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TCM Underground - December 2018
Remind Me

Death by Invitation

Staten Island, New York might not be the first place you think of as a location for horror films, but it practically ran red with blood during the heyday of exploitation filmmaking. When he wasn't off for a short stint in England, director Andy Milligan used it as ground zero for his blood-soaked period pieces like The Ghastly Ones (1968) and Legacy of Blood (1978), while director Brian De Palma got his big break using it as the backdrop for butcher knife mayhem in his influential Sisters (1973).

Sandwiched in between all of those is Death by Invitation (1971), a low budget slice of drive-in fodder from executive producer Leonard Kirtman, the New York regional filmmaker behind such films as Carnival of Blood (1970) and Curse of the Headless Horseman (1972) as well as a slew of oddball adult theatrical features.

The film also marked the first of only two directorial credits for Ken Friedman, a screenwriter who used this as a springboard for future, more high profile gigs on White Line Fever (1975), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), and Walter Hill's pulp crime extravaganza, Johnny Handsome (1989).

However, here Friedman was most likely drawing inspiration from the reliable horror plotline of an executed witch either reincarnating or resurrecting to inflict vengeance on those who wronged her, a trope already firmly established in 1960 with the double whammy of Mario Bava's Black Sunday and John Llewellyn Moxey's Horror Hotel. This time the unlucky victims are the Vroot family, whose ancestors were responsible for the death of a Dutch witch now influencing her beautiful descendant, Lise.

Cast in the role of the murderous heroine is Shelby Leverington, a busy TV actress making her screen debut here. She's also a Walter Hill veteran courtesy of The Long Riders (1980), with other big screen credits including Cloak & Dagger (1984) and Love Letters (1983), which shares this film's cinematographer, Alec Hirschfeld.

This film arrived at the start of the occult mania that would seize popular culture throughout the 1970s, with supernatural films and novels proving lucrative around the world. The decision to use the vengeful witch idea was a sound one given its recent frequency on movie screens, including titles like Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), Cry of the Banshee (1970), the made-for-TV film Crowhaven Farm (1970), The Touch of Satan (1971), and its strongest cinematic cousin, the Texas-shot indie Mark of the Witch (1970), with which it shares several plot and character elements. No doubt noting the popularity of this trend, director George A. Romero took the idea and flipped it around with a feminist twist for his cursed production Season of the Witch (1972), originally entitled Jack's Wife.

Death by Invitation doesn't set its sights as high as Romero's film, of course, but it does stand out of from the pack thanks to Leverington's performance, which is well above the caliber of most regional quickies. Kirtman produced the feature under the umbrella of his company, Kirt Films, which was better known at the time for a string of softcore oddities like Sex Circus (1969) and The Pro Shop (1970), most of which are impossible to see today. It premiered in mid-October of 1971 at the Esquire Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri, with Leverington in attendance.

The decision to veer away from the erotic elements common to the production company results in a memorably bizarre film with a dark, off-kilter atmosphere that lingers in the memory, which may account for its healthier home video life than many of its peers. Something Weird introduced the title on VHS and continued it on DVD-R and digital download, while the original negative was sourced for a commercial DVD from Vinegar Syndrome, first paired with the slasher film Savage Water (1979), which was recalled shortly before street date but can be found for those resourceful enough to do some hunting, and then with another Texas-shot curiosity, The Dungeon of Harrow (1962). In whatever form you might encounter it, this is clearly a film determined to survive as long as the sorceress at the heart of its story.

By Nathaniel Thompson



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