Here is a thriller that effectively weaponises anxieties over social awkwardness turning a drawing room drama into a sustained note of escalating tension like 100 minutes of a nail scrapped down a blackboard. It is not a pleasant experience but also not easily forgotten.
Will and Kira are driving into the Hollywood Hills to a party. It is clear from their conversation that Will is troubled. The invitation has come from Eden his ex-wife. Will has not seen Eden for several years and has never met her wealthy new boyfriend. Attending are a small group of Will and Eden’s friends who have drifted apart after some terrible tragedy some years before which caused Will and Eden to separate and Eden to disappear for several years.
As the group convenes in the luxurious house that Will once shared with Eden it becomes clear that something is not quite right. Eden is a little too loved up with her new boyfriend David. David is opening bottles of wine that are too ostentatiously expensive for a group of people he has not previously met. There is also a dishevelled housemate that David and Eden have brought back from a spiritual retreat in Mexico with a manic glint in her eye. An expected guest has not arrived. And why are the doors locked?
While very specifically Los Angeles in its setting and in the privileged social milieu it explores, The Invitation also deals with themes that are both universal and refreshingly serious for a horror film slash suspense thriller. Grief, and the ways in which we respond to it, is at the core of the film. The nature of the tragedy that split these friends is only slowly revealed, but it is a sadly relatable trauma. Eden seems to have found a method of coping and moving on, Will however has not. He is obviously very far from okay from the film’s beginning.
As events unfold, Will becomes increasingly convinced the party has a sinister agenda, but Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s superb script does an expert series of bait-and-switch reversals with the audiences sympathies. While there is little doubt that Eden and David are into some dubious new age belief system, does that justify Will’s increasing panic? It is a guessing game that is superbly managed by director Karyn Kusama who stages the drama without flashy techniques. By using tight close ups and pulling back to longer shots only rarely Kusama ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels.
Playing Will, Logan Marshall-Green has to carry the film, not only playing the investigator but also expressing the inner turmoil of a character suffering from a trauma related depression and being forced to confront the memories of this directly by visiting the former home that was the site of the tragedy. Bearded and intense, Marshall-Green comes over like an American Tom Hardy, he is both a character you will feel for and one that will worry you.
Elsewhere among the superb cast Tammy Blanchard brings a synthetic sincerity to Eden. Michiel Huisman (familiar from TVs Orphan Black and Game of Thrones) plays Eden’s new boyfriend, and the couple have the insidious fervour of the newly converted. There is also an great performance from familiar character actor John Carol Lynch as a mysterious friend of the couple who gets to deliver an unsettling soliloquy through the device of a modified version of the dinner party game ‘I’ve never’ (you know, ‘I’ve never….’ Only this time it’s ‘I want…”).
The refreshing diversity of the characters (Will and Kira are a mixed race couple, and among the friends are a Korean American, and a gay couple) adds to the feeling that there is a deeper social subtext to this movie. The dinner-party feels like a microcosm of urban society, but with all involved politely ignoring clear evidence that something is very deeply wrong. It is not thard to see the current racial tensions and gun-related mass killings that afflict the US and have made international news reflected by this story.
The film screened as part of the London Film Festival and has been playing genre festivals widely, but while it falls into the horror and suspense category it is quite distinctive and lies outside of contemporary genre trends.
It’s a film about adult characters rather than teenagers. It is about something. It treats violence seriously as A BAD THING and then uses it very sparingly. It favours creeping dread and unease over jump scares (of which there are virtually none). The narrative is compelling but it lacks an obvious high concept hook that would make for a snappy tagline and trailer.
Perhaps for these reasons the film still lacks a UK distributor, which is a shame as despite the single setting and theatrical narrative, Kusama has made a very cinematic experience, one beautifully lensed by cinematographer Bobby Shore.
The Invitation is one of the most uncomfortable dinner parties you will ever attend but you should definitely RSVP.
The Invitation can be seen in the UK next at:
Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham on the 18th October [details @ http://www.broadway.org.uk/groups/mayhem_film_festival]
Sheffield Screams festival on the 23rd October [details @ http://www.showroomworkstation.org.uk/festivals/celluloidscreams]