Cinematic Releases: The Invitation

Andrew reviews the frightening and clever horror thriller The Invitation.

In limited release by Drafthouse Films, the fourth feature of Girlfight and Jennifer's Body director Karyn Kusama, The Invitation, begins as an uneasy, dialogue driven dark comedy of dinner table manners and wine drinking unleashing deeply buried personal wounds before erupting into a full throated white-knuckle horror filmAt first it seems like Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill concerning an ensemble of friends of all walks of life gathered together to dispense with the grief of a lost loved one.  But as the seemingly jovial group meet's true purpose is revealed, it doesn't take long for sutures to be torn and guns to be drawn.  

I refuse to eat the beef! I will only eat the fish or the chicken. 

One of the year's smartest and most elegantly brutal horror movies, it preys on fears of cultist religion, anxieties in social gatherings and our own personal horrors projected onto those around us.  What makes The Invitation so effective is how much of it plays out in real time even as the film's central protagonist, Will (a superb Logan-Marshall Green), flashes in and out of painful memories of past trauma and hallucinatory daydreaming.  From every poolside conversation staring at the stars to every clink of wine glasses, The Invitation slowly marches down a tense and uncomfortable road of suspicion not unlike the paranoia of John Carpenter's The Thing before transforming into a chase thriller with lots of graphic unrated violence and fallen bodies.  Because it's so grounded in reality with plausible skepticism from all sides, we let our guard down and don't foresee the brutal twists ahead.

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Despite having faltered with Aeon Flux, The Invitation is indisputably Karyn Kusama's finest hour.  With slick cinematography by Bobby Shore, an ambient score by Theodore Shapiro and a sharp witted screenplay by frequent collaborator (and husband) Phil Hay, The Invitation is the classiest horror film since Mary Harron's American Psycho in terms of visual and production design.  The seemingly ornate and modernist interior decor of the rich Hollywood home the film primarily takes place in looks fit for any of Tinseltown's biggest celebrities.  Over time however, through the use of lighting and tense close-ups of the actors' faces, it takes on the feel of an old dark house with some genuinely hair raising scares behind it's many locked doors.  Functioning a bit like a minimalist stage play with a large cast of universally strong and often surprising performances, The Invitation is arguably a worthy contender to the throne of dialogue driven cinema where Quentin Tarantino still reigns supreme.  There's even an awkwardly revealing scene where each character introduces themselves to the group with more than a few increasingly suspect games of truth or dare at play, setting the stage where anything can and likely will happen.  Primarily the main character in this terror show is Will but this is one of those ensemble driven stories where no character is overlooked and we know who everyone is, making their actions in the grand guignol finale all the more shocking.  Arguably the film's scariest character is played by veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch, who exudes danger from the moment he walks onscreen and delivers a roundtable speech mid-picture that will make your blood run cold. 

Fans of the stock trade blood and guts prosthetic driven slasher horror might grow a little impatient with The Invitation while the higher brow art house crowd are in for more than a little shock, awe and real scares not felt in the movies in quite some time.  It's a tough sell because this isn't so much a horror film in the traditional ways most moviegoers have come to expect and while it has plenty of brutal fireworks in the end, it takes it's sweet time getting there.  In some ways Kusama's film isn't unlike Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, arguably a horror film of dialogue driven prelude to bloodshed and while the scale of Tarantino's 70mm magnum opus overshadows Kusama's, the impetus driving both is the same.  We know something suspiciously peculiar going on in both arenas but the tension isn't so much in the Mexican standoff which ensues in climax but the uncomfortable journey towards finding out.  I won't say who fires first or how except that when you find out why, the reasons are frighteningly plausible.  

That water looks so good right now. I'd love to drown you in it. 

My only complaint about the picture, spoiler free, is a Fight Club inspired moment consisting of a close up of the nervous surviving couple holding hands as they watch their world go up in flames.  In an otherwise taut and tense thriller which proves you can grab viewers by the throat without immediately pulling out the buckets of chum and karo syrup with red food coloring in the first act, this one little extra note struck me as needless overkill.  Otherwise, this is one of the smartest and most surprising thrillers you're likely to see all year, a film that held me rapt in its grasp and didn't loosen its tight grip until the closing credits. 

 - Andrew Kotwicki