October 25, 2012

To prepare you for Halloween the unconventional way, the ever-excellent Film Society of Lincoln Center has formulated a line-up of lesser-known horror flicks in their “Scary Movies” series. Those interested in traumatic killer clown flicks should check out Conor McMahon’s Stitches, while others desirous of ogling a pre-Magneto post-Hunger Michael Fassbender will want to check out James Watkins’ Eden Lake. For everyone else, there’s Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing, featuring a deliciously campy Ernest Borgnine and a young Sharon Stone, is the cuddly story of a possessed tractor (that’s right!) among other oddities wreaking havoc in Hittite country. There are voiceovers, macguffins aplenty, and a period-centric combination of two staples of the horror genre, the “there’s something out there/there’s something in here” plot and the “three girls alone in a deserted house often taking their clothes off and/or wearing hot pants” plot. Blessing does the confusing work of infusing both with a pseudo-religious twist, creating its own category of horror film–though I can’t think of any other films that fall into it–hereafter known as ‘barnyard suspense.’

Needless to say, it takes awhile to heat up. After numerous scenes of characters trepidatiously entering a deserted barn and peeping through windows and taking upwards of ten minutes to die their inevitable deaths, one realizes that there’s a reason there aren’t more barnyard suspense films. Deadly Blessing is a quilt of cliches, none of which seem integrated into, but instead messily congealed and stuck, to the plot. This isn’t exactly Craven’s fault, a filmmaker whose style seemed cemented by his first feature, but has more to do with the limited and unimpressive stock background music available to horror filmmakers in the early 80s. It’s not until the late 90s that people began to realize that sometimes high strings just don’t do all the work they’re supposed to. Craven only rises above the score every so often with an interesting bait and switch move or dreamlike sequence. There’s also the feeling of cliches, while being tiresome, not being quite as far removed from their source in 1981. The first entry in the seminal Halloween series was released three years earlier in 1978. Friday the Thirteenth came out in 1980, as did Dressed to Kill. Craven’s own Nightmare on Elm Street would come three years later. Blessing made its appearance at the beginning of the horror renaissance, at which time the sex-as-prelude-to-murder plot point might not yet have been established as a full-on cliche yet, as well as the final girl mandate, which here is given a pleasing twist. The script, featuring such great lines as “she is with incubus!” and in which a character is referred to as an “innocent man-child” is, despite this, still not quite campy enough to justify itself, while the killings are few and far between, and they’re always the ones you expect.

There are ideologies at war in every horror film, however subtly. Deadly Blessing‘s rural setting, dominantly female cast, and suggestion of a gender dysphoric presence plaguing the town (first in the form of a crossdresser, later in the androgynous form of an “incubus,”) make one wonder what exact ideologies are at war here; Pagan vs. Christian? Country vs. City? Sex vs. Abstention? Male vs. Female? Craven does his best to equate all the violence that goes down in Blessing with sex–not necessarily sex the characters are having, but the suggestion of sex. This is most startlingly illustrated in a scene where a character soaking in a bathtub suddenly finds a snake creeping between her legs, and later during a clandestine car ride out into the woods which prompts one of the Hittite characters to exclaim “this is so much better than riding a buggy!” Yet in the end, nothing really wins out, and the depiction of the society plagued by the incubus seems every bit as disturbing as the obscure evil of the incubus itself. Instead, there is a weird, ambiguous prudery about the film that fully reveals itself in the end, with the bizarre suggestion that moving to a farming town filled with religious obsessives and expecting to have loving, uninterrupted bouts of sex is, well, asking for it.

Scary Movies will run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from October 26-31.

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