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Movie of the Week: Death by Invitation (1971)



Death by Invitation (1971) opens with a guerilla filmmaking reenactment of an angry, 17th century mob capturing a witch and carrying her through town. Writer/director Ken Friedman uses handheld cameras, close-ups, POV shots, and freeze frame to suck us into the action. Even though the setting doesn’t feel 100% authentic, it’s effective and establishes high hopes for the rest of the movie.

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Death by Invitation has its moments, but the high hopes of its beginning aren't exactly fulfilled. Quick shots from the opening scene are inserted throughout the rest of it, both diluting their original power and substituting for any real action taking place when the story resumes 300 years later. It’s a low budget affair and I’ve been unable to determine a significance that would cause it to play on Turner Classic Movies.

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Nevertheless, something about it intrigues me. Its probably the era in which it was made and a heavy adult vibe that kids of the 1960s are all probably out pushing drugs instead of being murdered inside a witch’s apartment, their bodies crammed inside plastic bags and hung so that blood can drip into pools below. Such is the fate of one of the descendants of the man who led the angry mob against said witch.

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With these few sentences, you have the entire plot of Death by Invitation. Convicted witch (Shelby Leverington) returns 300 years after the fact to kill Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips), the spitting image of her prosecutor. I remain vague about exact characters and relationships, because they aren’t clear. I don’t even know how the witch, Lise, endears herself to the family in 1971.

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There are hints of family drama with brothers and sisters, their lovers and children, but no effort to introduce them or focus on their stories during the movie’s brief 81-minute running time. I’m not certain if the man who emerges as the primary male character, Jake (Norman Parker), is cheating on one of the Vroot women when he tries to get nasty with Lise, or if he’s the surviving partner of one of the victims.

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Their brief encounter does add a layer of good ol’ 70’s dirt to the proceedings. It reminds me of a poor movie cousin that lives across the tracks from better (but just as gritty) movies like Last House on the Left or Deathdream (aka Dead of Night,) except I don’t think it aspires to be more than that. It’s not particularly gory, although the witch does hold up the bloodless severed head of another victim.

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Again, I don’t know the significance of Death by Invitation. The only trivia on IMDb is that it was the debut of Leverington, a character actress with 50 credits that worked mostly on TV. Friedman directed only three films, but wrote a handful of studio films in the late 80’s through the early 90’s. It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Nevertheless, I’d like to read more about it and may explore some reference books.

Written by Ken Friedman

Directed by Ken Friedman

Starring Shelby Leverington, Aaron Phillips, Noramn Parker, Bruce Brentlinger, Denver John Collins, Lesley Knight, Sarnell Ogus, Sylvia Pressler, Rhonda Russell Released October 21, 1971 RT 81 min.

Home Video Vinegar Syndrome (DVD)

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