Sunday, July 11, 2021

Death by Invitation (1971)

Directed by:
Ken Friedman

Jittery camerawork. Ragged editing. A severely washed out color palette. Terribly unconvincing period costumes, including some curious 17th Century blue jeans. Pasty white face make-up. Filmed on Staten Island. You'd be forgiven for thinking this was an Andy Milligan movie from the opening sequence of a suspected witch being tormented by Colonial Era villagers and then beheaded, but that notion is quickly dispelled almost immediately after. This ends up moving more in the direction of George Romero's underrated suburban witchcraft drama Season of the Witch (1972), though it's not executed with nearly the same skill nor is it as focused and effective.

Death by Invitation was the film debut of a chap named Ken Friedman, who, unlike Milligan, actually went on to something of a career in Hollywood, writing the crime drama Johnny Handsome (1987) starring Mickey Rourke and the comedy Cadillac Man (1990) starring Robin Williams. More interesting in context to this early effort is a pair of female-driven films he also wrote: Heart Like a Wheel (1987), about successful real-life female Top Fuel drag racer Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney, and Bad Girls (1994), a rare woman-centered western about four prostitutes on the lam after one kills an abusive client. In a way, this can be seen as a precursor to those later higher-budgeted efforts in that this also carries unexpectedly heavy feminist themes. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite seem to know what to do with any of them the further along it goes.

After the witch sequence, we're introduced to a wealthy, modern W. A. S. P.-y American family who live in a mansion and own a Rolls Royce. Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips), the patriarch of the clan, is a portly, short-tempered real estate vulture who frowns upon his children associating with hippies, or "way out people" as he calls him. When he's not going into religious tirades, he's a heavy drinker and, probably not coincidentally, has staffed nearly his entire office with young women in miniskirts. Naomi (Sarnell Ogus) is his obedient wife and homemaker whose chief purpose in life thus far has been to pop out as many kids as possible going by her over-filled, hectic household. Among all those kids is unpleasant eldest daughter Coral (Rhonda Russell), whose fiancé Jake (Norman "Paige" / Parker) is living in their home and looking for work, meek teenager Sara (Sylvia Pressler), who's being forbidden from dating, the nerdy, straight-A-student Roger (Denver John Collins, brother of folk singer Judy Collins) and a couple of younger kids. I kind of lost count!

Naomi gets a reprieve, and an injection of excitement, fun and companionship in her stuffy life, from an attractive new friend named Lise (Shelby Leverington). The early-20-something Lise is not only much younger than Naomi, but she's intelligent, confident, outspoken yet friendly and has a carefree way about her that Naomi and Sara admire and every man of a certain age in the household is attracted to. Well, except for Peter, of course. He hates her and all that she stands for.

Peter's hate really all boils down to the age old dog vs. cat debate. There are those who prefer dogs and those who prefer cats and those who enjoy (or at least can tolerate) both, but there's also this subset of dog people who have a bizarre and over-the-top hatred of cats. These people are almost always major control freaks whose enjoyment of pets is limited to the subservient nature of a dog. If they can't be the "master" and exert complete control over it then they're not interested. They seem almost offended by the cat; an animal that always retains a part of its independent nature and one they can never fully dominate and control. Hit a dog and it comes crawling right back. Hit a cat and you'll be lucky if it comes within 20 feet of you for the next few years and it will probably hiss and swat any time it sees you and hate you forever. Peter is definitely a dog-lover-who-hates-cats kinda person.

The breadwinner's dominance over his household is threatened by the mere presence of Lise, who represents open sexuality, independent thought and an absence of religious restrictions (she's an atheist). She is the cat when all Peter wants to surround himself with are dogs and he's worried she's going to lead his entire repressed family astray. Turns out he's right in that assumption, though not in the ways he probably imagined. Lise is the reincarnation of the witch who was killed in the opening sequence and Peter is the ancestor of those who killed her. Haunted by flashes from her past life and execution, Lise sets forth in destroying the Vroot family one member at a time.

The interesting subtext and then-timely subject matter are almost completely negated by the technical ineptitude here. The photography and camerawork are bland, the editing is frequently awful, the sound recording is poor, the music score is grating at times, most (though not all) of the acting is amateurish, characters are so poorly established at the beginning it takes awhile to even figure out who is who, plot points and character motivations are hazy at best and there's some sorely misplaced comedy, like a pair of truly idiotic detectives and a scene at the father's office where most of the dialogue gets drowned out by overbearing muzak. Exploitation fans are also going to be disappointed as this delivers very little in the way of overt horror, no nudity and very little blood, though it does have a decapitation and a bag filled with bloody body parts toward the end.

Clearly the best thing about this is the alluring, talented lead actress, who at one point even gets a six-minute monologue about how in some South American cannibal tribes the female members are dominant over the men and delivers it brilliantly. Leverington is so good in this that looking at her subsequent filmography and seeing almost nothing but TV guest spots and bit parts afterward is rather depressing. She certainly deserved more starring roles. The executive producer was Leonard Kirtman, who himself directed Carnival of Blood (1970) along with dozens of hardcore titles, often using the name "Leo De Leon."

The first VHS release for this one that I'm aware of was on the Market Video label out of the UK in 1984. It wouldn't be until a decade later that Something Weird Video would release it on VHS here in America, though their version was only in black-and-white! A color print was eventually located so SW put that out on DVD in 2006. In 2013, Vinegar Syndrome released this as part of their "Drive-In Collection" series and paired it with either Dungeon of Harrow (1962) or Savage Water (1979).

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