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

 

THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

Review by LL Soares

Anna Biller, who previously gave us short films like A VISIT FROM THE INCUBUS (2001) and one previous feature, VIVA (2007), has written and directed the visually stunning film THE LOVE WITCH (2016), which I planned to see sooner, but am glad I finally got chance to view.

The way the movie is filmed, by cinematographer M. David Mullen, and the production design, art and set decoration and costumes (all done by Biller) reminded me of a brightly colored dream, and a late-period Hammer film.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is an unapologetic witch, who has recently come to a small town for a new start, after the death of her husband, Jerry (Stephen Wozniak) in San Francisco. Turns out their relationship was souring and she used a love potion to get it back on track. Unfortunately, the potion was a bit too potent, and Jerry died.

Elaine moves into a big, fancy house owned by her friend Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum), but when she gets there, Barbara’s friend, Trish (Laura Waddell) is the one who lets her in. Soon after, they go to a Victorian Tea Room where they talk about life and love. Trish is surprised to find that Elaine is rather old-fashioned, since all she seems to talk about is finding a man, and how to keep him happy. Trish asks if Elaine might want to be more independent in her thinking, but Elaine just doesn’t seem to get it.

Not long after coming to town, Elaine meets a professor named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) in the park. Well, rather, her stunning looks draw him to her like a magnet (making him forget all about the poor girl he’d been talking to). When she gives Wayne a flask with some spiked liquor in it, he becomes obsessed with her pretty quickly, but it comes to a tragic end.

Later, when Trish is away on a business trip, Elaine invites her lonely hubby, Richard (Robert Seeley) over for dinner and gives him a similarly spiked drink, which makes him also become obsessed with her. I’m not really sure why Trish can’t just let love come on its own; I guess that, despite looking amazing, she doesn’t have much self-esteem, sadly.

Later, she gets involved with the detective, Griff (Gian Keys) who is investigating the disappearance of Professor Wayne. She seduces him pretty quickly and there’s even a scene where the two of them stumble upon a Renaissance Fair and are encouraged to take part in a mock wedding.

Her friend Barbara was part of a coven, led by her and her creepy boyfriend, Gahan (Jared Sanford), both of whom Elaine knew in San Francisco (and they’re the reason she moved here). There’s also a local burlesque bar where the witches (and some “normal” people who hate them) hang out. Some of the witches even perform onstage, including the beautiful twins Star (Elle Evans) and Moon (Fair Micaela Griffin).

While the movie maintains its lush look throughout, the script has its ups and downs, with Elaine making some questionable decisions that don’t fully make sense. While some aspects of the movie will have you scratching your head (why doesn’t Elaine even really try to hide a man who’s died? Instead, she leaves a very obvious grave, along with a jar full of her urine!), it looks so good, and Robinson is so mesmorizing, that you’ll gladly stick around. This is a case of a film’s cast, and look, overcoming the flaws in the script. I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives THE LOVE WITCH ~ 3 knives.

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