ome directors have careers that find them moving from one notable project to another. Others alternate remarkable movies with films that fall through the cracks with no discernible pattern unless unpredictability counts as a pattern. Wes Craven’s career falls squarely in the latter camp.
It was a tendency still at work at the end of his career, when the barely seen Cursed arrived as a follow-up to the Scream trilogy, and Red Eye, which should have opened a gateway to even bigger thrillers, led to years of silence and the quietly buried My Soul to Take. Even with success and a long track record, Craven had trouble finding a solid footing. In earlier years, it sometimes felt as if he might never find footing at all, as evidenced by two films similar in title (if little else) made at transitional periods of his career: 1981’s Deadly Blessing and 1986’s Deadly Friend.
Craven began his filmmaking career on the East Coast before moving west to make The Hills Have Eyes, drawn by the chance to make a scary movie on the cheap in Nevada. Released in 1977, Hills became a slow, steady success, with audiences if not critics. (In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Desmond Ryan called it “the closest thing to cinematic botulism I have ever encountered.”) It made the rounds for years — sticking around as drive-in and midnight movie fodder — and easily earned back its meager budget. But that didn’t necessarily point toward a way forward for Craven.
ally presented itself, however, thanks to the husband and wife producing team of Max and Micheline Keller, who recruited Craven to direct the Linda Blair-starring TV movie Stranger in Our House (aka Summer of Fear). The relationship proved amenable enough that they re-teamed for the 1981 film Deadly Blessing, a small-scale production by most directors’ standards but still the most generously budgeted film Craven had helmed to date. This, it would turn out, presented problems of its own.
On the audio commentary Craven recorded for Scream Factory’s Blu-ray edition of the film, Craven describes the film’s production as one compromise piled atop another. This started with the casting. Though uncredited, the film’s upper-level production team included the then-rising stars of Jon Peters and Peter Guber, who pressured Craven into casting a young actress they liked named Sharon Stone. Another, not-unrelated creative choice foisted on the director: He was told the cast should spend a fair amount of time lounging around in lingerie and other revealing clothing. That wasn’t unusual for a horror film released at the height of the slasher era. It didn’t really fit the plot, however, in which a pregnant widow named Martha (Battlestar Galactica’s Maran Jensen) huddles in her house with her best friends Lana (Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) to mourn a husband killed in a mysterious accident.
That story presented another challenge. Unlike Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes, Craven didn’t originate Deadly Blessing and, per his recollection, ended up rewriting much of the script. Its subject, however, undoubtedly struck a chord with the director. Though filmed in Texas, Deadly Blessing is set in a stretch of the rural Midwest dominated by the fictional Hittites, a reclusive, technology averse religious sect that bears a striking resemblance to the Amish. (The film goes out of its way to draw a distinction, however. At one point a character says they “make the Amish look like swingers.”) Born in Cleveland, Craven was raised in a strict Baptist household that forbade him from watching most movies.
Consequently, it’s not surprising that the best elements of Deadly Blessing come from its scenic-but-paranoid atmosphere and Craven’s ambiguous treatment of the Hittites, who fear the presence of an evil incubus that may or may not be a metaphor for sin. Though wearing an unconvincing chin beard, Ernest Borgnine brings considerable gravity to the role of a Hittite elder. Craven clearly had a lot of freedom not to cast movie-pretty actors in most of the Hittite roles, including a young member played by Hills Have Eyes star Michael Berryman.
In some respects, creating atmosphere was what Craven always did best. Unlike some directors, he didn’t start out with innate technical skill. Last House on the Left is effective in part because of its unpolished style; at times it plays like a snuff film that’s accidentally found its way out of the underground. Craven picked up tricks along the way, but even after he’d become an accomplished stylist, his best films work in large part due to their ability to create a sense of place, whether it’s the Hollywood of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare or the suburban teen world of Scream. He also knew how to use one film to prepare for another. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, he’d recycle whole compositions from Deadly Blessing — most flagrantly a between-two-knees bathtub shot — perhaps out of a desire not to let a good idea go to waste in a film few saw.
Those who did see the film watched a reasonably spooky thriller with a handful of memorable scenes — including one in which a real spider drops into Stone’s mouth — serving a mostly nonsensical story that builds to a bizarre ending followed by an even more bizarre epilogue. Without spoiling it, the final reveal would probably be classed as some kind of homophobic, transphobic, intersexphobic -- if it made any narrative sense. This gives way to producer-imposed final scare that might work if the film had toyed with the idea that the Hittites’ fear of the supernatural had any kind of basis in reality. Instead, it just plays like a monster exploding out of the floor for no reason to administer a final jolt that has little to do with the film that preceded it. It wouldn’t be the last time Craven had that problem.
