“What I want, Matt, is some power.”
Welcome to year two of Made-for-TV March where the movies are cheap and contain lots of lightning!
I love made-for-TV movies. The more I watch, the more I grow fond of this sort-of sub-genre. Watching Invitation to Hell only solidified all my opinions.
Directed by Wes Craven, Invitation to Hell is a horror sci-fi thriller that first aired in 1984 on ABC. By this point, Craven was well into solidifying his name as an icon of the genre with his early classics. A Nightmare on Elm Street was released just a few months later in November of that year. It was well clear that this project was in the hands of a man who really knew what he was doing.
The Winslow family move to a new town for father Matt (Robert Urich) to begin his new job. The family have led a mostly lower-middle class life, waiting for Matt’s work as an inventor to blossom. His new job is seemingly a step in the right direction.
The family learn that “anyone who is anyone” belongs to the local country club. Like all good 80’s suburbanites, their neighbours all comply with the expectations. But for the mostly-poor Winslows, they stand out with their shabby furniture and car.
But Matt is reluctant to join, and instead focuses on developing his technology for an astronaut’s suit. The suit allows the wearer to enter extreme temperatures, and the helmet is able to detect is something is human or non-human.
One day, the family are nearly in an accident when their car is cut off by another. When Matt goes to confront the driver, out pops Jessica Jones (Susan Lucci), the director of the club. She immediately takes a shine to Matt, and encourages him and his family to join their club.
Matt’s disinterest in the club continues, while it only increases for his wife Pat (Joanna Cassidy) and their kids (Bastian and Punky Brewster). At work, Matt begins to notice something strange going on. His secretary, Grace, keeps trying to slip him information that he walks away ignorant from. His friend and co-worker Tom gets promoted to a cushy job after joining the club, despite not mentioning any hint of a promotion before.
Jessica invites the Matt and Pat to have a tour of the club, and Matt agrees. During the tour, Matt wanders alone when he hears crying coming from the other side of a large, ominous door. Weirded out, Matt declines yet again to join the club.
But Jessica usurps Matt, and invites just Pat and the kids to join, which the gladly agree to. And after their ‘initiation’, things begin to get worse for Matt.
Soon Grace is replaced, and disappears. He receives a call from Grace’s husband, a vet, and is informed that Pat tried to have the family’s beloved dog put down, seemingly without good reason. When Matt confronts Pat, she snaps at him. And Matt later learns of his ex-secretary’s death.
Though not an idiot, Matt begins to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Pat’s personality changes from warm mother to yuppie bitch, and his kids become increasingly violent. And during a bit of research, Matt learns that all of the promotions in the last number of years have happened only to members of the country club.
With everything in place, Matt sneaks into the country club to do a but of sleuthing. He learns that beyond the ominous doors, the temperatures are well over 300 degrees Fahrenheit. He breaks into his lab and steals his astronaut’s suit to wear as a costume to the club’s Halloween party.
The suit allows Matt to go beyond the doors, where the temperatures reach well about 2000 degrees – a literal hell. But as he searches for his real family, he’s pursued by Jessica in her devil’s costume. Despite her begging, Matt jumps off a cliff inside the room when he hears his children begging for his help.
When he lands, Matt awakes to find himself in a sort of alternate-dimension of his world. When he enters his house, he sees Pat at her piano, seemingly unable to stop playing piano. Jessica catches him up, and insists that he has no way of defeating her or saving his family.
But Matt realises that Jessica is just a straight-up liar. A devil without any real powers. And upon understanding this, Matt reaches for his family and is able to save them all from hell.
As the family wake up back in their real home, they learn that the country club has been on fire for almost the entire night – seemingly destroyed.
Invitation to Hell is on many levels, a bit standard. But the writing, direction and acting really elevate it to something special. One thing the 80’s always got right was creating believable families. Each member of the Winslow family was so likable, it made it all the more enjoyable to see their spiral into possession.
There were several plot gaps, but for something that had to be under 2 hours (with commercials), it does a good job of creating a great supernatural feel. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the movie makes you feel uncomfortable with suburban conformity and that sensation that you can never be too sure who to trust. Incidentally, Kevin McCarthy has a role as Matt’s boss, and he’s fantastic.
Craven went on to direct several made-for-TV movies (Invitation to Hell was his second following the also excellent Summer of Fear). I won’t spoil myself by watching all of them this month, though. But watching this just made me miss the man more than I already do. Invitation to Hell is a movie that a full-heartedly recommend, and I personally can’t wait to watch it again.