Whatcha Craven?: Invitation to Hell (1994)

Yesterday, I talked about Halloween parties in my review of Murder Party, and today I have another invite on the docket, but this time, it's to Hell! (Cue sinister organ music) When Daytime's Leading Lady and the Master of Horror collide for a Movie of the Week, the results are less celebratory than you'd want, but come along with me, and Punky Brewster, on an Invitation to Hell.

Matt Winslow (Robert Urich) and his wife Pat (Joanna Cassidy) move to a Southern California town for Matt's new job working on heat resistant space suits.  Everyone in town is crazy about the local country club, Steaming Springs, run by real estate agent Jessica Jones (Susan Lucci). Soon even Pat and his kids (Soliel Moon Frye, Barret Oliver) are obsessed and acting strangely. Getting more suspicious, Matt begins to do some digging and what he uncovers may lead him to the mouth of Hell, possibly in a heat resistant spacesuit. 
Before the credits even roll, before a single thing is established in Invitation to Hell, Susan Lucci with giant hair and a red belted jumpsuit, straight out of the Logan Run bargin bins, walks into the middle of the road, gets run over by a careless chauffeur, and then fries him to death using finger guns, a level of power she never displays for the rest of the film. To say that this isn't Wes Craven's best work, or up to the Emmy potential the network wanted to see in Susan, would be an understatement. Before I get too far into where Invitation went to hell in a bucket (baskets weren't in the budget), let me take a few minutes to talk about what went right. 

Invitation to Hell looks great throughout for a TV movie. No matter how silly the contrivance, Dean Cundey, best known for being behind the lens for a number John Carpenter films as well as Jurassic Park and Death Becomes Her, elevated the material to where it nearly felt like a feature. A low budget, shoddily plotted feature to be sure,  but if it didn't have fades for commercials throughout, I might have forgotten its TV origins. 

The cast is also populated with a few more notable actors. Kevin McCarthy, of Invasion of the Body Snatchers,  plays the creepy boss who is clearly in on the Satantic scheme. Joe Regalbuto, later of Murphy Brown fame, plays Matt's conniving friend who got him him the job, and Patty McCormack from The Bad Seed also makes an appearance.  Not to mention that the kids are played by the future stars of Punky Brewster and The Never Ending Story.

1984 must have been a wild year for Wes Craven. He was given an invitation to work with one of the biggest stars on Daytime television and it ended up a nightmare. Meanwhile, Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, also released released same year, would became the bedrock on a dream career and cement Wes Craven as a horror legend.  Craven had gotten enlisted in the Movie of the Week director's chair after his previous TV film, 1978's Summer of Fear left an impression on some on the networks executives as well as Craven's experiences both writing and directing feature films such as Swamp Thing and The Hills Have Eyes.

The network, for their part, wanted a project to land Susan Lucci, Erica Kane of the soap All My Children, an Emmy for dramatic acting, transforming Daytime's Leading Lady into an All Hours TV Diva. I have no idea why they picked a muddled script with Lucci as a pseudo-Satan baddie who is only in the film for small moments, but perhaps some draft from screenwriter Richard Rothstein, who also penned Universal Soldier and The Hitcher, featured her in more scenes  Invitation to Hell came out more as a mix between Stepford Wives, The Omen, and the lowest-fi version of last half hour of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Invitation to Hell does not extend hospitality for you to enjoy one of the finer works of cinema, but it is entirely worth it to R.S.V.P 'yes' to this flick to see Lucci sit up after the aforementioned car crash like WWE's  Undertaker, Matt literally fighting his family after some Exorcist style shenanigans, partygoers dressed like nazis,  laser guns, flamethrowers, and a spacewalk straight to Hell, which looks like an 80s piano bar. Seems legit.

Invitation to Hell is streaming on HBO Max as Part of their Craven/Carpenter Collection or just check it out on YouTube

                              Bugg Rating 

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