31 Days to Scare ~ Deadly Blessing (1981)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After her husband dies under mysterious circumstances, a widow becomes increasingly paranoid of the neighboring religious community that may have diabolical plans for her.

Stars: Maren Jensen, Sharon Stone, Susan Buckner, Michael Berryman, Lois Nettleton, Jeff East, Douglas Barr, Lisa Hartman, Ernest Borgnine

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Hard to believe it now, but back in 1981 when Deadly Blessing was released director Wes Craven wasn’t nearly the household name he would become. Coming off of directing the intense The Last House on the Left and the bizarro The Hills Have Eyes (both of which would get lesser remakes decades later), Craven dialed down his extreme style for this moody chiller. Though not well received by audiences or critics, it was interesting to view this one for the first time. While Craven was never someone that was consistent from film to film, he had good eye and that’s what keeps Deadly Blessing afloat for much of its run time.

Jim Schmdit (Douglas Barr) grew up as a member of the Hittites (think Amish) but left the religious community to marry.  Inheriting a family farm, he’s returned with his bride Martha (Maren Jensen) much to the judgmental dismay of his father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine) the elder in their order. When Jim dies in a suspicious accident his family that disowned him feels the land should revert to them and not to Martha.  Martha intends to stay but when her two friends arrive for support and strange accidents start to happen, it’s up to her to find out if Isaiah is behind it all or if there aren’t more malevolent supernatural forces at work.

I’ve mentioned before how much I frequented the horror section of my local video store as a child.  I can still remember seeing the Deadly Blessing VHS staring back at me but, alas, it’s never one that made it home.  I actually think had I seen this as a teen I’d have been disappointed – back then I was all about the gore and high stylized horror flicks and Deadly Blessing isn’t overzealous with blood and guts.  It’s more character driven than you might expect and while there are some tepid performances (Jensen is a snooze…a pretty snooze…but a snooze all the same) it’s a mostly well acted affair.

Playing Martha’s best friends are a young Sharon Stone (Lovelace) and Susan Buckner (Patty Simcox in the movie version of Grease) and they are often the highlights of the film.  Stone seems to go off the deep end pretty quickly (you would too if a giant tarantula fell in your mouth!) and never quite comes back from the brink which results in feeling like her performance is way too overbaked. That stands in stark contrast to Buckner’s nuanced take on the character – she’s a nice breath of fresh air and I wonder how much more effective the movie would have been if she and Jensen had switched characters.

Craven stages some sequences with a nice amount of tension, like the scene where Jensen is relaxing in a bathtub and someone releases a huge snake into it with her. Though it’s almost a shot-for-shot preview of what he’d do three years later in A Nightmare On Elm Street (the snake head pops up between Jensen’s legs like Freddy’s glove does with Heather Langenkamp) it’s highly effective. I definitely subconsciously lifted my legs off the floor and tucked them in under me.  There’s also a creepy scene with a couple attacked in a car and some nice point of view shots where we become the person stalking Jensen and company.

The conclusion of the film was a genuine surprise and who (or what) is behind it all was kept secret right until the final reveal. Do you know how hard that is?  Though it must be said that the good will is nearly ruined by a dumb nonsensical coda the studio insisted on, for the most part Deadly Blessing is a worthwhile look into Craven’s earliest work. Special mention for the spooky score by the late James Horner (The Magnificent Seven), a future Oscar winner. Another special mention for myself for never realizing until now that Stone is featured on the poster and not Jensen…sheesh…how did I miss that?

31 Days to Scare ~ An American Werewolf in London

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two American college students on a walking tour of Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.

Stars: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine, Brian Glover, Lila Kaye

Director: John Landis

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: This fondly remembered horror flick from 1981 is one I personally tend to forget about every few years, prompting a re-watch to refresh my memory. It’s not that the movie doesn’t hold up over time, but it starts off so good that by the time it reaches the halfway mark it’s run out of steam and sputters to the finish line. While it’s widely regarded as a classic genre film and even nabbed the first ever Best Makeup Oscar for Rick Baker’s creative werewolf transformations and elegant gore imagery, there’s something chilly to the whole picture that fails to linger too long in the memory.

Coming off the one-two punch of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, it seemed like a strange choice for director John Landis to take on a horror film, albeit one with a heavy dose of sardonic comedy. There are so many in-jokes and enough rapid-fire yucks to make your head spin, but they serve as increasingly less-appetizing distractions from the horror main course. When the film stays on its mission it’s gold, it’s when Landis gets goofy that the film starts to unravel for this viewer.

Americans David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are wandering through the Yorkshire moors when they stop in at a local pub to warm their hands and their bellies. Sensing some tension from the locals, the two hitch up their boots and head out but not before being warned to stay on the road and not to venture off the path. Sure enough, as most dumb Americans are wont to do, David and Jack have strayed and get lost in the highlands at night and eventually find themselves stalked by someone or something they cannot see.

While one of these men won’t live past the first reel after being mauled by a giant beast, he returns often as a decaying ghost that haunts the other who was merely bitten by the monster. Like a bleeding Jacob Marley, he warns his friend that when the next full moon arrives he’ll be turning into a true blue werewolf. The living friend tries to write-off these visions as side-effects of the trauma and warms up to a kindly (and, really, rather unprofessional) nurse who takes him home to her flat and her bed. When the next full moon arrives, the poor guy goes through a whopper of a hairy growth spurt and begins a rampage through the London nightlife.

Funny, having only seen this a few weeks ago I’m already fuzzy on how the movie wraps up but I know that it was a far cry from the creepy opening sequence that sets the stage so nicely. Landis is a decent filmmaker who would go on to direct several classic films of the ’80s before striking out again and again. While he and Rick Baker would catch the attention of Michael Jackson and be hired to direct and design the make-up for his landmark Thriller video, I’m not sure Landis ever satisfactorily returned to horror even though he made a few vain attempts.

It is right and just that An American Werewolf in London became a touchstone of early ‘80s comedy-horror and Baker’s effects are really a sight to behold. I just wish the movie had more going for it than the effects and a strikingly good first 1/3. Whatever you do, don’t confuse this with the wretched sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris which is a follow-up in name only.