Wednesday, December 19, 2018

DVR Diary: DEATH BY INVITATION (1971)

On the evidence of Death By Invitation alone I would have dismissed writer-director Ken Friedman as a poor man's Andy Milligan, which is saying quite a bit as far as poverty is concerned. There's a strong resemblance when it comes to subject matter and overall aesthetic sense, but Friedman's oddity, recently featured on TCM Underground, was only the first stage of a career that continues to this day. He's mostly been a writer, most recently collaborating on a yet-to-be released documentary about the hip-hop performer T.I. His big-screen credits include White Line Fever, Heart Like a Wheel, Johnny Handsome, Cadillac Man and Bad Girls. The last-mentioned film, a 1994 western suggests some continuity of concern with Death By Invitation, as it involves violent female empowerment and is pretty dumb. As a director Friedman did only one other film, which probably was wise.

Young and ambitious, Friedman made a film about revenge across the centuries. It opens with unconvincing scenes of 17th century New Netherland, where a woman is tried and condemned for witchcraft to the accompaniment of a loud heartbeat. We cut abruptly to the present day, where a distant descendant of the lead accuser (Aaron Phillips) -- you can tell because they look alike -- presides bibulously over the Vroot family dinner. Arriving late is family friend Lise (Shelby Leverington), who bears a strong resemblance in turn to the accused witch of yore. She entices young Roger to meet her later at her apartment -- despite the father's warning that he shouldn't hang out with "any of those way-out people" -- where she tells a strange story that deserves to be quoted in full, since it's the highlight of the film. Imagine the following told in a spaced-out monotone, like the incantation it apparently is:

Roger, do you know of the Southern Tribes? Well, it was the common practice for one certain tribe that the women were the hunters, while the men were domesticated. When the village needed food, the women would go out and hunt for it. The men on the other hand were allowed to grease [pronounced "greeze"] the women's bodies before the hunt, but they were never allowed off their knees while massaging the oil into the women. When a band of women found a prey, they would rush at it together, all stabbing wildly with their knives, until the blood of the animal flowed upon their bodies, often mixing with their own blood. Then without knives they would rip away at the flesh of the animal with their hands and mouths. They would rub their bodies against the ravaged animal, against his head, against his genitals, and after they had completely satisfied themselves upon the animal and upon each other they would drag the remains back to the men. Now the men would grovel on the ground when the women returned, exposing themselves, hoping to be chosen, for if they were chosen, and if they were good, they were given food.
[Lights cigarette]
But it happened once that one certain man found that he could hunt in the woods and bring in more food than the women could, and that with his rather large body he could satisfy four or more husbands. And with this man as their leader the men began to ignore the women, disobey their commands. They found they no longer needed the women. Whereupon the women came together and met, and they ["greezed"] and oiled their own bodies and they prepared to hunt that man, naked.  We were -- they were naked. They tracked that man in the woods until they came upon him in the clearing. They fell upon him at once, ripping him open and eating his insides. The men were made to watch. They drank his blood and they chewed his bones until all of him was inside of them, but strangely they had raised themselves to passions far beyond their belief, and still writhing with pleasure and desire they fell upon the other men one by one, ripping them open and devouring them all.

Now that's a come-hither speech, and it works! Roger can't resist approaching this alluring and long-winded bacchant, and of course he gets what's coming to him, to the extent that Friedman's budget can visualize it. Practically speaking this means we get a shot of Roger from the neck down as several streams of blood begin to flow down his naked back. Lise's plan, you may not be surprised to learn, is to work her way through the Vroots, killing them indiscriminately, the women as well as the men. She takes out two daughters at once, though one is more or less accidental, the younger girl recoiling from the sight of her elder sister getting decapitated until she falls down a flight of stairs and brains herself. While synopses usually describe Lise as a descendant of the accused woman of the past, her slip of the tongue during her speech raises the possibility that she somehow is the fiend herself, though we have only the word of the accusers that that woman did anything wrong. In any event, while the local police are helpless to stop here -- they're comedy relief figures out of a 1940s B-movie -- Lise has not reckoned on another family friend, Jake (Norman Parker), whose virility overcomes her power. At the climax she tries repeatedly, in increasingly pathetic fashion, to repeat her Southern Tribes speech, as if she needs it to get sufficiently worked up, only to have Jake interrupt her repeatedly with his own come-ons, until old Peter Vroot charges in trying to finish what his ancestor started. Parker and Phillips share what might be, in spite of everything else, this film's strangest scene when Jake visits Peter at his office. Peter Vroot likes his Muzak, apparently, and has the stuff cranked up so loudly -- I recognized one familiar theme from a Tom and Jerry cartoon -- that he and Jake have to yell in order to hear each other in Peter's allegedly impressive sanctum sanctorum. You could believe that Friedman had the music playing on the set, and it may even be possible that he meant this to be funny. If so, it'd be one of those rare and serendipitous moments when a comedy scene is unintentionally funny. Some may say the whole film is that way, but that Southern Tribes bit is genuinely jaw-dropping and could well stop the snarkiest viewer in his or her tracks. To my shame, I found myself wishing that Friedman had had the means to put that story on film, though such a film probably wouldn't be something I could review here.

2 comments:

knobgobbler said...

I liked this one a lot. It was just that right sort of 70s' weird... like 'The Witch Who Came From The Sea.'
It seemed to me that the opening witch trial/execution might have been an afterthought, tacked on when the original footage didn't make enough sense. What does the whole 'Southern Tribes' thing have to do with the 'witch's revenge' plot? It's not like anyone in the movie uncovers who she 'really' is an what she's up to.

Kooky fun, either way.

Samuel Wilson said...

Interesting theory, and it would explain why the actor playing the father looked so inauthentic as a 17th century man. I don't know if the executed woman of the past belonged to that certain tribe of the Southern Tribes, but if so she seems a weak specimen. Hard to say whether the Tribes myth explains these evil women or whether it's just something Lise says to work herself up into a killing frenzy. I guess it's some tribute to the film that I would like to know more....