DEATH BY INVITATION (1971)

Review by LL Soares

A low-budget tale of revenge, 1971’s DEATH BY INVITATION (the title tells you nothing about the film, by the way), is yet another in a long history of films about witches killed in the past who come back to take their vengeance on the descendants of their murderers. Despite the cheap look of the film, there are some good ingredients here that could have amounted to a much better movie. Sadly, director/writer Ken Friedman just isn’t able to make everything mesh into a satisfying whole.

We begin in a town that could be Salem in the time of the witch trials. A beautiful woman (Shelby Leverington) is being tried as a witch by a group of town elders and is dragged through the town square to the local church, where she will receive her ultimate (and fatal) sentencing.

Jump ahead to present-day 1971, and the witch from the previous scene is now named Lise, and is friends with a family headed by Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips), who we recognize as one of the villagers who bore witness against Lise in her former life (that man was clearly Peter’s ancestor). The Vroot family is also made up of Peter’s wife Naomi (Sarnell Ogus), sons Roger (Denver John Collins) and Michael (Bruce Brentlinger), and daughters Coral, Sara, and Elly (Rhonda Russell, Sylvia Pressler, and Lesley Knight, respectively). There’s also Jake (Norman Paige), who is Coral’s fiancée.

Somehow, Lise has become close to the Vroots; she appears to be close friends with Naomi, and is treated as one of the family. While she doesn’t live in the house with them, she’s often there. It seems like they’ve known each other for a while, but all of a sudden, Lise decides to start taking her revenge on the descendants of her enemies, beginning with a twenty-something Roger, who sneaks away to go to her apartment with sex on his mind. Instead, Lise tells him a story about an ancient tribe where the women were the hunters and end up cannibalizing the men. As her story ends, she gets Roger to kneel before her, and then he is killed (offscreen). We see blood streaming down his back, but don’t really know what’s happening to him.

When he’s been missing for a couple of days, the police are called in. These include a Detective (Tom Mahoney), who has a cynical attitude and who complains about paperwork, and his “sidekick,” a uniformed Police Officer (Jay Lanno). But they aren’t much help, and don’t seem competent enough to solve the disappearance.

Meanwhile, more members of the family are killed off. The one who comes closest to the truth is Jake, who hits on Lise a few times until she finally takes him back to her place. There, she tells him a story about an ancient tribe of cannibal women (the same story she told Roger). But Jake isn’t as easy prey as poor Roger.

Despite the low-budget shenanigans, there are a few things to recommend the film. Shelby Leverington is a striking lead as Lise, and it’s amazing she didn’t become a bigger star, at least in horror films. While she did have a long career, she mostly played one-shot characters in lots of TV shows, like KOJACK (1977), LOU GRANT (1982), MATLOCK (in 1988), and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1992), and a few feature films. She also had a recurring role in HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN (1984-1988). But she has so much potential here, it’s clear that, with the right opportunities, she could have had a more successful career. Her Lise almost seems like a precursor to Samantha Robinson as THE LOVE WITCH (2016). Aaron Phillips (as Peter Vroot) looked familiar to me, but it turns out this was his only movie role. Norman Parker (billed here as Norman Paige) is good as Jake, and also had roles in DARK SHADOWS (1969-1970), and the movies THE CLAIRVOYANT (1982), and BULWORTH (1998), as well as recurring roles on shows like THE EDGE OF NIGHT (1982-1983), AS THE WORLD TURNS (in 1986), and the sitcom FAMILY TIES (1985-1987). For several cast members this movie is their only credit (or one of very few).

One odd note is that Jake is supposedly engaged to marry Coral Vroot, and yet, they barely interact together. In fact, they’re rarely in the same room together. There are family scenes where Jake is there, but Coral isn’t present! This includes a group scene outside, and scenes where the family is gathered around the dinner table. Why would the Vroots’ future son-in-law be constantly there, while the Vroots’ actual daughter, Coral, is rarely seen? It’s almost like they completely forgot about Coral in various scenes, even though she’s the sole reason why Jake is constantly at the family’s house. In one scene where Coral and Jake actually do talk, she goes to bed early, leaving Jake alone with Lise (not a smart move).

A major flaw about the film is that they clearly didn’t have the expertise of someone who knew how to do gore effects, so instead of actually showing how people die, it’s implied and we see flowing blood. It could have been nice to actually KNOW how each person is murdered, but we have to guess, which can make things confusing, since it’s not always clear cut. One body found in a plastic bag seems to have unlimited blood (we assume the person was killed days ago, but when they’re found, they’re still bleeding!).

Filmmaker Ken Friedman only has three credits as a director: this film, MADE IN THE U.S.A. (1987), and one episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, when the host was Malcolm McDowell (and the musical guest was Captain Beefheart!!). Friedman did go on to write other screenplays, though, including ones for WHITE LINE FEVER (1975), 11th VICTIM (1979), and the Mickey Rourke crime flick, JOHNNY HANDSOME (1989).

DEATH BY INVITATION could have been a good ‘un, but it’s just too inept. In the hands of a better director (and with a decent gore effects person), it could have been much more memorable. But as it is, it’s mostly forgotten.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

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