Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) is the kind of film that almost resists genre as its genre; that is to say, its mutability makes for part of its substance. As an impressively sustained exercise in ambiguous dread, it tries on the skins of awards-season drama, psychological thriller, a film about aging Gen Xers, a film about grief, a film about a broken family and broken friends, a film about a sinister conspiracy, a horror film. It recalls movies like The Anniversary Party (2001) and The Big Chill (1983), but also the fearful atmosphere of The Village (2004), the half-disbelieving tension of The Witch (2015), the gut-level creepiness of Suicide Club (2001). It is a film that gives you a main character of questionable reliability, constantly feeding him cues that there is something wrong, but just as quickly good reasons to dismiss his misgivings. It’s exhausting and intense, but by the time everything rapidly unspools in the final reel, it’s still somehow a little surprising. (Ahem, from this point forward, there be spoilers.)
The story follows lovely couple Will and Kira (Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi) through the winding, darkening Hollywood Hills for a dinner party thrown by Will’s ex-wife Eden and her new guy David in Will’s ex-house. Already an uncomfortable situation, but Will and Kira are a likable couple in love. They’re dealing with it. On the way, they run over a coyote, and Will has to put the poor animal out of its misery with a tire iron, setting the tone. This is a movie constantly tensed for a sudden blow. With bits of dialogue and brief, stylized flashbacks, we learn that Will and Eden lost their son to an accident, that she and David met in a grief coping group, and they’ve been out of the picture for a couple years. Of course, Will seems to have been out of touch with their social circle, too, so the party is a big reunion for everyone. For Will, it’s also effectively returning to his dead son’s graveside, as he’s haunted by scraps of memories of his son, who actually died at the house, suffering an accident while playing with a friend.
The cast of friends at the reunion is rather large, and it’s a credit to everyone involved that they are instantly familiar without being hackneyed types or getting a lot of individual development. This is a powerfully well-acted film. And Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) exudes the perfect balance of inappropriately weird and plausibly overcompensating. She’s dressed in a long, white gown that could arguably scream affluence as much as Manos wife and is effusive, physical, and emotional in ways that are hard to gauge as either the natural behavior of a grieving woman clinging to spiritual platitudes or something more sinister. Most of the heavy lifting in the film rests with Will though, and Logan Marshall-Green does a tremendous job with his understated performance of a nice guy pulled taut by grief, self-doubt, and instinct.
The group of friends at the reunion has a couple of new faces though, both gently alarming. First, Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), who Will first notices lingering in a doorway watching their arrivals, naked from the waist down. After she puts a skirt on, Sadie brings to the party all the awkward, nervous energy of someone very lost and maybe dangerous. And then Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, although he will always be Drew Carey’s transvestite brother to me), a big, affectionate man David introduces as his friend, who confesses fairly early on to having killed his wife in a fit of rage years earlier. Together with David and Eden, they evince a benevolence and generosity that just seems a little unnatural. But even if it is unnatural, is it malign? Or is that simply Will’s feeling as he wrestles with his own pain, unable to be charitable toward anyone finding a different way to cope, especially Eden? Or can it be a little of column A, a little of column B?
Even though there’s no real onscreen violence until the denouement, the film shivers with the expectation of something explosive, largely thanks to Kusama’s economical use of Theodore Shapiro’s nerve-splitting score. But the visuals stay warm and welcoming, the atmosphere of the party is convivial, and the only tension on view radiates outward from Will, his tightly gripped grief and lost love threatening to burst its dam. There’s no way to be certain what the score is really warning us about, Will boiling over or the bars Eden put on all the windows. Did I mention they can’t get cell phone reception up in the hills? They can’t get cell phone reception up in the hills. So the party is pretty well isolated and either has a guy about to lose it in its midst or hosts with nefarious plans.
Nothing David and Eden do that arouses Will’s suspicion is ever really inexplicable, and by the same token, everything Will suspects is easily explicable as the product of an overwrought mind. When friend Tommy goes to comfort/gently goad Will into rejoining the party, Will tells him, “Something doesn’t feel safe here.” Tommy just replies, “Of course it doesn’t feel safe,” and assures Will he was brave to come, making it all about Will’s loss. While his friends concede the weirdness of David and Eden, and especially their new friends, they aren’t as worried about it as they are about Will. Even when David and Eden show the party a DVD from a spiritual retreat in Mexico that showcases a terminally ill woman dying, it’s an off-key, tasteless choice on their part, but not exactly threatening. Their old friends jokingly refer to them being in a cult, but The Invitation, as their spiritual group is called, is something vaguely familiar to others at the reunion, and its trappings and language are generically benevolent. The Invitation leader, Dr. Joseph, as seen on the DVD, could easily be giving a TED talk or appearing in a glossy infomercial on late night cable. And David and Eden are a Pottery Barn advertisement. In a weird way, they don’t seem as wrong as they seem. They may have been removed from their social circle by tragedy for a time, but no more than Will was, and there is a strong current of peer pressure to accept or explain away red flags as scars from difficult healing.
