Written by: Rich Rothstein
Directed by: Wes Craven
Reviewed by: Brett G.
In recent years, it has become quite a novelty to see titans of horror direct made-for-television films. Showtimeís Masters of Horror series featured directorial efforts from Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Mick Garris, and Don Coscarelli. Heck, they even managed to pull John Carpenter away from his beer and cigarettes not once, but twice. While such a phenomenon might seem like a new trend, this is not the case. Indeed, many horror masters tried their hand at television during their careers. For example, both Hooper and Garris directed episodes of Freddyís Nightmares, and Carpenter directed the little-known Someoneís Watching Me before tackling Halloween. One name notably absent from the Masters of Horror series, however, is Wes Craven, a man who needs no introduction to the seasoned horror veteran. Fret not, however, because Craven directed not just one, but a whopping three horror features for television. Among them is Invitation to Hell, which aired about six months before Cravenís masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Anyone remotely familiar with Craven can know what a crapshoot it is when it comes to determining the quality of his work. Thus, one should be extremely wary of assuming that Invitation to Hell is good due to the close proximity of its release to that of Elm Street. I mean, the man amazingly followed up that horror classic with Chiller. Therefore, you really can't fault me for being a bit hesitant about Invitation to Hell, which deals with the Winslow familyís move to a seemingly perfect suburban paradise that ultimately descends into a nightmarish experience. The film seems to play out as a sort of warning against being lured towards money, power, and blindly joining the crowd; indeed, it seems firmly rooted in the philosophy of ďDie Yuppie Scum,Ē as the film literally turns the confines of high-class society into hell. However, as we shall see, this might be over-thinking the film a bit.
The head of the Winslow household, Matt, has recently secured a high-ranking position with a huge corporation, much to his own chagrin. The nearby country club, Steaming Springs, also promises high class and prestige to all its members, and the family soon becomes pressured to join like everyone else. This sounds harmless, but the club is being run by a mysterious woman named Jessica Jones, a character who sets a car and its inhabitant on fire in the opening scene of the film. Of course, she seems pretty normal to everyone else, especially Mattís wife and kids, who join the club. It soon becomes clear that all is not right, however, as the family starts exhibiting strange behavior. Matt, unlike those around him, has been wary of Jessica from the start and investigates a mysterious room at the country club thatís apparently used to initiate new members. What lies beyond the door is the secret to Jessicaís evil intentions, and itís up to Matt save his family from her demonic clutches.
Iíll admit that the premise of Invitation to Hell sounds interesting, if not a bit trite. Weíve seen films that concern dark secrets that lie behind a normal faÁade in films before; however, I held out hope that Craven could still make this interesting. Unfortunately, thatís not the case for the most part because the film is just boring. I realize that this was made for television, but most of the film feels like nothing more than a melodrama for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Indeed, thereís nothing particularly horrific about the film besides a random, violent outburst by a child and Jessicaís shady behavior. This wouldnít be a bad thing if the film were establishing interesting, well developed characters, but this isnít the case. This is unfortunate because the film actually manages to boast an excellent cast that features Robert Ulrich, Joanna Cassidy, Joe Regalbuto, and even Soleil Moon Frye. The trite script and banal dialogue really prevent the cast from injecting the film with any sort of life or energy.
Cravenís directing doesnít help matters either because Invitation to Hell is a painfully dull piece of work. Itís competent work, but thereís nothing particularly inventive or memorable here. Even the cinematography isnít very special, which is surprising considering the legendary Dean Cundey (Halloween) is behind the lens. Pacing-wise, the film just manages to limp towards its predictable ending. If anything, the final sequence in the film does feature a pretty elaborate set piece that provides a nice contrast to the dull atmosphere of the rest of the film. I did enjoy the filmís score a bit during the moodier scenes, but I canít help but think that itís almost a direct rip-off of Carpenter and Howarthís theme for Halloween III. From a horror perspective, thereís not a whole lot to like here because the film doesnít really feature anything thatís even remotely horrific aside from a few creepy sequences involving kids. If youíve ever want to see Punky Brewster ape Linda Blairís performance from The Exorcist, this film will satisfy that need. Not surprisingly, thereís no blood or nudity, but the fact that this was made for television is no excuse because Carpenter managed to make a deftly stylish thriller with Someoneís Watching Me. Craven, on the other hand, only managed to churn out yet another piece of garbage to go along with the rest of the steaming piles heís produced over the years.
While Invitation to Hell isnít Cravenís worst, itís not very far from the bottom. When watching horror, we sometimes hope that bad films can still manage to be entertaining in their cheesiness; however, this film canít even claim its place there. Instead, itís exceedingly mediocre and dull, and thereís really no reason to seek it out unless you feel like you have to see every single film Wes Craven ever directed. If youíre one of those people, youíre in for quite a painful experience. Invitation to Hell is on DVD, so itís not that hard to seek out if you absolutely need to see this. The Artisan DVD contains the film in its proper full-frame aspect ratio and a 2.0 stereo soundtrack. The presentation wonít light the world on fire, but I donít think anything could really make this presentable. Only hardcore Craven aficionados need to seek it out at their own risk; for everyone else, this is definitely an invitation you should refuse. Trash it!
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