#6 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.
If I were the kind of person to give up on a film, I would have given up pretty early in Invitation to Hell, Wes Craven’s television movie that was designed to Susan Lucci a change of perception in the public consciousness and, perhaps, a path towards a Best Actress award at the Emmys. If I had, I would have missed the bonkers and kind of great final twenty minutes that largely saved the experience for me. Up to that point, the film was a plodding, predictable, dull, and overdrawn effort at a Twilight Zone episode, but the sudden visual experimentation elevates what came before. It’s not enough to save the whole thing, that part is simply too small a portion of the whole package to do that, but it highlights Craven’s strengths.
Matt Winslow (Robert Urich) is an inventor brought out to work for Micro-DigiTech, a mysterious corporation where an old friend, Tom (Joe Regalbuto), works as a salesman. It’s an upper-middle class town in South California where everyone knows each other, and life revolves around membership in the Steaming Springs Club, run by the mysterious Jessica Jones (Lucci). Matt’s invention is going to go into a helmet designed for a spacesuit that will be sent to Venus to survive the elements there, his contribution being a recognition hardware and software that identifies whether things are human or not and antagonistic or not. How? I dunno, but it does. And what do you know?! This Jessica Jones character doesn’t register as human! Shock! We find out a solid forty minutes before Matt does too! Drag…
The point of the horror is supposed to be twofold. The first is the idea of needing to sell one’s soul to go up in the world. The other is that moving up can make those close to you lose their own senses of humanity and what made you love them. The script was mostly done before Craven was brought onto the project, but I think it’s not a coincidence that this sort of focus on an all-American family getting invaded by evil forces from outside of it is there. It’s just that Craven didn’t really seem to understand the concept of escalation, especially in terms of dramatic stakes and tension. He was a setpiece guy, so when he approached this material he didn’t really know how to get under the skin of the audience for the first hour. It reminded me of the leaden delivery in Summer of Fear. Thankfully, this leadenness doesn’t last as long and does end up leading somewhere interesting.
There is pressure amongst his peers to join the club, but he’s resistant. The family wants to join because the club is the center of social life across every age demographic, and things up a bit when Tom becomes a full member and pressure mounts. There’s a mystery around Matt’s first secretary, an older woman who disappears after she insists that she has something important to tell him, replaced by a younger woman with no such hints about nefarious things. The rest of the family joins in secret, and Matt decides that it’s time to act.
He takes his astronaut costume to the costume party at the club, making like he’s Tom whom he’s killed after realizing that he’s not actually human, and he gets into the secret room where he…literally descends into Hell. I was not expecting that, to be honest. And, to make matters even more interesting, Craven’s surrealist bent makes a real showing, giving the whole finale a wonderfully formalist feeling that makes it more than it would be if Matt had walked onto a plywood set. Nothing he does is terribly complicated or expensive (it’s one new set, a matte painting, the inversion of color in footage, and then the redressing of a set we’ve already seen), but it creates an overall experience that’s different enough to it makes Matt’s journey feel more impactful.
The actual emotional bits follow through on the standard stuff that came before it, but that’s not to say what came before was bad, just kind of predictable and dull. The sudden infusion of a whole stylistic ending elevates the stuff that came before a good bit. It really points to Craven’s strengths. He does take horror seriously as a vehicle to deliver ideas, but he’s best when he’s allowed to explore them cinematically through surrealist visuals. Outside of that, he’s kind of lost, not having great grasps of character or structure.
Still, that ending is something else. I kind of loved it. It really wasn’t enough to save the whole film, it’s simply too dull up to that point to save, but I think it comes reasonably close. If you can make it through the first hour, there’s something special towards the end.