Kusama keeps the tension high with judicious placement of violence and conflict, getting a lot done with just implication. At first, aside from coyote, this manifests in flashbacks to Eden’s suicide attempt when she and Will were still married. Then Eden’s mask of beneficence cracks for a moment when a guest mocks her new agey renunciation of pain and she slaps him. For a long time after, Will’s challenges to the party’s benign coherence are the most violent thing you see. He demands to know why David is locking them in. He demands to know why Eden has barbiturates (that he, stalker-like, invaded the privacy of her bedroom to discover). He demands to know where a missing guest is. But Kusama never lets us see much overt, real-time violence until the end. In one really effective scene, the somewhat buttoned-up professor Claire is ooked out by a game where everyone is encouraged to confess their innermost desires and decides to leave. Initially, David and Eden both plead for her to stay, but Will, sensing a conspiracy, insists she be allowed to go. Pruitt then realizes that he has blocked her in with his car and escorts her out. Suspicious, Will watches closely through the window as Pruitt and Claire navigate unparking. It’s incredibly tense, but Pruitt misses every obvious opportunity to do something bad to Claire. After reparking, he helps guide Claire backing out and pulling onto the highway, and she seems to be free to go…until he seemingly forgets something and runs around to her driver’s side window, obscured by a hedge, putting them just out of Will’s view. When Pruitt rejoins everyone, he says that he apologized to Claire, and it’s not unbelievable. So by the time Will trashes a table full of wine glasses, screaming that it’s poison, his outburst is something we’re well prepared for. But the violent deaths as party guests and cult members hunt each other through the big, grand house to follow are not.
Kusama’s previous foray into horror, Jennifer’s Body (2009), which I love with the light of a million suns, works with a completely different tone and palette. It’s a garish, profane send-up of high school and young adulting that skewers the norms of John Hughes’ coming-of-age films along with a trail of teenage boys. Despite succubus Jennifer (Megan Fox) attempting to gaslight her best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) about her demonic nature, there’s never really any ambiguity for Needy or the audience about what is happening; we’ve seen Jennifer’s distended monster jaws and Needy scrubbing satanic blood vomit off her kitchen linoleum. But before Jennifer is transformed, before she falls into the clutches of the indie band who sacrifice her to Satan in exchange for Maroon 5-level fame, there’s again a hazy, ambiguous threat from the band that reminds me of what Kusama achieves in The Invitation. We know there’s something off about the band, but we don’t know what. Are they would-be rapists? Are they scummy guys competing to deflower virgins like in a sex farce from a less enlightened time? Lead singer Nikolai (Adam Brody) clearly is up to no good, but his dry humor is grounding and disarming. He doesn’t seem as bad as we fear he could be. Just like Needy, we can’t point to a specific reason to keep Jennifer from going willingly into the band’s cool van. (Other than the obvious reasons no one should ever go into a stranger’s van.) When Nikolai shuts the van door on Jennifer, surrounded by the rest of the band, it reminds me of nothing so much as Leatherface slamming the steel door on his abattoir after taking his first victim in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Jennifer’s slow realization she’s in terrible trouble is incredibly poignant, and Kusama does a great job injecting this moment of sobering terror into a film otherwise dominated by gallows humor.
The function of horror sometimes is counter-intuitive in that it allows you a place to defuse fears, to run internal models of worst-case scenarios, to confront mortal dread in a safe context. You face the Tall Man, Candyman, Michael Myers, the Babadook, and you will always be fine when you turn out the lights. But I also appreciate that sometimes horror is not in any way reassuring, when stories give credence to one’s instincts and warn there are monsters out there, real ones, and they will get you if you let them. In that capacity, horror fiction is a survival technique of the species, or the thing that should have kept Jennifer from getting in the van. The Invitation is a complex movie. For all its precarious suspense, it genuinely delves into the grief and survivor’s guilt that set Will and Eden onto very different paths after an unthinkable loss. But I think what stays with me most is the way Will is repeatedly, credibly, lovingly exhorted to deny his instincts and accept explanations that don’t set true. The earnestness of those appeals from his well-meaning friends and the fidelity they have to something anyone in the same situation might say stays with me. So often we use reason to soothe away our fears, but we shouldn’t forget that some fears have a right to exist. If dread of something is truly irresistible, it’s probably fair to consider why you’re resisting. And maybe don’t drink that glass of wine.
You can currently find The Invitation streaming on Netflix, and Karyn Kusama will also be one of the writer-directors featured in 2017’s all-female horror anthology XX.
Angela feels that Eden and David missed an opportunity by not giving a murder mystery party.