A lot happened in the five years between the release of Deadly Blessing and the 1986 release Deadly Friend. Blessing opened to modest business and largely dismissive reviews, when it was reviewed at all. (One outlier, Tom McElfresh of the Cincinnati Enquirer, looked past its flaws to focus on qualities Craven would draw out in future films like an ability to “shock with the simplest things.”) In Swamp Thing, Craven brought a campy action movie sensibility to DC’s horror hero, with mixed results. Even more mixed: a sequel to The Hills Have Eyes shot in 1983 that wouldn’t start to play U.S. theaters until 1985. By then Craven had also directed, with more success, the TV movies Invitation to Hell and Chiller, several episodes of the revived Twilight Zone, and a film called A Nightmare on Elm Street. Its tremendous success might have helped offset the sting of adding another studio-mandated shock ending if Craven hadn’t also discovered his contract didn’t automatically include participating in any sequels and watched New Line make one without him.
Elm Street should also have bought him some creative freedom, and for his next film, Craven wanted to make a departure without leaving the horror genre behind. That impulse drew him to producer Robert Sherman who had the rights to Diana Henstell’s Frankenstein-inspired 1985 novel Friend, in which a teen genius tries to save his drying friend by implanting a microchip in her brain. The project also offered Craven a chance to work with a major studio, Warner Bros., for the first time, a development he described as “very important to me” to Fangoria’s Lee Goldberg and David McDonnell in a 1986 interview. The finished product, Deadly Friend, resembles Deadly Blessing mostly in title, but similarly found him in a transitional phase, trying to move away from what he’d done before and toward what he hoped to do in the future. And, as before, Craven found it didn’t come easy.
Craven set out to make, in his words, a “macabre love story” and, by his account, did just that. The film stars Matthew Labyorteaux, a young actor who followed a long stint as a regular on Little House on the Prairie with a starring role as a computer genius in the TV series Whiz Kids, which aired for one season in 1983 and 1984. Deadly Friend essentially extended that role, casting Labyorteaux as Paul Conway, a teen robotics prodigy who arrives in a new town to pursue advanced studies at a prestigious college accompanied by his mother Jeannie (Anne Twomey) and a robotic creation named BB. Once settled in, he befriends Samantha (Kristy Swanson), a kindly girl next door who’s suffering abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father Harry (Richard Marcus). When a shove down the stairs sends Samantha into a coma, Paul attempts to revive her using some of BB’s circuitry.
Craven set out to make a PG-rated departure in the mold of John Carpenter’s Starman and apparently did, working from a script written by future Ghost writer Bruce Joel Rubin, who had been hired on the strength of his widely respected but still un-produced screenplay Jacob’s Ladder. Then came, per a detailed investigation into the film’s production written by Joseph Maddrey, a single test screening that changed the direction of the project. Shortly before the screening, Craven added a short dream sequence. The audience ate it up, leading producers to demand the addition of more dream sequences, more gore, more over-the-top kills (including a now-infamous death-by-basketball scene), and — yet again — a nonsensical shock-twist ending to send audiences out on a jolt. In the same 1986 Fangoria interview, Craven sounds as if he’s made his peace with the compromises saying, “if more horror is what the studio and the audience want, I enjoy doing that kind of scene, too. It’s not going to ruin the other parts of the picture. It’s always fun to have someone say, ‘Here’s some money, go out and do something that’s wacky and crazy’"
Yet, in the end, Deadly Friend plays less like a step away from the past than the Nightmare on Elm Street sequel Craven didn’t get to make (and by the time of the film’s release he had already written a script for the third Nightmare with Bruce Wagner). Deadly Friend found a few half-hearted defenders such as Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times, who praised Craven as a “savvy storyteller” and noted his willingness to depart from past work but still dubbed the film a disappointment.
In the end, it’s a tough film to defend. The tacked-on sequences, while jolting, look like they belong to a different movie and though Swanson’s charming in her pre-death scenes, her attempts to convey computerized menace look more comical than frightening, almost like a horror movie version of the deathless syndicated sitcom Small Wonder. The film vanished quickly, joining Deadly Blessing on alphabetically arranged video store shelves where it would be among the least-watched in Craven’s filmography.
But maybe that’s just how it had to be for Craven. The big step up he hoped to take didn’t happen as projects like Superman IV, Beetlejuice, Flowers in the Attic, and what would ultimately become Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound slipped away. He did, however, move on to make the moody, profitable The Serpent and the Rainbow, a zombie movie of the pre-Romero variety set amidst the political unrest of contemporary Haiti. Any dreams of a straight upward trajectory would elude him for the rest of a career defined by a seemingly unpredictable progression of hits and (still generally compelling) duds. Some filmmaker’s careers suggest they’re following a carefully plotted road map. Others look like the work of those who can’t help getting lost — but sometimes emerge with better stories to tell because of it.
Keith Phipps writes about movies and other aspects of pop culture. You can find his work in such publications as The Ringer, Mel Magazine, Vulture, TV Guide, Decider, Polygon and The Verge. Keith also co-hosts the podcast The Next Picture Show and lives in Chicago with his wife and child. His all-time favorite horror film is Dawn of the Dead but he’s still baffled by the moment when the biker decides to use the blood pressure machine in the middle of the zombie attack. Follow him on Twitter at @kphipps3000.