For the media-saturated 80s, there was something fascinating about the spectacle of technophobic communities. Although Peter Weir may have captured the spirit of Old Weird America more canonically in Witness, Wes Craven not only anticipated the trend a half-decade earlier, but outdid Weir’s Amish exoticism with a horror film set in a remote Hittite community in the Midwest. For those, like me, who aren’t up on their American cults, a quick Google search reveals that the Hittites are a fictional community, whereas part of what made Witness so compelling was the sense of documental veracity, the frisson of a camera intruding – often for the first time – into this virginal community. However, Craven is less interested in documentary affectation than Weir – in some ways, this is one of his most stylised films – while the connotations of Hittites – ancient tribes transplanted into a Midwestern context – suggests that Craven is more interested in distilling a distinctly American cultic religion than Weir, who plays up the Dutch origins of the Amish people throughout his film. In The American Religion, Bloom argues that American denominations of Christianity – especially Mormonism – in fact represent a radical post-Christian conception of religion, in which “total inward solitude” produces a gnostic communion with the divine that relegates the state to an apocalyptic, millenarian horizon, whether positively, as the institution that finally consummates and enables this profound inwardness, or negatively, as the institution that finally thwarts it.
In many ways, that tripartite relationship between “total inward solitude,” the state and apocalyptism is the subject matter of Deadly Blessing, which contains so many moving pieces and shifting tones that the source of horror doesn’t really solidify until the very last couple of seconds. First and foremost, it’s about the Hittite community itself, and their leader Isaiah Schmidt (Ernest Borginine), who predicts that an “incubus,” or evil spirit, will descend upon the community after his son, John (Jeff East) marries a non-Hittite, Martha (Maren Jensen) to live a relatively modern agricultural life on the outskirts of the community. Secondly, it’s about John and Martha’s relationship, which is cut short when John is murdered by someone or something associated with this incubus. Thirdly, it is about Martha’s experience of the Hittite community, and the way in which she copes with John’s loss with the help of her friends Vicky (Susan Buckner) and Lana (Sharon Stone), who come to stay with her and offer her some support. Although those three strands might sound sequential, they all feel tonally simultaneous, as a threatening atmosphere gathers around Martha’s house that seems to be both supernatural and naturalistic at the same time, a ploy on the part of the Hittite community to frighten her off with warnings of the incubus but somehow also an expression of the incubus itself.
As that might suggest, the film is driven by atmosphere, tone and space above all else, with the narrative never quite coming together or congealing in such a way as to make the threat fully discernible or concrete. Insofar as there is a defining narrative event, it occurs at the beginning rather than the end, and involves John’s purchase of a tractor – the first in the community – which appears to be what motivates his murder, since he’s found crushed beneath it. While it’s a bit of an odd comparison, these early scenes with the tractor reminded me quite of a bit of early Soviet cinema, and especially those allegories of collectivisation helmed by directors like Dovzhenko and Pudovkin in which the arrival of the first tractor on the horizon of a farming community is presented as the cinematic spectacle and event par excellence, a symbol of the collective spirit for which cinema potentially stands. In this case, the tractor is framed in terms of the fears of collectivization that drive this radically atomised Hitttie community, but the sense of breathless sublimity is similar in tone and scope. Just as in early Soviet cinema there’s a strong sense of the tractor as a potent sexual presence, or as the harbinger of a new collectivized sexuality, here the tractor is often framed as a cipher for the voyeuristic spectacle of John and Martha’s marriage itself – a marriage founded on desire rather than Hittite obligation – with the community members sneaking up to their barn in the dark to spy on the newfangled gadget in masturbatory solitude. Admittedly, the tractor is destroyed along with John’s murder, but that association between sexual and technological voyeurism continues throughout the film to imbue the other newfangled intruder in this community – Craven’s camera – with a similar uncanny presence, even if the locals can’t hear, feel or sense it, and Craven himself can’t directly record it.
