Saturday, October 10, 2020

Invitation to Hell (1982)

Directed by:
Michael J. Murphy

College student Jacky (Becky Simpson) receives an invitation to a party taking place at a remote farmhouse owned by her estranged friend Laura (Catherine Rowlands), who had been "seduced away" from her studies to live out in the sticks with her new husband, Ed (Joseph Sheahan). Upon arrival, Jacky discovers the little get-together is actually a costume party but she's brought nothing to wear. Luckily her friend happens to have a Bride of Frankenstein costume sitting around. The masked party guests grab torches and head outside to some pagan altar. A confused and terrified Jacky is then grabbed and given an injection of a "sedative" against her wishes. She promptly passes out.

Jacky doesn't awaken until late the next day. After finding mysterious scratches on the inside of her thigh, she grabs her suitcase and rushes for the door. However, she's stopped by Ed and Laura, who warn her not to leave, tell her they're powerless to do anything about what's about to happen and keep speaking in extremely vague terms about a "he" and a "him" without actually identifying anyone. Jacky's attempt to drive off fails when her car mysteriously dies. And then her college boyfriend, Rick (Russell Hall), who was supposed to be back at school studying, turns up and makes no bones about also being involved in luring her there and whatever else happens to be going on.

Our utterly confused heroine in taken back inside and understandably locks herself up in a bedroom, while everyone else there continues to behave strangely. A guilt-stricken Laura eventually decides to confide in Jacky that they have somehow disturbed an ancient evil presence there that's growing stronger by the day but otherwise doesn't fully elaborate. Aside from the couple, there's also a slutty / bitchy ("I don't dislike you but I'm trying to pretend you don't exist.") maid named Liz (Tina Barnett) and a couple of young farmhands; Alan (Steven Longhurst) and the mute Maurice (Colin Efford), who sleep in the same bedroom and have nude magazine layouts taped to their walls. The former is a drunk who sometimes speaks in a demon voice while the latter is a young muscular stud who constantly lifts weights and is also sometimes possessed with glowing red eyes. Supposedly, whatever it is haunting the land has chosen to mostly use him as a host body due to his strength.

Jacky discovers that she's been brought there because she's a virgin and is wanted by the demon to "propagate his kind in flesh and blood" during the spring equinox. A series of murders soon follow. Someone's impaled with a pitchfork, raised off the ground and then thrown into a lake. A head gets crushed, a neck is snapped and, during the bloodiest bit, a man is stabbed through the throat, crucified and has his heart ripped out. Poor Jacky isn't even able to lose her virginity because her boyfriend gets a knife stuck through his throat before he can even get his pants off. A body thrown into a fire ends up spawning a red-eyed hooded demon.

Aren't rural farms one of the best horror movie settings? For starters, they're out in the middle of nowhere. Then you've got barns and other buildings away from the main home where people can get killed and bodies can be hidden. They're usually surrounded by woods, so you've also got that. And there are always all manner of sharp weapons just lying around and readily available. While this makes some good use of all of that, no time at all is wasted throwing us right into the story and the film is has some pretty entertaining bits, you have to look past truly shoddy technical credits to get to the good stuff. The photography is flat, the sound recording and editing are both awful, the story is muddled, the acting (while not the worst I've ever seen) is mostly amateurish and the film somehow manages to drag toward the end despite the 43-minute run time, which is pretty inexcusable.

While I'm just starting to scratch the surface with Murphy's films, I'm already picking up some major DeCoteau-style homoerotic vibes. While the leading lady is briefly seen topless, much more time is spent lingering on the male cast members. In fact, the hunky mute guy is showcased more in various stages of undress, and the recipient of far more exploitative camera shots (consult screen caps), than any of the women. During nearly all of his scenes, he's shown is skin tight clothing, shirtless or changing clothes and even has his shirt ripped off the one time he happens to be wearing one. The camera pans up and down his body and countless shots are specifically cropped just to show off his chest and arms. I've watched four movies from this guy so far and three of them feature long montages of sweaty guys working out, including this one. We shall see if this particular theme continues on in his later work. I have a sneaking suspicion it will.

