Invitation to Hell (1984)

Rating: C+

Dir: Wes Craven
Star: Robert Urich, Joanna Cassidy, Susan Lucci, Joe Regalbuto

Following up on the review of a largely forgotten Steven Spielberg TV movie, here’s another famous director slumming it on the small screen. Though unlike Spielberg, Craven was already famous. Albeit not as famous as he would become a few months after this screened, when A Nightmare on Elm Street became a pop culture phenomenon. But he had already a number of theatrical features under his belt, most recently Swamp Thing. It wasn’t Wes’s first TVM either, having previously directed the witchcraft themed Stranger in Our House, starring Linda Blair, in 1978. But it still seems a little out of character to see Craven operating within the strict limits of mid-eighties network television. 

However, despite these restrictions, this is pretty decent, at least for the genre. The Winslow family move to a new town after father Matt (Urich) gets a job with a tech company, working on preparations for a manned mission to Venus. Everyone who is anybody locally is members of the local country club, Steaming Springs, run by Jessica Jones (Lucci), but Matt is less enthusiastic about joining up than wife Pat (Cassidy). His qualms prove fully justified, because – and I trust this isn’t much of a spoiler – Jones is the vanguard of an alien invasion. They are gradually replacing the locals with copies, and Matt is about the last holdout, his suspicions kicked into top gear after “Pat” tries to have their beloved dog put to sleep. 

If this sounds a bit like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it should – the presence of Kevin McCarthy as Matt’s boss is clearly not coincidental. Rather than an allegory for communism though, it seems the target is capitalism, and the way people dehumanize themselves to get ahead. It’s done subtly enough – being on eighties network television perhaps working on its favour here – that you can just enjoy the fun stuff. Topping that list is Lucci, then in the middle of thirteen straight Emmy nominations for her role in All My Children. She’s all shoulder pads and hairspray, making for a fine alien leader. You might recognize a couple of faces from The Hills Have Eyes: most obviously a certain tall, bald valet, but Virginia Vincent too. Soleil Moon-Frye also plays one of the Winslow kids. 

While the characters and most of the performances are fine, the story, by Richard Rothstein, has its flaws. Some elements are horribly contrived. For instance, the way Matt happens to be working on a scanner which detects alien lifeforms, and a spacesuit resistant to extreme heat. Exactly what he needs to save his family; what are the odds? But I did like the grandstand ending, despite the resolution teetering on the edge of the “love conquers all” cliché. It takes place deep in the bowels of the earth beneath the club, and has some genuinely good matte effects (it was justifiably nominated for an Art Direction Emmy). I’m left kinda nostalgic for the days when TV did this kind of thing.