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Invitation to Hell (1984)

 Rating: ** out of 4

Cast: Robert Urich, Joanna Cassidy, Susan Lucci, Joe Regalbuto, and Kevin McCarthy

Writer: Richard Rothstein

Director: Wes Craven

Following the back to back failures of Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing, Craven feared that his career was over. That fear and the need to simply keep working led him to a directing gig for ABC’s Movie of the Week which was developed to garner star Susan Lucci a prime time Emmy nomination. Had the film been stronger, that may have actually happened because she is quite good in it. At the end of the day though, the film is the very definition of lackluster and rests as the worst film of Craven’s early work.

The plot finds a family moving to a small suburban town that has a vast network of people trying to recruit the townsfolk into becoming members of an exclusive club called Steaming Springs. The family soon discovers that the club is a smokescreen for the devil (played by Lucci who devours every scene she is in) and that membership enslaves your soul in hell. It is up to the family’s father to delve into hell and save his family. Believe me, it sounds way cooler than it actually is.

The theme of conformity is laid on so thick that it loses all of its potency. And, seriously, if I hear the word ‘club’ one more time I will flip a tit. It is the most used word in the film. But, I digress. The problem is that it is trying so hard to be Invasion of the Body Snatchers that it loses sight of trying to be its own thing and fails to make any relevant commentary in doing so.

The film’s shortcomings are solely that of the screenplay (and low budget, but one knows what they are getting into when they opt to watch a TV movie). There are nuggets of surprising quality to be found. The cast, by and large, delivers strong performances. The production value, especially at film’s end, is quite good. In fact, the art direction did receive a prime time Emmy nomination that year. There are some nice moments with the family in the beginning of the film that really gelled with me. The theme of the functional-dysfunctional family that unites under the pressure of danger or death is prevalent in most of Craven’s works and really serves the climax well in this picture. He stated on the commentary for Deadly Blessing that while most horror filmmakers tend to center focus on a group of friends, his films often had family take center stage because while most people have friends that may loosely fit into the archetypal qualities, everyone has a family they could posit into the film’s perils. Another theme I see emerging in his works is that animals are observant to evil. This is the third film that has featured an animal lashing out at a villainous character and tipping off to the heroic lead that something in their world is not right.

Even though the film comes together well at the close, it is quite apparent that Craven only took the gig to get a paycheck. It offers little in the way of substance (that you haven’t already seen dissected in better films) and is a hard to plow through in the middle. This film came at the precipice of Craven’s most noted masterwork that would once again redefine the genre and pave the way for a new breed of terror; in six months from this film’s airdate A Nightmare on Elm Street would hit theaters.

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- January 2016

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