -- and impressive screamers -- in the audience itself.