TNB Night Owl–Invitation to Hell

Wheel of cheese cut and stacked in front of a stone wall. Photo by Alexander Maasch.

Sometimes you expect so little from a movie that it’s easy to be pleasantly surprised. Such is the case with INVITATION TO HELL (1984), a made-for-TV movie directed by horror legend Wes Craven. The premise looked familiar–family moves to sleepy suburbia, husband gets a high-tech job, all the neighbors push them to join a country club that seems to change its members in odd ways….On the surface it looked like a cheap STEPFORD WIVES rip-off. But I like STEPFORD WIVES, and I like Wes Craven, so I popped it on expecting next to nothing.

The first shot involves a chauffeur driving through the country club. He’s so busy lecherously ogling bikini-clad young women that he doesn’t notice Susan Lucci standing right in front of him. He proceeds to drive right over her. However, she just levitates back up, not a scratch on her flesh or a wrinkle in her very 80s orange jumpsuit. That was my first clue this was not your standard STEPFORD WIVES rip-off.

Then we get to the main meat of the movie. As the opening credits roll, we see the family driving to their new neighborhood. Robert Urich and Joanna Cassidy are the parents in the front seat, giving us plenty of exposition of his new job at a Big Tech company. In the back seat are their good-natured kids Punky Brewster (Soliel Moon Frye) and That Kid From NEVERENDING STORY (Barrett Oliver). At least they’re not totally alone in their new town. Family friends also live there, and provide more exposition (as well as an almost carbon copy of the family, inevitably to be a stand-in warning of what their future holds).

The Big Mysterious Project Urich has been brought in to work on is a spacesuit designed to detect non-human entities and can withstand thousand-degree temperature. Now, if you’ve seen enough of these you’ll realize these are going to be key in whatever happens during the Great Third Act.

As the project draws closer to completion, Urich and his family are pressured to join the country club. His wife and kids really want to join, too. But when people join the club, strange changes happen to their personality. And its run by Susan Lucci who we remember from the beginning is definitely Not Normal.

What follows is a mostly predictable ride punctuated by either laugably cheesy moments or scenes that wow you with some wild design. In fact, INVITATION TO HELL won a Primetime Emmy award for design. I won’t give away too much in the way of spoilers, but the final scenes with Urich’s inevitable confrontation with Lucci certainly deserved recognition.

As far as the rest of the movie…it wasn’t winning any awards. As stated before, the story was mostly predictable. Wes Craven had already been making movies for more than a decade before tackling this. He knew how to make it work, but by the same token, didn’t push to create anything unfamiliar. That doesn’t mean the script was bad. It wasn’t great, but just fine. It did its job. All the actors were good, solid performers. Even the secondary characters were played by familiar faces of the 80s, and they all did a decent job with their roles. A good 90% of this movie is perfectly workable and thankfully NOT a STEPFORD WIVES rip-off. That other 10% looks really cool. The script is still perfectly milquetoast for that part, but it doesn’t matter due to how fantastic the visuals are.

Question of the night: have you ever joined a strange or unusual club?

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