Unlike many of the director's other films, this received a VHS release in a number of countries, including the U.S. (on the Mega [a division of Mogul] label), Canada (Videoline Productions) and the UK (Scorpio Video). There was also a 2008 DVD release (limited to 1000 copies and featuring a commentary track from the director) through Sarcophilous Films, who've paired it with Murphy's theater slasher The Last Night (1983). This may explain why it's one of only two Murphy films with over 100 votes on IMDb, though seeing how it also shares its title with a Wes Craven-directed TV movie released two years later, confusion may also have something to do with that.

Bloodstream (1985)

Directed by:
Michael J. Murphy

One thing I've learned over the years is that no matter how good or bad a director is, if they simply stick with what they love, keep making movies and amass a decent-sized resume, a cult following will eventually find them. I suppose viewers enjoy picking up on certain patterns, whether that be recurring themes, a distinctive visual style (even if that is consistent technical ineptitude!), reused camera shots, usage of the same actors or, in some of the more interesting cases (and usually not even intentionally), the director's true nature being exposed bit-by-bit, frame-by-frame and line-by-line over a certain period of time. No one says these movies have to be great. In fact, they're usually not. The important thing here is that a niche audience exists who specifically enjoy the comfort of familiarity, the repetition and pondering whatever it is that may be fueling the director's obsession with depicting the same things over and over again on film. One may assume that simply making a living figures somewhere in the equation except for the fact most cult genre directors were dirt poor throughout their lives and always scrambling for whatever little bits of cash they could get together to keep making their cheap, limited appeal, limited release movies. What really fascinates here are things that transcend the quality of the films themselves.

The prolific Michael J. Murphy, who was active from a very young age up until his death in 2015, is one such director. In spite of the fact that very few people were watching his films, something compelled him to keep making them. Perhaps he thought his latest opus would finally be "the one" to get him recognition or perhaps he just loved making movies and didn't care. One thing he clearly wasn't in it for was the money as his low budget offerings (usually shot on Super 8, 16mm and, later, digital) received some the shittiest distribution deals imaginable. Even through the 80s and 90s when pretty much anything would merit a fairly wide release on home video, he remained a complete unknown. Murphy also does not appear to have been in it for the attention. I viewed a rare interview with him and he appears to be an incredibly shy person; so shy that he, even in his older years and with a sizable filmography behind him, wasn't going to conventions despite being invited nor was he actively trying to promote his own films.

While some Murphy titles received VHS releases, almost none of them were well distributed globally. You'll find a title that was only released in the UK here and a title that was only released in Spain there and titles popping up in countries like Germany, Poland and Canada. Some others, including this one, apparently weren't released anywhere at all. The only films of his that received official U.S. video releases (at least that I'm aware of) were Invitation to Hell (1982) and THE HEREAFTER (1983), which were both distributed by Mogul; the latter in a misleading VHS box that falsely sold it as a zombie movie. Still, Mogul wasn't exactly Paramount so the videos remained hard to find. Ironically, Bloodstream, which never found a home video distributor itself, begins with a direct commentary on the shadiness of home video distributors.

We open in the offices of sleazy, cigar-chomping William King (Mark Wells), who's in the middle of screening film school graduate / up-and-coming director Alistair Bailey's (Patrick Olliver) latest opus Bloodstream, which looks like your typical cheap / bad horror video featuring a man ripping apart his face and then turning into a Grim Reaper-style killer. William humiliates Alistair, criticizes the movie ("This wouldn't frighten a four year old... It's rubbish!") and rips up his video before informing him he has just blown his chance at further employment with his company and he's entitled to zero of the film's potential profits due to some very fine print in his contract. He then suggests Alistair go get "a proper job" before having him thrown out. However, after Alistair is gone, William turns to his assistant / brother-in-law Simon (Steven Longhurst) and admits that Alistair's film is actually good and has profits written all over it. He immediately gets into contact with potential American distributors and starts whipping up an ad campaign for the film.

