This poster makes the movie look way cooler than it really is.
Scientist Matt Winslow and his family move to a new town so he can take up a job at a new corporation that’s currently in the midst of developing a new, high-tech spacesuit for NASA. Not long after arriving, Matt starts to become suspicious of the local health club, an organization that seemingly everyone in town with any level of authority appears to be a member of. His colleagues and wife pressure him to join in an effort to move up the corporate ranks and become a member of the “In crowd.” But the more Matt looks into the club and the people who have joined it, the more he discovers that the seemingly benign health club is hiding a terrible secret.
Umph… Shit like that never bodes well.
Invitation to Hell is a 1984 made for TV movie directed by Wes Craven that stars Robert Urich, Joanna Cassidy and soap opera star Susan Lucci. I didn’t really know about the TV movie part before going in (though all the ‘fade to black’ transitions eventually gave it away). I just saw the name ‘Wes Craven’ attached to the director title and decided to give it a go. But this isn’t the type of movie Craven attached his name to in later years as a way to trick audiences into watching random horror movies that he really had nothing to do with, and that may or may not have been any good. No, Wes really did direct this creepy, yet highly cheesy little film about the hidden evils of suburbia. So, at the very least, when going into this movie you can rest assured that it at least looks nice. But don’t go thinking that just because Invitation to Hell was released the same year as Nightmare on Elm Street, that you’re going to get anything that’s nearly the same quality as one of Craven’s most well-known works.
Heh, heh, heh….we’re all going to die.
For starters, the premise of the movie is absurd, and not necessarily in a fun, campy way. You see, Susan Lucci is the Devil (or just a demon, I’m still not entirely clear on that), who basically convinces a bunch of lonely/desperate shmoes to sell her their souls for a pay bump and some golfing and pool privileges (and in the kids case, Halloween Dance privileges). And of course the only person who sees her menace for what it is is the geeky new guy who doesn’t want to play proverbial or literal ball with her. So, it’s the type of movie where you have to turn your brain off about half way through and just accept what’s happening, or else the whole thing sort of falls apart. And you especially have to turn it off by the final act, or you may risk hurting yourself with that super cheesy deus ex machina conclusion they tacked on to the ending there.
The power of LOVE compels you!… No, really, that’s pretty much how it goes.
The acting is pretty good as far as TV movies go. Urich is great as the ‘everyman’ hero type. He’s kind, he’s reasonable, he has a healthy sense of skepticism, and he really loves his family. He comes across as a likable guy just trying to do the right thing. Cassidy also does a decent job as the loving wife and mother who secretly desires more in life. Her character eventually devolves into melodramatic campy-town, but that was a script issue more than an acting issue. Hell, even the kids (including a young Soleil Moon Frye) are pretty tolerable as far as kids go. Of course, the standout here is Lucci, who is equal parts menacing and campy diva. Unfortunately, the film didn’t seem to know which direction they wanted to go with that, so she kind of ends up flip-flopping between terrifying and kinda corny. I don’t know if part of the issue was the script, or that her soap acting skills were starting to seep through, but by the end it was kind of hard to take her brand of ‘evil’ seriously. But hey, at least we get to see her in a ton of fabulous outfits, so at least that’s something.
Bless this woman…
But not her hair stylist. Damn it, 80s….
Lets face it, few women can pull off classy, campy and breathtakingly stunning in the same film.
If you’re hoping for a lot of thrills and chills in this little horror outing then you’re going to be a bit disappointed. Despite the reputation of the director and the fact that we’re dealing with a creepy demon/devil who’s basically pulling an Invasion of the Body Snatchers on all the corporate big-wigs in town, Invitation to Hell really revolves less around ‘horror’ and is instead a not-so-subtle commentary about the dark side of American suburbia and the dangers of consumerism, excess and the desires to fit in within a certain crowd. It’s the made-for-TV version of an anti-yuppie film, with some 50s nostalgia thrown in for good measure. All good and interesting themes to be sure. It’s just a shame they weren’t utilized in a better film.
Those seeing the name Craven and looking for some type of bloody bits are, again, not going to be impressed. There is precisely ONE good special effect in this film that involves a chauffeur literally melting within the first 5 minutes. After that the movie is a goreless, bloodless wasteland that relies more on color, costume and fog to help create a compelling atmosphere. I kept watching in hopes that some more similarly impressive melty bits would be shown, but alas, it seems they used most of their special effects budget in those first few seconds. Pity too. Melty Man melted like a champ.
They did have some nice light effects, though.
So, Invitation to Hell winds up being an interesting little film, but not much else. It’s got good direction, good acting (they do the best with what they were given), and a most ~fabulous~ villain. But the plot is pretty meh, and the ending is down right cringy. It’s clear Craven’s heart just wasn’t in this little production, but considering what he had to work with, I kind of don’t blame him. It’s certainly not the worst thing with his name attached to it, but it’s nowhere near the best either. Still, flaws and all, it still manages to be an entertaining little oddity. If you’re a Wes Craven or Susan Lucci fan then you’ll probably get some enjoyment out of it.
Invitation to Hell is available on several streaming services.
It is also available on DVD.