Still, this is one of Craven’s films where his camera very much imprints itself as much as it records, leaving a trace of its passage to create what has to be one of his most beautiful visions. From the very beginning, it’s clear that this Hittite community is something of a conceptual or notional space, a succession of huge empty plains punctuated by perfectly appointed farmhouses that initially seems as if it could slot right in with the slew of 80s American nostalgia films that gravitated towards the Midwest as their natural canvas. One of the calmest and quietest of all Craven’s horror films, it’s full of beautifully composed long shots that massage your eyes into traversing vast distances and strained vistas without any apparent effort, softly guiding you across field after field of airbrushed grass in what finally feels less like a landscape than a hyperreal ripple, a single texture that enfolds you in its seductive grasp. Among other things, that’s just about the perfect backdrop for Sharon Stone’s screen debut – leaving aside her brief appearance in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories – as her silky, sinuous and somewhat synthetic screen persona seems to emerge fully-formed. In fact, it’s possibly Stone’s presence that really draws out the synthetic edges of this Midwestern dreamscape, with both feeling like more and more of a fantasy as the texture deepens.
In part, that’s because of how hard Craven works to render Martha’s house – and the few other houses where the action proceeds – porous to the outside world, offsetting his breathtaking establishing shots with a highly mobile camera to suggest a malign gaze that can move from the vastest distances to the most uncomfortable close-ups with no apparent difficulty. Although the film opens with a home invasion, it quickly feels as if home invasion is not quite the right way to describe what is happening here, since these homes are already invaded, at least by Craven’s camera, which simply continues its sweeping movements once it comes indoors, continuing along corridors with the same frictionless grace with which it glided across fields, usually until it is stopped by a bathroom or bedroom door. On the one hand, that imbues the houses with the vast agoraphobia of the fields, but it also makes the fields themselves feel more claustrophobic as well, creating an anamorphic relativisation of all space that often feels prescient of the motionless motion that characterises drone cinematography. For me, this was one of the most powerful stylistic gestures in the film, since it beautifully captured the central paradox of this Hittite community – namely, that while the community itself is highly private, there is very little privacy within it, since each of its many members is continually and obsessively scrutinised and monitored by the whole.
In that sense, the film is something of a riposte – if a pre-emptive riposte – to Witness. Sure, Weir may have suggested, quite rightly, that evil can dwell in any community, but his film was still founded on a distinction between the technophilia of contemporary society and the technophobia of traditionalist societies. What makes Craven’s vision of the Hittites so powerful, however, is that while their society is technophobic, it is quite technophilic in culture and sensibility, and even somewhat ahead of its time in the obsession with which every gesture is performed, mediated and replicated, with every house turned outwards to face a putative gaze that is never fully consolidated or congealed. Certainly, that surveillance culture is a major part of American fundamentalist communities, but by pairing it with this synthetic aesthetic, Craven draws a kind of common denominator between the religious past and the technological future, as if America’s fascination with social media were just another iteration of its peculiar fixation with individual rapture. For that reason, Craven’s camera often feels like a rapturous device as well, a testament that transforms itself in testifying, recalling Shane Denson’s definition of the post-cinematic camera as one that “no longer frames actions, emotions and events in a given world but instead provides the color, look and feel of the film qua material component or aspect of the world.” Of course, it doesn’t make sense to say that Craven’s film inhabits this post-cinematic universe, even in a nascent way, since the tone and style of the film – of most of his films, really – is resolutely classicist. Instead, what I would like to suggest is that what often distinguishes Craven’s films – and Deadly Blessing – is precisely this combination of a classical cinematic style and milieu with a camera that seems to have somehow subsumed itself into it, perhaps not enough to create a properly post-cinematic aesthetic, but enough to imbue the camera itself with an uncanny new prehensile power that often feels like the subject matter of the film and the ultimate source of its horror.
In some ways, that idea of a prehensile camera brings me to my own personal epiphany when watching Deadly Blessing. Ever since I first saw it at a video night back in the 90s, Scream has been one of my favourite films, and certainly my favourite Craven film, although there are individual moments in A Nightmare On Elm Street that are amongst the best cinema I’ve ever seen. Yet while I’ve recognised thematic continuities between Scream and Craven’s earlier films, as well as a similar level of genius and vision, I’d never really seen a Craven film that felt like Scream. Watching Deadly Blessing, then, was something of a revelation, since this collection of houses floating in the middle of space is a bit like the opening scene of Scream distended into an entire movie, which is a Scream fan’s dream, and something I’d hoped – unsuccessfully – to find in the recent MTV serial adaptation. Without discounting his incredible taste for grotesquerie, gore and even splatter, I’ve always found Craven a meditative director at heart, as well as a director for whom suspense is simply a heightened state of meditation. From that perspective, Deadly Blessing is one of his most accomplished works, and a beautiful way to remember and think about him in the wake of his recent passing.