Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1984) Part 1

6. Invitation to Hell

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.

And what about that family? Urich is probably the best leading man Craven had for any of his television films. It’s a fairly bland performance though Urich does get a good moment when tucking in his kids. His character at least recognizes how weird the entire community’s obsession with a spa is, even if his flat-out refusal to join is slightly overdone. At the very least Urich doesn’t fall into campy histrionics, unlike every other performance in the film. Barret Oliver, as the son, keeps an obsessive inventory of every item in the house and says things like “Computer heaven!” Meanwhile, Soleil Moon Frye, just a year away from becoming Punky Brewster, doesn’t seem aware that she’s on a film-set and plays imperiled especially badly.

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.

The movie is a fairly transparent critique of eighties era excess and materialism. Everyone in the town is willing to quite literally sacrifice their souls to get ahead in life. The line, “Everyone is climbing over each other at work” is dropped at one point. But why a country club? You could tell a similar story, shift the health spa angle out with, I don’t know, a new promotion at work. Everyone in the film is so obsess with the Simmering Springs Country Club. The constant mention quickly goes from being silly, to annoying, and back around to ridiculous again.

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.

So that’s “Invitation to Hell.” Perhaps Wes thought of this one just as a paycheck. Perhaps he was focusing on “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a significantly better film that would be released in the same year. Maybe he was going for intentional comedy. Either way, “Invitation to Hell” is an invitation to madness, boredom, and lots of wacky laughs. [Grade: C-]

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