The Big Chiller
The Invitation may spawn a new horror sub-genre: the Support Group Thriller. Karyn Kusama's latest film, about a dinner party that devolves into mayhem, is so unnerving you'll need friends close by to keep each other from climbing the walls in panic. Like an idiot, I watched the film at home, and found myself pausing six times in the first hour to pace in and out of the living room. I got some water. I told my wife (more than once) that my nerves were shot. I tried again. And again. And again.
This sounds silly, especially if you watched the trailer and thought, "Terrific. An art-house version of You're Next". Or if you asked yourself the question my wife posed to me: "Why don't those people just leave?"
At its core, The Invitation is a drama about broken relationships, grief, and reconnection--and the lengths to which people will go to heal. Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi explore the extremes at which rage can manifest, from bottled-up social anxiety, to the kind of all-consuming sorrow for which dead bodies are the only elixir.
Lesser movies spend twenty minutes setting the table, and the remaining eighty flipping it over. The Invitation reverses those proportions, focusing on character dynamics and building tension as several mysteries hang in the air. By the time the somewhat predictable third act rolls around, we're fully invested, rooting for characters to live, rather than ticking off the splatterific deaths of two-dimensional meat puppets.
About this party: Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) receive an invitation from Will's ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), to visit their former house, which Eden now shares with David (Michiel Huisman), the man for whom she left Will two years ago. The place looks mostly as Will remembers leaving it, except for three key details:
1. The living room is filled with Eden and Will's closest friends, who haven't been together since before Will moved out.
2. Eden looks radiant and healthy, an eerie change from the gaunt, frazzled mess that eloped to Mexico with David after the divorce.
3. All the locks on the house are now inside.
The party is also down one friend, and up two newcomers who seem to know the hosts a little too well: a coked-up-looking hippie girl (Lindsay Burge) and a dead-eyed giant (John Carroll Lynch) who barely speaks unless activated. It doesn't take a cineaste to know that Will's distrust of his ex, her new friends, and this soiree is well-founded. But I love that Kusama does her damnedest to play the misdirection game. Could it be that Will is imagining the sinister cues he's picking up on? That maybe the divorce, and the tragedy that led to it, have driven him insane?
Fortunately for us, Kusama, Hay, and Manfredi don't pull a fast one ("It was all in his head!"). Instead, they weave a complicated tapestry that sees Will slipping into madness during an event that is, itself, mad. I'm going crazy trying to avoid spoilers here, so let's take a breath and talk about filmmaking.
The Invitation feels desperate in the best possible way. It is the work of a team that believes no one will give them another chance to shoot precisely the movie they want to make, with a high-quality cast, and with the time and budget to make as visually and dramatically satisfying a horror film as possible. Kusama, cinematographer Bobby Shore, and composer Theodore Shapiro conspire to give us a series of dreamy images and meticulous compositions that enhance the screenplay's numerous set-ups and pay-offs. One springs to mind:
During a moment of tension between Will and David, we see John Carroll Lynch's character at the left of the frame. He's cropped and obscured by shadow, but the meaty, unclenched hand dangling at his side is unmistakable. Like a Western in which only the audience knows the entire saloon is armed to the teeth, our innate mistrust of this guy subtly elevates the tension in the focal point of Kusama's frame.
To be fair, I'm not sure how effective The Invitation will be on younger audiences, who might go in expecting, frankly, You're Next. This is a movie about adults going through non-sexy, complicated adult things. I wouldn't blame a teenager for pulling up Twitter somewhere around minute forty, after precisely zero characters have been stabbed and ten characters have listened to a monologue about regret. I would expect the adults to be enraptured, though, and wrestling with how their own life experiences might compel them to respond to a situation that escalates emotionally instead of viscerally.
Sure, the film opens with a jump scare and ends on a very chilling image, but The Invitation's true, raw-nerve energy comes from being knocked off balance early on by a protagonist who can't trust what he sees (or remembers) and a nemesis that's rooted in ideology (a much trickier and terrifying catalyst than revenge, sport, or even supernatural evil). This film demands company, discussion, and analysis. Just make sure you know where the exits are, and which side the locks are on.