Like most of his peers in horror’s hallowed halls, Wes Craven contributed his share to the small screen; Summer of Fear (1978), Chiller (1985), and several episodes of The Twilight Zone revival (’85–’86) are indications of an artist who liked to keep busy and sometimes pay some bills. Invitation to Hell (’84) would seem to be a case for the latter, but it has an irresistibly goofy charm that’s impossible to resist.
Originally an ABC broadcast from Thursday, May 24th, Invitation stood no hope in you know where of winning the night; CBS had Magnum, P.I. and Simon & Simon, while the Peacock strutted around with their comedy lineup of Gimme A Break!/Family Ties/Cheers/Night Court. Those were impossible odds, even for the devil himself (or in this case, herself). Oh well. Throw on your tracksuit, grab your water bottle, because you’ve just received your Invitation to Hell.
Let’s open up our brimstone burnt copy of TV GUIDE and see what details the devil has in store:
INVITATION TO HELL (Thursday, 9pm, ABC)
When a family moves to a new town, they find out that membership at the local country club comes at a price – your soul. Robert Urich, Joanna Cassidy star.
We open on that very country club as a matter of fact: Steaming Springs, state of the art and the latest in fitness trends. When a careless driver runs over the head of the club, Jessica Jones (Susan Lucci – All My Children), she pops right back up, shoots a laser beam through his car, and sets him on fire. Cut to the highway as the Winslow clan (Urich, Cassidy, Punky Brewster herself, Soleil Moon Frye, and Barret Oliver) are moving on up to dad Matt’s new computer engineering job at Micro-Digitech; recommended by his friend Tom (Joe Regalbuto – Murphy Brown), Matt soon finds out that everyone is dying (or at least giving up their soul) to become a member at Steaming Springs.
Family man that he is, Matt doesn’t succumb to the pressure, instead choosing to work on his thermal spacesuit that can withstand temperatures hot enough for Venus (foreshadowing, perhaps?) and can detect whether an object is human or not (fore-foreshadowing you say?). When his family decides to join without him, Matt must stop the seductive Jessica Jones before she destroys him and his family forever. Can Matt stop her before his credit card is charged with eternal membership fees?
Invitation to Hell is silly. The performances are uneven. It’s beyond stupid. It is also, in a time of tepid stalker whodunnits, a blast of hot air with tacky effects and a willingness to go beyond the normal TV tropes with ideas. They’re not particularly great ideas, but they’re entertaining nevertheless. Isn’t that enough?
I say yes. To whit: the spacesuit that Matt designs not only has the groovy detection technology, it also has a built-in flamethrower and laser gun. (Because you never know what the hell you’ll come across on Venus, right?) After his clan pays their membership dues, Punky Brewster starts talking like Regan MacNeil as she and her brother attack daddy. Mom goes from plain and pretty to Victoria’s Secret with hair so high it almost hits the ceiling fan. And Hell itself? Well, it’s one part flaming catacombs and two parts suburbs shot with reverse exposure.
The Emmy Awards gave Invitation to Hell a nomination for Art Direction, and who am I to argue? Cheesy or not, it’s always nice to see actual effects attempted in a TV film; and frankly the catacombs look pretty good to me. The same can’t be said for the finale, as La Lucci is backed up by laser lighting right out of a countdown episode of Solid Gold, but, as always, Craven worked with what he was given.
Which isn’t to say that he always made the smart choice; as (rightfully) revered as he is, his filmography is filled with ups, downs, and shots that don’t even hit the side of the barn. But he was also a very smart man, and no doubt sought to make the material by Richard Rothstein (Death Valley) as palatable and fun as possible. The idea that a country club is a gateway to the underworld is a hard sell for even the best.
There are some broad swipes at the “greed is good” Reagan era that are very surface level and on the nose, which is where they belong; there’s only so much you can fit into a film that has a man in a spacesuit rock jumping through Hades. Invitation to Hell has no time for subtlety, but it’s always looking for new members. Join today!Next: Read Earlier Installments of This Series!