A defeated Alistair returns home where he chain smokes, envisions himself as a persecuted witch being burned at the stake and watches one cheap horror movie after another, giving us footage of zombies ripping a man's chest open and pulling out his guts, a sack-headed slasher axing a guy in the head, a mummy crushing a skull and a disfigured horny jester (?!) menacing a woman with a knife. He then receives a surprise phone call from Nikki Hill (Jacqueline Logan), King's secretary. Sick of sitting back and watching her boss rip off and humiliate people, she's decided to clue Alistair in on what's actually going on. Even though she's not quite sure what they can do about it, she's planning on finding some way to get revenge on him and his associates plus ruin his business.

Nikki breaks into King's safe and finds some incriminating dirt on him and a bunch of his friends / colleagues. Two of King's regular lead performers, Judy Brooks (Catherine Rowlands) and Greg Herman (David Slater) both came from the world of hardcore porn but have reestablished themselves as "legit" actors using new names. Not surprisingly, Judy is also sleeping with the boss behind his wife Sally's (Wendy Young) back. Brother-in-law Simon is an arrogant pervert who regularly sexually harasses Nikki at work, while King's daughter Lisa (Samantha Page) is trying to make it as a model. All of the above are being financially supported and controlled by King.

Nikki, who proves to be the real mastermind behind all of this, eventually manages to convince Alistair to slap on an "Angel of Death" skull mask and make another film, this time a snuff movie using King and company as the stars! This plot twist is genuinely weird because up to this point the filmmakers have given us zero indication that either Nikki or Alistair are mental. She's shown to be a mousy, though somewhat clever, secretary fed up with her work environment and the amorality of her boss. He's merely shown sitting at home watching horror videos constantly and, if an addiction to cheap horror flicks is supposedly a sign of psychosis, then we're all in trouble here! Either way, this isn't believable or adequately set-up for a second.

The "revenge" portion involves Nikki forging documents and checks back at the office while Alistair sets up a tripod Peeping Tom-style and films the slaughter of King and everyone in his orbit. The daughter is electrocuted in bathtub and then stabbed with a sword. The brother-in-law is dismembered and decapitated with a chainsaw. There is also a neck slashed with an electric carving knife, a barbell dropped on a neck, a mouth stabbing and brains blown out. Where this fails as a "revenge" film is that most of the people killed have nothing at all to do with Alistair getting ripped off or Nikki having a hard time at work. Alistair didn't like working with the ex-porn actors, but does that really justify killing them? The daughter is kind of bitchy but she's out living her own life and the wife's only crime seems to be being married to a scumbag. At one point, the killer even ties a dog to a tree, covers it with gasoline and sets it on fire!

Clips of various horror movies our "hero" (?) is watching are spliced in throughout. Aside from what's already been mentioned, we get cannibalism, eye gouging, decapitation, axe murder, parodies of Mad Max (set in a parking garage) and Exorcist II and even vampire and werewolf films. It's hard to tell if many of these scenes are meant to parody similar films or not. They're presented in a kind of corny manner but don't otherwise find clever ways to poke fun at these various popular video subgenres. And they don't seem any more spoofy, nor any less poorly-made, than the main story line.

The editing, sound, photography (note the presence of a lens shadow much of the time) and make-up are all awful and most of the performances are equally unconvincing. Character motivations are either incredibly vague or just plain unbelievable. That all severely diminishes the effectiveness of what's a fascinating central premise rife with potential. However, clunky as this is, it's still a pretty interesting time capsule to the direct-to-video era when DIY indie horror directors were dealing with both scam artist producers out to rip them off and a bunch of moral crusaders (notably conservative Christian activist Mary Whitehouse and the whole video nasty nonsense in the UK) out to blame them and their "sick and depraved films" for increases in real-life violence and amorality.

This is available on various streaming platforms like Amazon Prime now and, just this year, made its DVD debut (better late than never I suppose!) through Frolic Pictures, who've paired it with Sandor Stern's "sci-fi thriller" Assassin (1986). I also found a clamshell VHS release through a company called Toxic Filth Video, though it appears to be some bootleg thing.

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