Reviews / October 29, 2020
Last year, my esteemed editor-in-chief delivered me a Halloween treat for our Tubular Terrors series in the form of The Night Stalker. My overall lack of familiarity with the made-for-TV horrors of yesteryear led to another recommendation this year, and it was just as enjoyable as skulking around 1970s Las Vegas with Carl Kolchak. But the sunlit suburbs of Wes Craven’s 1984 Invitation to Hell hide just as many demonic horrors—and conspiracies among the ruling class—as the shadowy, vampire-stalked alleyways of Las Vegas’s sleazy eternal night.
Invitation to Hell (Wes Craven’s previous made-for-TV horror was the 1978 Linda Blair vehicle Stranger in Our House) definitely follows on well-trod thematic ground, examining the American nuclear family’s impulse to conform and keep up with the Joneses in suburbia. But it’s on the execution, in the casting, and in a few of the left-field plot developments that the film really shines. Robert Urich and Joanna Cassidy play Matt and Pat Winslow, a married couple with the requisite pair of kids, Robbie and Chrissy (Barret Oliver of D.A.R.Y.L., Cocoon, and The NeverEnding Story and Soleil Moon Frye of Punky Brewster), and the obligatory dog moving into a brand new planned community as Matt takes a new job at the believably-ludicrously-named firm Micro-DigiTech. Matt is working on a new spacesuit for NASA’s exploration of Venus (not only is it temperature resistant to the thousands of degrees, but it can also identify non-human life; unsurprisingly, these details will become very important later in a unique case of Chekhov’s Spacesuit).
The Winslows’ beat-up station wagon literally runs into the town car of the woman who seems to really run this community: head of the local Steaming Springs Country Club, Jessica Jones (played by All My Children star Susan Lucci). The Winslows are soon drawn into the inevitable peer pressure to “join the club,” which, yes, ends up being a Satanic coven where the wealthy members of the club are replaced by doppelgängers from Hell. Matt ends up becoming the de facto resistance to this infernal conspiracy as his work colleagues get “promotions,” loyal secretaries are killed in mysterious accidents, and eventually the members of his own family are replaced by their evil demonic duplicates.
Again, this is all pretty bog-standard stuff that’s been explored since the very beginnings of American postwar suburbia: we’ve seen it from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Twilight Zone and back again by this point. If the Reagan 1980s jostle alongside Eisenhower’s 1950s as the collective psychological emblems of our Cold War material bounty (and the neuroses that come along with it), then it’s no surprise that we’d see a reflection of the same social-parable B movies just as “morning in America” is dawning. But this is the ’80s, and times have changed. From the very outset of Invitation to Hell, the creeping presence of technology is as much a sinister undertone as the impulses towards conformity and upward mobility. From the very first minutes, we see Robbie staying up late playing a hand-held video game (later smashed up by one of the neighborhood’s bratty demonic kids) and Matt’s habit of bringing his work home, impelling Pat to complain, “I want this house to be a home. Not a lab.” Later on, as Matt’s paranoia ramps up, he finds a seemingly hypnotized neighbor kid over at the house for a sleepover smiling in front of the television—not in front of static as in 1982’s Poltergeist but in front of violent riot footage. Matt’s first secretary at work suspects something is wrong with all the people who’ve received promotions at Micro-DigiTech; she hands Matt the pertinent HR files on a giant computer tape. All around Invitation to Hell, the ways in which surveillance, automation, and computers are beginning to intrude upon family life in the 1980s abound.
The brand new home that the Winslows move into also becomes demonically-possessed in a way. Full of the family’s more old-fashioned furniture and decor at the beginning, Pat redecorates it in a severely dark and angular 1980s style, laden with all the modern amenities, once Pat and Robbie and Chrissy become “members of the club” without Matt’s knowledge. All around the country in the 1980s, the often homespun aesthetic embraced by Boomers in the 1970s as a post-hippie reaction to their plastic childhoods began to shift to something more aspirational, sophisticated, and urbane. This transformation is foreshadowed early in the film—before Pat’s demonic replacement!—with Pat stating that she wants to redecorate to make this house look like a home, not “a fraternity house.” “We’re grown up now,” she says. “You work for a big corporation.” Of course, Pat’s hope for a “pretty and bright” home is subverted when you see it looks like something out of an ’80s music video—or the films of David Lynch or Tim Burton.
