The Wes Craven Retrospective: Invitation to Hell (1984)

1984 was quite a busy year for Wes Craven who managed to release three films at that time: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes 2 and Invitation to Hell, the latter of which was a made-for-TV project he did not have a hand in writing. Similarly to how I felt about his 1978 outing Summer of Fear, a movie-of-the-week thriller with Linda Blair, I was immediately asking the very fundamental question of why Wes Craven – busy as he was – would ever decide to re-enter the world of television.

Similarly yet again, the answer to this question may be just as simple as monetary compensation or that Craven liked to stay busy. But… he was already busy enough writing, directing and producing two other movies so the reason why he agreed to be a gun-for-hire director on a TV project like Invitation to Hell must have involved the subject matter to some extent, which at the very least fits canonically within his comfort zone of using genre tropes to have a conversation with the audiences at large about the state of the American nuclear family and perhaps leave a few caustic comments about American cultural development as a whole.

Thus, I approach Invitation to Hell with a keen analytical eye despite the fact the film itself is incredibly easy to hate. After all, it’s hard to even comment on its production value, the quality of acting performances, plotting, dialogue or even cinematography (despite the fact the film was lensed by the great Dean Cundey, whose characteristic flair seems mostly absent from the picture). However, it has to be acknowledged that somewhere beneath the edifice of low-budget tight-on-schedule journeyman filmmaking mandated by the televisual format lies something much more interesting that I think drew Wes Craven to make this movie in the first place.

He must have felt some kind of kinship with the film’s central notion of a family (Matt Winslow played by Robert Urich and Pat Winslow played by Joanna Cassidy) with two kids who move to California because the father has been offered a highly lucrative position as an engineer in a high-tech company, which naturally comes with marked advancement on the social ladder. They are constantly coddled and tempted by riches and excesses of the social strata to which they have gained access. What is more, it turns out that everyone who is anyone also belongs to a highly elite social club called “The Spring” that seems to open even more doors for its members. However, nothing is what it seems as the secretive club harbours a dark secret and – tempting as it may be – the price for partaking in the spoils of ultimate luxury might involve parting ways with one’s soul. And because the protagonist is increasingly resistant to these earthly temptations – being a work-obsessed scientist and all – he finds himself in conflict both with his family members who have fallen under the spell of mesmerizing opulence and with the club owners whose powers happen to be supernatural in nature.

Now, even though Invitation to Hell is not Casablanca and it’s almost too easy to take it apart based solely on performances and convenient plotting, there’s something about this movie that makes it more watchable than any old made-for-TV schlock. This is partially because the story itself is inherently compelling with its central mystery involving conspiracies, gaslighting, disappearing secretaries and rather clever (if only a tad conventional) ways of letting the viewer in on things the characters have yet to figure out for themselves. Hence, the intrigue – such as it is – quickly shapes up to become a medley of inspirations lifted from Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock. In short, Craven directs this movie to feel and smell like a paranoid thriller from the 1970s with a supernatural twist. What is more, it is clear as day that where the movie eventually goes – as the characters accept the titular invitation – is likely drawing a lot from Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. In fact, it may have been how the movie was pitched in the first place – a made-for-TV Poltergeist knock-off.

But the fun doesn’t stop there because I refuse to believe Wes Craven, at the time about to release one of his career-defining movies, i.e. A Nightmare on Elm Street, agreed to make this movie because it was a bit of a spin on Poltergeist. I think he saw what was clearly hiding beneath the primary narrative and decided to flesh it out somehow, thus turning Invitation to Hell into an outright indictment of the American class-based society.

It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots and see this movie as an allegorical takedown of the richest castes of American society, so divorced from reality that they would sell their own souls for the promise of ceaseless success and overwhelming opulence. Granted, the way the film handles these themes is extremely tame and pared down, which is only to be expected given the TV format that simply wouldn’t allow Craven to get away with the type of allegorical conversation he fostered in The Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes, but it nevertheless succeeds in advancing its central thesis without too many distractions. It’s hard to miss the critique of corporate America overwhelmed by greed, or the shallow material aspirations of the middle classes who would stop at nothing in their pursuit of bettering their status and being able to sequester themselves from the rest of the world.

Consequently, as this intrigue (which you can see through without any problems) was playing out on the screen, I was thoroughly enjoying the thematic conversation happening sub-textually, as though I was watching a missing evolutionary link leading to the creation of Michael Haneke’s masterful cinema. Now, in the interest of complete honesty, Invitation to Hell is not at all related to Funny Games or Caché and I don’t think it ever aspired to be viewed as high art aiming to stir consciences of the masses. However, having said that the film’s thematic layer is what lingers long after the credits have rolled. I don’t think anybody will ever remember the film’s final act taking place in some kind of a hellish dimension (clearly lifted conceptually from Poltergeist), which by the way is in itself an example of filmmaking creativity making the most of extreme budgetary constraints. I don’t expect anyone to remember any inventive scares, even though there are a few to be found in the film. What this movie survives on is its potent commentary on the culture of its time, which fits within Wes Craven’s modus operandi and underlines his lasting interests as a socially-awake filmmaker. So, if you can stomach the utterly poor acting from Joanna Cassidy and don’t mind seeing bits of Poltergeist re-envisioned on a shoestring budget, you might find something interesting in Invitation to Hell. I sure did.

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