Sunday 21 April 2024

Death by Invitation (1971)

Death by Invitation, released in 1971, starts with a young girl on trial for witchcraft. So do countless horror movies but in this case it’s done in a particularly disturbing way with a real edge of terror and fanaticism. It gets the movie away to a very promising start.

Then we jump forward a few hundred years to the present day (or in this case the 1970s) and we encounter the same people (or at least the same actors) and we assume that they are destined to relive those events of the distant past.

A young woman named Lise (Shelby Leverington) has worked her way into the Vroot family.

Lise is of course the reincarnation of the young witch put to death centuries earlier. Or rather, she might be. The Vroots are the descendants of those who put her to death. You won’t be surprised to learn that Lise has vengeance on her mind.

Lise is a hippie chick who dabbles in the occult, which was common enough at the time. She definitely gives off a slightly spooky off-the-wall vibe.

Of course in a story such as this you have to ask yourself if these people really are in any way responsible for the wrongs done to Lise in the past. Are they in some way the same people, reincarnated? Are they merely the descendants of evil people? We may have serious doubts about whether Lise has the slightest justification for taking revenge on them. Lise clearly believes that they do have to accept responsibility for the wrongs of the past.

Of course Lise may simply be a totally crazy spaced-out hippie chick who takes her occult dabblings too seriously. Or she may really be a witch. The movie keeps this aspect nicely ambiguous, which means we’re never sure whether we should be on Lise’s side or not. That’s perhaps the film’s biggest strength.

Before killing Lise likes to tell her victims a story, a very strange story about an ancient tribe in which the women did the hunting and the men served the women. If the men stepped out of line they were killed. This story doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot of the movie but it’s actually a nice touch. It increases our uncertainties about Lise. Does she have some ancestral memories or some mystical link with women from primeval times, or is it just her own bizarre fantasy?

Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips) is the head of the household in the present day and he’s a braggart and a bully and delights in intimidating the members of his family. Again we find ourselves with ambivalent feelings. He’s an unpleasant man and we know that bad things are going to happen to him and we’d like those bad things to be a thoroughly justified punishment for his evil in the distant past but we’re uncomfortable because there may be no justification at all for Lise’s vengeance.

Shelby Leverington didn’t have much of a film career but had a lengthy career as an actress in television. She’s quite good here - a bit spooky, a bit kooky, kinda sexy in a proto-goth way and rather scary. It’s a solid performance that leaves us uneasy, which is as it should be.

The performances of the other cast members are bad by conventional standards but they’re oddly effective in a movie that is aiming to be weird and off-kilter.

Peter Vroot’s prospective son-in-law (he’s engaged to one of the daughters of the family) spends the whole movie trying to seduce Lise and he’s ambiguous as well.

Writer-director Ken Friedman seems to have directed only two feature films, with a long gap between them. He had marginally more success as a screenwriter.

This is clearly a very low-budget movie. The pacing could have been tightened up a little. It’s easy to point out flaws in this movie but despite those flaws it works in its own idiosyncratic way. It does manage to be weird and unsettling and disorienting and those are things I like in movies. I found myself liking this film quite a bit. Highly recommended.

Death by Invitation was released on a double-header DVD by Vinegar Syndrome, paired with the odd but entertaining The Dungeon of Harrow (1962). They came up with a brilliant idea for the audio commentary - get a bunch of clowns who know nothing about the movie and nothing about the genre and let them indulge in cheap adolescent snark. But in spite of the awful commentary this is a pretty good release by Vinegar Syndrome - two very obscure oddball movies both of which are worth seeing.

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