As a genre built on the fantastique, horror films occasionally come across premises that are absurd. Talented filmmakers can wring genuine chills out of killer cars or dolls, premises that are ridiculous on the surface. Far more frequently, horror filmmakers are unable to convincingly work with silly premises like killer beds, killer lamps, killer elevators, killer mirrors, killer clocks, etc. In his theatrical work, Wes Craven mostly avoided high concept goofiness. Yet in his television work, where he didn’t give a shit, he wound up directing a movie about a country club and health spa that is a doorway to hell.
There’s a deep strain of goofiness running through “Invitation to Hell.” The film begins with a driver, distracted by a pair of women in bikinis, accidentally running over Susan Lucci. Lucci, with an enormous eighties perm and wearing a tomato-juice orange full-body pantsuit, pops up, spring-loaded, on the other side of the vehicle, unharmed. She points a hand at the driver and the man melts, like a candy bar on the dash of a car. Backed by the groaning, pulsating synth score and a series of fake heartbeats, the sequence is hysterically pitched and absolutely hilarious. This should prepare you for what’s to come.
Robert Urich, his wife, their young son, and toddler daughter ride into a new town in their wood-paneled station wagon. Urich is a technology contractor, working with NASA on a mission to put a man on Venus, probably the last planet in the solar system NASA would actually want to go to. The suit has a number of impressive built-in features. Aside from an oxygen supply and the ability to survive in intensely hot temperatures, the suit also contains a laser gun and a flame thrower. The gun shoots a straight-up laser beam, a bolt of yellow, burning light. I’m not sure were the fuel for the flame thrower is kept. Perhaps more impressive, the suit can also read people’s “auras,” determining whether or not they are human or evil, a concept I’m fairly certain science doesn’t actually recognize. Anyway, none of that’s really important. The movie’s actually about the local country club, which is secretly a doorway to hell and run by demons, and their attempt to seduce Urich’s family into their demonic, soulless, evil ways.
Susan Lucci was probably the biggest name in the film at the time. She attempts to play her character as a wicked seductress. The eighties fashion, which includes much hairspray, shoulder pads, and pastel-colored pantsuits, distracts from this. Moreover, Lucci’s broad, cartoonish performance really distracts. Her character is obviously evil. She never makes the country club sound like anything but an obvious cult. Lucci bites into some deep cheese, speaking dialogue that no human has ever spoken, while seducing the family into joining. If she was intentionally going for campy humor, it’s a success. I somehow doubt that was the case. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy and Bill Erwin show up for brief, professional roles and Michael Berryman has a blink-and-miss-it cameo.
“Invitation to Hell” was suppose to be a horror movie, I think. When it isn’t awash in day-glo camp, there are some attempts to scare. A long sequence involves a strange noise rapping at the door… That goes on too long and pays off in a senseless fake-out scare. Sometimes, some legit spookiness comes out of kids whispering strange things at night. However, kids melodramatically smashing video games and then getting a cookie aren’t it. The wife, played by Joanna Cassidy, gives into the evil very quickly. She displays her new demonic presence by buying new furniture, getting a haircut, and developing a major hate-on for the family dog, in a particularly awful moment. This builds up to a moment where Urich confronts his wife about the changes, her brandishing a butcher knife the whole time. In a better movie, it could have been a suspenseful sequence. However, Cassidy overacts to a major degree, casting the sequence in an exaggerated, overheated light. If it wasn’t for that, the synth score strobes along, adding to the ridiculousness. The way the couple makes up following this sequence also leads to unintentional laughs. The only semi-effective moment in the whole film is a fight between Urich and a beefy security guard. Even it delivers some laughs due to the abrupt way it ends.
Like “Summer of Fear” before it, in the last act, “Invitation to Hell” completely looses its shit. Rob comes home to discover that his daughter has disemboweled her favorite stuffed bunny with a crowbar. The image of Punky Brewster swinging a crowbar around, shouting “Bad bunny!” in a hopelessly cheesy demonic voice, produces nothing but laughter. It’s gets better, when the son jumps from the stairs onto his back and the wife attacks with a nine-iron, each one shouting in bad “Exorcist” voices.
The ridiculous has only begun to escalate. After stealing the astronaut suit and proving that his phasers are set to kill, Urich walks into the club’s Halloween party. For extra-subtly, one of the demonic club members is dressed as a Nazi. Our protagonist then walks into a literal fire and brimstone hell, resists Susan Lucci’s demonic charms, does a melodramatic dive into the abyss, and ends up in a version of the home town where all the color is inverted. Inside his house, the wife is tortured by playing the piano forever, surrounded by a blue light force field. Not to go too far into spoiler territory, but the power of love prevails. Piano keys shoot through walls and Lucci Xanadus herself out of existence. Normally, I’d say that explaining all of this has ruined the movie but some things you’ve really got to see for yourself.
|This awesome poster has |
little to do with the actual movie.