Wes Craven

Wicked Wednesday: Invitation to Hell (1984)

“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 Snatchersthe 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.

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Wicked Wednesday: Stranger in Our House/Summer of Fear (1978)

summeroffear

This is one of the few films where going into it I knew careers of the director and the two lead actresses well. I guess that’s why I was probably set up for a fall with this one.  Stranger in Our House is a made-for-TV film by Wes Craven that originally aired in 1978 on NBC. Seems unlikely now that a network television station would hire a director like Craven to make a film for their channel, especially because at this point Craven didn’t have much to his name other than a pair of highly-controversial films – The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left.

There’s not much that marks Summer of Fear as interesting, really, other than the names attached to it. A teenage Linda Blair is the leading lady, but mostly comes off like the moody child she’s so good at playing instead of a more compelling lead. Also notable is that the screenplay was adapted from the book Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan, whose films have been adapted to films multiple times, including I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Rachel Bryant (Blair) wakes up one morning to the news that her uncle and aunt have died in a car crash. Their daughter, Julia, moves in with Rachel’s family. The two families had been distant for years, so the death of Julia’s parents is the first time Rachel has learned of her cousin, who is the same age as her.

Julia’s arrival marks the start of strange events like sending Rachel’s horse Sundance into a frenzy, her male cousin (Rachel’s older brother, Peter) hitting on her and Rachel finding a tooth in a canister in Julia’s luggage. Plus Julia spends time in the Ozarks, which the family attributes to her strange accent, despite the fact that she’s from Massachusetts and goes to school there.

Despite her suspicions, Rachel decides to take Julia under her wing and take her shopping with her friend Carolyn (played by a young Fran Drescher). Julia gets a make-over to help her blend in with her horse-obsessed surroundings. But when the girls head back to the Bryant house, Sundance is not a fan of Julia’s new look and nearly tramples her. The horse gets moved to the club and away from Julia.

The morning of the dance, Rachel wakes up covered in hives and discovers a picture of her is missing from a frame. Because of her illness, she doesn’t go to the dance, and instead Julia goes with Rachel’s boyfriend Mike as her escort and wearing the dress that Rachel spent ages making herself. While the family admires Julia in the mirror, Rachel notices that her cousin doesn’t always have a reflection.

In the night, Rachel does some poking around in the bedroom she’s sharing with Julia. She finds some questionable objects, including several matches and an a wax figure with Sundance’s hair on it. She hears someone come home and finds her brother Peter on the other side of her bedroom door. He’s angry because Mike didn’t let anyone get near Julia all night, which is probably not the most desirable quality in a boyfriend (though, perhaps you shouldn’t let your boyfriend go out on dates with your obviously-freaky cousin to begin with).

The next day is Rachel’s horse competition and she attends since her hives cleared up overnight. She hunts down Mike, who says that he felt instantly attracted to Julia and is finished with Rachel. Kind of a dick move there, Mike. Unfortunately, the days gets worse for Rachel when Sundance begins to freak out, and tumbles down a hill with Rachel on his back. The horse suffers a broken leg and is immediately put down by the vet.

Things for Julia, on the other hand, keep getting better as she integrates more with the Bryant’s and edges out Rachel. She becomes close with Carolyn and her relationship continues with Mike.

Fed up with Julia’s happiness at her expense, Rachel goes to the town’s occult expert (which, you know, every town in America has). Professor Jarvis tells her that the objects she mentioned (the wax figure and the picture) could be used for black magic. Rachel continues her research into witchcraft. She reads that horses have animosity towards the possessed. But Rachel messes everything up when she tells Julia she’s going to expose her with Professor Jarvis’ help.

In the morning, Rachel can’t find any of her evidence. Plus Professor Jarvis is found harmed after collapsing and is rushed to the hospital. Rachel decides to go to the hospital with Julia. Her suggestion of it makes Julia react, obviously foiling her plans. When they return from their visit (one that the prof survives), Rachel reads in her book that witches’ powers are not active while they sleep. She digs up a letter addressed to Julia and learns that Julia has a supposed interest in music, and after calling Julia’s old roommate, she learns that she was captain of the glee club.

During her investigation, Carolyn calls saying that the professor has been asking for Rachel. She goes to see him and he tells her that witches are not able to be photographed. Rachel later convinces her mother to photograph Julia. The cousin is reluctantly photographed, but Rachel’s mother postpones developing the photographs.  Rachel and her mother get into an argument over Rachel’s strange behvaiour and her theories about Julia. But she does overhear Julia admitting she has no interest in music, contradicting the information that Julia’s roommate told her.

The night before Julia and Rachel’s mother are to go on a trip, Rachel’s mother sees Julia flirting with her uncle. Rachel’s mother seems to be warming to the idea that something strange is going on, especially after she approaches her husband about the topic. Julia decides to forgo the trip with her aunt, and stays to attack Rachel while she develops the photographs.

Julia reveals that she is in fact Sarah, the family cleaning lady of Julia’s family. The two women begin to fight, but Rachel manages to lock Sarah into the darkroom. The rest of the movie the resulting chase and showdown between the Bryants and Sarah.

Stranger in Our House (or also known as Summer of Fear) is nothing super exciting, to be completely honest. But when are made-for-TV movies ever really great? The story is predictable and pretty safe, but that’s network television for you. It would have been a lot more fun to watch Craven work his magic with his gloves off, especially when working with actress like Blair and the fabulous Lee Purcell, who played Julia. It’s probably only worth the effort if you’re a Craven complete-ist.

RIP Wes Craven – the man who made our nightmares real on screen

When I saw the news of Wes Craven’s passing yesterday morning, I felt a honest sense of sadness overcome me. Many people will say “it’s just a movie” and for the most part, I agree. But there was always something unique about Craven’s films that are so unlike any other. He made horror that was always more than just a movie.

Last House on the Left absolutely stunned the hell out of my teenage self. I had never seen such horrible acts on the screen. I kept looking away, but I also felt a sense of what I was watching was important. These are real horrors. The things that terrify almost every woman around the world. I have never been so affected by a film. I haven’t since.

A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream were the movies that proved horror could be bloody, but it could also be clever. A joke could be terrifying too. Our dreams, our culture – all things that should make us weary.

But those are just the iconic films the man has made. He was one of the few directors so self-aware of what he was doing in film and made sure he was winking and nudging with us.

It’s truly with a heavy heart that we say good-bye to the man who made so much possible. He made my nightmares real on screen. There will never be another like him.

Wes Craven died of brain cancer on August 20th. He was 76-years-old.