Pat wants to keep up with the neighbors, which leads to her being seduced by Jessica into membership at Steaming Springs. The family (minus the suspicious Matt) undergoes a creepy “initiation” ceremony in the resort’s springs, which is actually a literal portal to Hell locked behind a giant steel door (with, of course, electronic keypad lock). The idea of locating the town’s demonic clique at a country club is a deeply resonant American trope by this time, but the prominent and conspicuous addition of a health club and spa to the country club’s social matrix shouldn’t be ignored. In the 1980s, physical fitness was peaking throughout America, and while jogging had been a fad since the 1970s, the next decade saw more and more Americans buying memberships to pricey private health clubs. Locating the sinister impulse to conformity within a palace of fitness and health might be one of Invitation to Hell‘s more subtle and successful horror metaphors, especially considering so many other ’80s horror films did so either exploitatively or gruesomely.
It’s really only in the final act that Invitation to Hell somewhat falls apart. As Matt discovers his family are seemingly forever replaced with their evil duplicates, he takes the fight right to Steaming Springs and Jessica. Filching his experimental space suit from the lab at work, Matt gate-crashes the club’s Halloween party (where the guests favor costumes as conspicuously evil as honest-to-God SS uniforms!) and makes his way down to the steel doorway leading to “the springs.” There he actually physically enters Hell. I was still under the impression that there might be a twist, and Jessica and her doubles might be aliens from Venus themselves, or robots—but the shadowy Gustave Doré-like caverns and the cries of the damned (including Matt’s coworkers and family) convey neatly that Matt is about to follow Orpheus, Aeneas, and Dante into the depths. And at the very bottom of this TV-movie Hell? Well, it turns out that it looks an awful lot like suburbia (the suburban street grid that Matt falls into, shot in negative film, actually looks a bit like a circuit board). In a mist-cloaked replica of the Winslow family home (empty of all furniture except a piano that Pat must play eternally), Pat, Robbie, and Chrissy are trapped in laser-lit circles, which Matt can only break through by reasserting his familial love for (and patriarchal control of) his family. They escape, of course, and Jessica—who tries and fails to seduce Matt into abandoning his family—is defeated. The Winslows teleport home to find the country club in flames after the Halloween party.
Whatever mawkishness the ending might possess, and despite the overall simplicity of the film’s message, there’s a lot to love about Invitation to Hell. Susan Lucci manages to convey real menace without chewing the scenery, portraying a sort of 1980s glad-handing, professional-class noblesse oblige that hides an iron fist underneath. It’s only when she’s forced to become a run-of-the-mill succubus that her character becomes uninteresting. In a pre-credit sequence at the very beginning of the film, she mercilessly combusts a limo driver who accidentally runs her over; in the aftermath of the explosion, her perfectly-poised big hair, makeup, and wardrobe say more in a few seconds than any clumsy exposition: Jessica is a confident, powerful, shoulder-padded coven leader for the Eighties. After getting used to Robert Urich in hardboiled TV series like Vega$ and Spencer: For Hire (as well as his turn as a world-weary cop investigating cattle mutilations in Endangered Species), it’s hard to buy this tough guy as a middle-management, Lacoste-wearing tech nerd. His transition to third-act quasi-badass seems almost like a fait accompli. But the scene where Soleil Moon Frye portrays a possessed Chrissie sitting in the middle of the dark and severely redecorated Winslow living room disemboweling her beloved stuffed bunny with a crowbar (!!!) throbs with real eerie energy. The synth soundtrack also gives the film a potent underscore of the technological paranoia telegraphed but never quite delivered upon by the film’s final act. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly swapped out for an orchestral score during the scenes in Hell.
Wes Craven, for the most part, delivers the goods in Invitation to Hell, a funny little parable from a year of paranoia that occasionally punches above its B-movie lineage to deliver some real thrills and thought-provoking themes.