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Review: THE INVITATION Successfully Subverts Home Invasion Thriller Cliches

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[All images courtesy Drafthouse Films]

invitation-posterThe Invitation
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi
Copyright 2015

A reunion dinner in the Hollywood Hills takes a sharp turn from socially uncomfortable to apocalyptic in the 2015 psychological thriller The Invitation.

Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) returns to the horror genre with The Invitation, an independent release from Drafthouse Films featured at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival. Fans of horror movies that raise the bar on what the genre can accomplish (and fans of good movies in any genre) should take the opportunity to see this movie.

While The Witch is still the best horror movie recently in theaters, The Invitation is now tied with the New England Folk-Tale for best horror movie I’ve seen this year. It may be very different in setting and story, but like The Witch, The Invitation takes the psychological horror film to A+ level.

The Invitation begins slowly, with a couple winding their way up the Hollywood Hills towards a secluded gated home. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are traveling to a reunion of sorts. Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) have invited a group of old friends for a dinner party. From the cryptic conversation between Will and Kira, the viewer gathers receiving an invitation to this party (or any communication from Will’s ex and her new partner) comes as a surprise. Eden and David have been out of contact for almost two years, supposedly in Mexico.

As might be expected, the reunion between Will and Eden is awkward, their initial conversation stilted and shallow. Despite the efforts of the former couple’s friends to ease the tension, there remains an undertone of unease. As the evening progresses, the contrast between Eden’s newfound peace and Will’s haunted, paranoid behavior lets the viewers know that something happened in this house that destroyed their marriage. While Eden claims to be “better than ever”, Will cannot move past certain rooms without seeing ghosts.

Michiel Huisman plays David, a welcoming host of a very unusual dinner party.
Michiel Huisman plays David, the oh-so-welcoming host of a very unusual dinner party

When two people David and Eden met in Mexico, Pruitt and Sadie, join the group of friends, the gathering’s true purpose is revealed. “The Invitation” is in fact the name of a spiritual group/commune in Mexico where David and Eden were living for the last few years. David plays a promotional video featuring The Invitation’s founder Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss).

Then David — along with Eden, Pruitt and Sadie — begin a passive-aggressive recruitment effort. Since the video featured Dr. Joseph counseling a dying woman dying of cancer to her last natural breath as part of her spiritual rebirth, their effort doesn’t go over very well.

Raise the Red Lantern

Now the tension ratchets up. Will wonders why the doors are locked and the windows are barred. There is no cell reception (and the land line hasn’t been re-installed yet). Why is David making a point of lighting one red lantern in the backyard, hanging like a signal in the night?

Of course, as Eden and David insist, anyone is free to go. One member of the group leaves, but only after strenuous efforts to persuade them to stay. Dinner is served, and as the final after dinner aperitif is served, events spiral into an unexpected but seemingly inevitable conclusion.

When dinner parties go bad; Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) restrains Will (Logan Marshall-Green).

Without spoiling the twist, The Invitation masterfully makes you first believe in Will, then doubt his sanity, then believe him again. Each cast member, even the most deluded or villainous, has layers upon layers; even if you don’t trust them (or protagonist Will either, for that matter), you believe these people exist, and you care about their fate.

Director Karyn Kusama makes the movie’s setting another member of the cast. At first, the house is an expansive sanctuary against the outside world for a privileged group of friends. By the conclusion, it’s a prison they are desperate to escape (literally or figuratively).

Anyone who’s seen the Larry Fessenden-directed The Last Winter, another psychological horror set in a confined space, may see a similarity with that movie’s ending and The Invitation finale. Both movies take away the safety net of a definitive, “the cavalry has arrived” happy ending. Instead, we escape with the characters into a wider world that appears more dangerous, unstable, and definitely not safer than the one they just survived.

The Blu-ray/DVD release contains two interesting features. A “making-of” featurette with cast and crew gives a nice behind the scenes look at the film. A commentary track with director Karyn Ksama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi is a treasure trove of background information on everything from the nuts and bolts of how scenes were shot, to the surface and subtext of the script, to interesting details of how the cast interacted before and during filming.

The Invitation, like other great horror movies, uses the tropes of the genre to illustrate essential truths of human nature. Just like The Fly (1986) used the story of a man fusing with an insect to tell how, in David Cronenberg’s words from an interview in BOMB Magazine, “two attractive people fall in love. The man suddenly contracts this incurable disease,” The Invitation expertly inverts the home invasion thriller to depict how people deal (or don’t) with loss.

The Invitation will be released on DVD/Blu-ray on July 26, and more information can be found at Drafthouse Films’ official website.

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