Invitation (aka Terror at Baxter U) DVD Review

Written by Eric Strauss

DVD released by Brain Damage Films

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Written and directed by Jeff Burton
2003, Region 1 (NTSC), 81 minutes, Rated R
DVD released on September 13th, 2005

Starring:
Rick Kunzi as Dan Reese
Johanna Lixey as Lexy Carpenter
Katrina Novak as Jenny Hatcher
Tom Strasz as Tom Locane
Ryann Davey as Melina Duchovny
Nathaniel Nose as Keith Meyers

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Review:

I’ve seen plenty of low-budget horror, but Invitation looked like it had it all: ghosts, suspense, scares, a bit of baseball … and a cute blonde naked in the shower. It’s one of the most enticing low-budget-horror trailers I’ve ever seen.

I saw that trailer on another Brain Damage Films release, and I popped Invitation into my DVD player as soon as possible — with a mix of hope and dread. Hope the film was as tight as the trailer, dread that it wouldn’t come close.

I wanted to like this film. I really did.

It does have its moments. It’s a ghost story with some thrills, some chills and some scares.

(And I’ll say this for writer/director Jeff Burton, of the five actresses in the film who aren’t old women or children, he gets three of them to pop their tops and the other two into their underwear. He even gets one of his actors shirtless for the ladies.)

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Unfortunately, there are also script problems, overacting and stupid, stupid characters.

And, to add insult to injury, there’s the longest elevator ride in recorded history. Even slower than the notoriously slow elevator at my office. The sun sets while the guy is going from the second floor to the basement parking garage. Sets. From daylight to pitch black. Three floors. Maybe four. It’s got to be 10 minutes of actual running time. Sheesh.

But none of those flaws killed Invitation. Jeff Burton killed Invitation, in the editing room, with his special effects.

Good Lord.

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Burton uses so many tricks it would make Michael Bay seasick. There are tight close-ups — so tight they walleye the actors’ faces. There are rapid-fire inserts — so rapid I couldn’t tell what they were. There are all manner of strange angles — as if Burton were incapable of shooting a straight-on scene. There are camera shakes that would make the Blair Witch cringe, lightning-quick stutter-cuts, over-the-shoulder P.O.V. shots, colored lights. And fog. Fog on the water. Fog in the woods. Fog in the house. No wonder he named a character “Carpenter.”

And the grand finale is a strobe effect so bright, so rapid, so overwhelming, I literally had to turn away from the screen. An hour later, I still didn’t feel right.

This film should come with one of those epilepsy warnings.

A good, solid horror movie wouldn’t need all this. A good, solid horror director wouldn’t dream of using it. It’s like an explosion at a gimmick factory. The much-maligned music-video directors who have taken over Hollywood horror and action films don’t resort to this.

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The sad thing is, Burton seems to be a real film fan. One look at his characters’ names should tell you that. There’s the aforementioned (John) Carpenter, (Michael) Meyers, (Amy) Locane, (David) Duchovny and of course, Violet Beauregard. Hokey, and yet sweet.

The acting, however, sinks to the level of the film, which is to say it has its moments, but leaves something to be desired.

The first problem is every single minor character overacts to beat the band. And Tom Strasz, playing the jokester, must be trying to outdo them. The shame of it is, in his character’s one quiet, sincere scene, Strasz is very good, very understated. So he can do it. He just doesn’t.

Exacerbating the problem is that almost every other actor — except Tricia Lyn Scott, playing Violet as an irritating shrew — is underacting. Nobody’s really bad. They’re just too low-key, and it renders their characters faceless, despite their pretty faces.

I can’t even list the “best,” since they’re all on the same blandly average level — a particular problem for Rick Kunzi. He’s the lead, but he lacks the charisma of several of the others, a problem given his role. The improbably named Nathaniel Nose probably comes off best, playing his musician slick and smooth. Johanna Lixey, the female lead, is the best of the women. Ryann Davey and Katrina Novak are in the film for their sex appeal — Novak spends most of her time in a string bikini — while Brad Etheridge, playing the tardiest friend, is in the film … well, to up the body count.

