Monday, February 24, 2014

Death by Invitation

The Z Files

By Ed Garea

This is the inaugural column dedicated to what are referred to by critics as “Z movies.” The Z movie is a product of the ‘50s (though the term wasn’t coined until the mid-‘60s), when the studio system collapsed and independent producers and newly-minted smaller studios jumped in to fill the market for what used to be known as “B” movies. 

Television also helped kill off the B-movie proper, and the advent of the drive-in and the rise of the grindhouse in urban areas gave low-budget producers a market for their films. The Z movie is low budget, but that alone does not make it bad. The quality standard for such a film must be well below that for a B movie and the producers are those on the fringes of the film industry. In the ‘30s and into the ‘40s, films from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” could meet those standards, as they were poorly made, with shoddy scripts, decrepit sets and woeful acting, and marketed to independent theaters. Most Poverty Row productions focused on horror or mystery; the later Z movies first focused on horror and science friction, later going into the genres of gore, violence and soft-core pornography.

So what we get from all this is that Z movies are terrible. That is true, but it’s also why, in the vast majority of cases, they’re fun to watch. Otherwise, Mystery Science Theater 3000 wouldn’t even have come into existence.

Death by Invitation (Kirt Films, 1971) – Director: Ken Friedman. Writer: Ken Friedman. Cast: Shelby Leverington, Norman Paige, Aaron Phillips, Lesley Knight, Denver John Collins, Bruce Bentlinger, Tom Mahoney, Sarnell Ogus, Sylvia Pressler, & Rhonda Russell. Color, 81 minutes.

This low-budget slice of celluloid from producer Leornard Kirtman (Carnival of Blood – 1970 and Curse of the Headless Horseman – 1972) is so slow-moving it might as well be titled “Death by Boredom.” It works on the old horror standby of a centuries-old curse leading to modern-day revenge, but the execution is so poor and crudely done that it loses its audience. The plot execution is so poorly done that unless viewers have seen something like it before, they’re out of luck, for nothing is ever explained during the course of the movie.

We begin by being treated to a spectacularly clumsy opening where a group of villagers are about to burn a witch. Is this set in Salem, England, Holland? We’re not told. At any rate, it’s nice to see that the colonists of 17th century inhabitants lived in shingled houses with metal outdoor basement doors and concrete sidewalks. They’ve got their witch, but they don’t quite know what to do with her. Mainly they drag her around, dressed as one would at a low-budget Renaissance Festival. They tie her to a stake, but there’s no wood surrounding it, so they drag her to a basement where they slit her throat. But before dispatching her, she seems to place a curse on the family of the man that led the mob. All this is accompanied by some of the most annoying music I have ever heard in a picture.

Cut to the present day. We’re on Staten Island, I think, (it’s never made clear), and are dining with the Vroot family. Since that’s a Dutch name, one can assume our 17th century witch was dispatched either in New Amsterdam or Holland proper. The Vroot family, resided over by patriarch Peter (Phillips) is celebrating the engagement of daughter Carol (Russell) to Jake (Paige), whom Roger wants to join the family business. Among the invited guests is Lise (Leverington) who is a dead ringer for our dead witch. Uh-oh. Lise is late to the party and tries to make light by telling a story of how the cab gave her his number on the way over, but the strictly religious family won’t hear of it. However, no one seems to mind when Jake begins hitting on Lise right in front of everyone. Fiancée Carol just sits there in the background sporting a dress that looks like it was cut from the living room drapes.

Lise also seems to serve some sort of double duty as a visiting caregiver to Peter’s wife, Naomi (Ogus). At least I think this is the case; watching this film is like trying to solve a puzzle.

After Lise departs, son Roger (Collins), intrigued by her story (Why?) takes a cab ride to her place where she regales him with a monologue about how in a primitive tribe the women did the hunting and the men made them up and oiled them for the hunt. When the men try it themselves the women found out and killed them. All this is told at a pace that makes one want to cry out “Get to the point already!” But Roger is entranced by the speech, or bored out of his skull, I couldn’t tell. He takes off his top and kneels before Lise, and we think Roger is about to get lucky. But no, Lise proceeds to sink her nails into his throat and back, killing him as the stage blood oozes down.

Now, instead of celebrating an upcoming betrothal, the Vroot family is trying to find Roger. This leads to a very clumsy and contrived scene with a clueless detective who tries to steer the family into believing that Roger is probably somewhere pushing drugs. This must be Friedman’s attempt to ease the tension by inserting a comedy relief scene. The problem is that the cops merely come across as stupid and witless, and the Vroot family is left with just their hopes that Roger will eventually find his way home.

Two other scenes need mention here. One is where Jake visits Peter’s office to hear his offer of going into the family business. What is supposed to be a scene expanding and extending the plot turns into a cacophonous mess as the Muzak playing in the background at the office drowns out Peter and Jake’s dialogue. The scene just rambles on, leaving me with the impression that the director had decided to go to lunch and didn’t inform anyone else on the set. The other scene is where little Elly (Knight) is up in her room when we suddenly see Lise outside. Shortly after we learn that both Elly and sister Sara (Pressler) have been slain. The shot of Lise earlier seems to have been like an insert to let us know whatever it is that Friedman wants us to know. The only thing it has going for it is that it does come off as creepy and strangely effective – for once.

It’s been strongly telegraphed that Jake is hot for Lise and we know it’s just a matter of time before he gets his shot. We have already seen that, for someone who’s just gotten engaged, Jake spends as little time as possible with his future bride, who just remains in the background. He drops in on Lise at her place and she begins with the old monologue about the tribe of women who do the hunting while the men prepare them for the hunt, but Jake will have none of it; he’s horny. They proceed to have the required sex scene, although for a producer whose product includes a few softcore titles, the scene is somewhat muted. After the fun is over, Jake discovers blood dripping down. He follows the trail and discovers a hidden room Lise conveniently has in her apartment. Attached to the ceiling in that room is a bag with the chopped up remains of others in the Vroot family. Jake is horrified and the scene degenerates into a terrible fight scene with an ax-wielding Peter entering and accompanied by very poor sound. It ends here and we wonder what the point of the whole thing was to start.

What keeps the film from being totally unwatchable, besides the unintentionally hilarious script, is the performances of the leads, in particular Leverington and Paige. Both, unbelievably, went on to decent careers, mostly in television. This was actually the first film for Leverington, who also went on to strong roles in both The Long Riders (1980) and Cloak and Dagger (1984). Paige, later known as Norman Parker, has also appeared in Prince of the City (1981), Turk 182 (1985), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and television series such as Family TiesFalcon Crest, and the soap As the World Turns.

Death by Invitation actually opened on October 21, 1971, at the Esquire Theater in St. Louis, which may have been chosen because of its proximity to Leverington’s alma mater of Southeast Missouri State. For his part, Friedman would only direct one more feature, Made in U.S.A. (1987), but made his mark as a screenwriter, with films such as White Line Fever (1975), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), Johnny Handsome (1989), and Cadillac Man (1990).

Although not a full-blown train wreck, Death By Invitation is more like a shaggy dog exercise, with great expectations and a zero payoff. It’s for late night viewing when anything will do, as long as it’s accompanied with a snack and some wine before hitting the hay.

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