By Kristy Strouse
An underrated mastery of the psyche “The Invitation” (2015) directed by Karyn Kusama is one of my favorite horror/thrillers in recent years. We’ve seen a lot of psychological distress on screen, but this is truly at its finest here. That churning tension of uncertainty that is introduced early, ruminates throughout, giving us a party that’s not quite what it seems.
When Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are invited to his ex-girlfriend Eden’s home (Tammy Blanchard) for a dinner party, he’s not really sure what to expect. When they arrive, they’re surrounded by several old friends, Eden’s new boyfriend David (Michiel Huisman) and some wildcard new acquaintances of the hosting couple, including Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) who brings an extra element of creepiness.
Will and Eden had lost a young son, so his grief is etched into his stilted frame as he walks back into the home he once loved. Things are already awkward, but some strange behavior and uncomfortable conversations/actions make Will begin to doubt their honorable intentions. Will is one of the few that isn’t faking it, he’s unrefined and not standing on ceremony. He feels that something if off, while everyone else is doing their best at being courteous, and he’s addressing it.
Eden and David try to bring this guise of warmth and welcoming, and the film also exhibits a brown-yellow color scheme early, to relay a similar level of comfort. It doesn’t work. As the group first reconnects there are highs and lows, moments of camaraderie contrasted with heavy moments of dramatic divisions and stories of death. There are coaxing instances of “Don’t be afraid” but the veneer is transparent, and inherently ominous. Kusama uses the unsettling nature of the tonal shifts to keep the viewer on their toes.
There really is no break, no ease given; a necessity in horror. That discernible anxiety is not unlike “Rosemary’s Baby.” While there are many narrative variations, the slow suspicion that builds is similar, and “The Invitation” utilizes it in a more confined setting, making is also claustrophobic in its grip. Will is continuously made to question his sanity, in an excellent portrayal by Marshall-Green, and as our guide we’re on that rollercoaster with him.
“It is worth noting that those who have seen “The Invitation” don’t underrate it, but it doesn’t get nearly the enough attention it should. It is a slow burn, but there is a payoff, and the journey there is exquisitely crafted.”
He’s emotional, traumatized, but his instincts are very real. He’s questioning what he’s feeling, while being reminded of the memories held in this location that are still raw. It’s as much a study on the way we deal with loss as it is a horror-film, which, as one of the worst things a person can experience, is equally important. In the opening scene he puts a coyote on the road out of its misery. That touch of empathy mixed with the bite and drive to survive, is relayed in the end, again.
The story, with screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, is simplistic in a sense, yet deeply provocative. There’s a great use of sound and score here, with a concentration on the noises around Will as his distrust boils, a sort of tapping until he snaps. There is also a wonderful score that admirably builds dread through a slow plucking of strings. It is just invasive enough to slither slowly down your spine. The importance of a great score shouldn’t be overlooked. It can be an additional character, a shadow creeping into the corner of your vision, or an unresolved fear. In the final act, that’s both affecting and lingering, things finally come to a head. The way that this gathering ends, especially in the closing moments, is unforgettable.
It is worth noting that those who have seen “The Invitation” don’t underrate it, but it doesn’t get nearly the enough attention it should. It is a slow burn, but there is a payoff, and the journey there is exquisitely crafted. Imagine being invited to this dinner party. Without spoiling the finale, let’s just say…it’s the worst-case scenario. Old wounds, new wounds, paranoia and terror are all split open and laid bare, making “The Invitation” a feat in filmmaking.