You’ll notice I haven’t really discussed the plot yet, but it doesn’t really matter. Basically, the moral of the story is the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

That, or look both ways before playing on that road.

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In the opening scene, which Burton “flashback-izes” into near incomprehensibility, a bunch of kids let the fat one into their baseball game. When somebody hits a ball over his head in left field, he runs out in the road to get it, and gets turned into street pizza.

A dozen years later, his ghost uses the titular invitation to lure his former teammates to a haunted inn for revenge. He even manages to get the poor schmuck who ran him down.

So if I understand correctly, he wants to kill them to get even for the one time they were nice to him. I warned you there were script issues. The characters do say they were mean to him all the time, but I’ll have to take their word for it.

Look, I can relate to being the last one picked for a team or being the “different” one in school, and I’m sure I’m not alone. And in the post-Columbine era, there is an unintentionally creepy overtone to the idea of popular, pretty kids mocking the one who doesn’t fit, with fatal consequences. But Burton fails to capitalize on these universal ideas. Instead of strong writing, he goes for the editing gusto, and it just doesn’t work. It’s not even the low budget that does him in. In fact, the film doesn’t even look that low-budget at all, with expansive sets, some elaborate kills and, of course, the crazy post-production effects that wreck the whole thing.

Invitation could have been a good, if predictable, ghost story. Instead, it struggles to reach mediocrity, and I’m left shaking my head in disappointment and frustration.

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Video and Audio:

The full-screen image suffers from many of the problems prevalent in B-movies distributed by smaller independent companies. In the daylight and well-lit indoor scenes, the picture is adequate, if a touch soft. But once night falls and the fog takes over — indoors and out — the digital compression is fighting a losing battle. As for the source material, some of Burton’s effects disguise the problems, while others exacerbate them.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix also shows its low-budget roots. You’ve heard it before: The volume is wildly inconsistent; the dialogue is often too quiet, then too loud; and the sound effects don’t always mesh with the rest of the audio.

On the plus side, the background music is eerie, omnipresent and mixed quite well across the front channels. On the minus side, late in the film, the voices become unsynched for a few scenes — which is only emphasized by Burton’s incessant close-ups.

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Special Features:

The only real extra is a half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary. It is primarily on-set footage and offers a look at the making of a B-movie that anyone interested in filmmaking will appreciate and enjoy. At times, however, it’s lacking in explanation, but that’s the nature of the beast — there is no voice-over with the footage, and only a few interview clips with Burton.

The interview segments may be a turn-off, however, as they offer a couple of awkward moments — one when the director comes off as shockingly cavalier about the safety of an actor during a tricky setup, and another when he tries to blow his own horn, touting a kill scene as landmark, when in fact it’s been done in not at least two other genre films. Burton doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but the comments don’t put him in a good light.

The DVD also contains the standard assortment of Brain Damage trailers, including two familiar films: Light and Dark Productions’ The Tenement and Timewarp Films’ Vampire Sisters. It also has the one for Invitation — and I challenge any low-budget horror fan to watch it and not want to see the movie.

As is the case with the trailers on other Brain Damage releases I’ve seen, the quality of the audio/video varies widely, leaning toward the dreadful.

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Grades:

Movie: Oneandahalfstars – It’s got a trailer to die for, but the film just doesn’t measure up.
Video: Twostars – It’s not so much the image that’s the problem, as the conversion to DVD.
Audio: Twoandahalfstars – The opposite of the video, the film’s soundtrack is erratic, but the DVD takes advantage of the stereo mix.
Features: Twoandahalfstars – There’s not much there, and what is — the documentary — is as inconsistent as the film.
Overall: Oneandahalfstars – That trailer will sell DVDs. And that movie will get them thrown out.

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Conclusion:

Maybe the trailer for Invitation raised my expectations too high for any B-movie to meet. It’s that damn good. But the movie was a real letdown. I feel like I’m being too tough on it because I wanted more, but the bottom line is, Invitation doesn’t come close to rising above the masses of B-movie horror that DVD has wrought.

And the post-production overkill makes me want to grab Burton and shake him like his “trick” shots, just so he knows how I feel.

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