The next directorial project that Wes Craven took on after mucking through the swamps of South Carolina was 1984’s Invitation to Hell, a television movie-of-the-week made for ABC for the financial equivalent of a pack of playing cards and a pouch of Big League Chew.
Okay, it wasn’t that cheap, but the production values were definitely much smaller than Craven’s previous two films. However, since Craven began his career in a low-rent fashion, this was somewhat of a homecoming in ways, I suppose. Plus, he had solid backing from a legitimate production source as well as some relatively high-rent names when it came to television. We get Robert Urich as protagonist Matt Winslow and Susan Lucci as Jessica Jones, AKA “You’re the Devil!” (trust me, I’m not spoiling anything with that statement), plus post-Blade Runner Joanna Cassidy, Joe Regalbuto (soon to be known as Frank Fontana on Murphy Brown), kiddie actors Barret “Neverending Story” Oliver and Soleil “Punky Brewster” Moon Frye, instantly recognizable genre character actor Kevin McCarthy, the Bad Seed herself Patty McCormack, and a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Michael Berryman (see, I told you Craven was faithful to his actors).
Seriously, not a bad collection of talent there. Plus, any time you get to watch Susan Lucci chew scenery like a pit bull who hasn’t been fed for a week? Who the hell doesn’t want to watch that? In fact, you can watch it on YouTube right now rather than reading any further, if you’d like. I won’t be mad. Promise.
The story itself isn’t terribly complex. Jessica Jones runs a spa and club in the lustrous (and deliciously named) town of Steaming Springs. It’s really a front for her cult of worshipers, to whom she grants unlimited wealth and power, so long as they join her club. Literally. Matt Winslow and his family play the happy but unknowing new residents who move to town so Matt can take a job finishing the programming on his latest and greatest invention: a space suit that can withstand extremely hot conditions.
Wow. Do you think that might come in handy at some point in a movie that takes place in the town of Steaming Springs?
This was such a slice of nostalgia to watch. I feel as though the era of the prime-time MOTW is well behind us. However, there was a time when movies like this were a cheesy joy to behold. And this particular offering actually is solid little gem. The script, written by Richard Rothstein, is somewhat pedestrian. Rothstein’s greatest contribution as of this writing, beyond this script of course, was coming up with the story for Universal Soldier. So there you go.
However, Craven kept a tight directorial rein on the story, moving the action along at a satisfying pace. Don’t expect a whole lot of gore. This was regular television, after all. Craven always battled with censors throughout his career, but you can bet that they were in full attack mode whenever they knew he was dabbling in television work. Also, this was the Reagan-era 80s. Milquetoast was considered offensive before the watershed hour.
Even without the excessive gore of Craven’s previous horror fare, he still does give us a lovely trippy end sequence when Matt Winslow goes into the depths of the underworld to save his family. I feel as though this whole sequence would be AMAZEBALLS with some narcotic assistance. Not that I’m condoning that kind of behavior in any way. Still, it’s solid visual craziness that drops on you in a most unexpected but delightful way.
I definitely wouldn’t consider this as one of Craven’s top offerings, but it’s still an enticing offering from him to the horror genre.