31 Days to Scare ~ The Invitation

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man accepts an invitation to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, an unsettling affair that reopens old wounds and creates new tensions.

Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Mike Doyle, John Carroll Lynch

Director: Karyn Kusama

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It was right about the time director Karyn Kusama’s debut feature film premiered when I was starting to get keyed into independent cinema.  I’d worn out my multiplex and its weekly mainstream fare and now that I was able to make more informed movie choices for myself I became a regular at our local art house theaters that had a rotation of the latest buzzed about films as well as titles I’ve literally never heard anything about since.  I remember reading in 2000 how Kusama’s Girlfight made a splash at Cannes and won her the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival so you bet I was there on opening weekend to see that powerhouse arrival of both her and star Michelle Rodriguez (Widows).

In the years that followed, Kusama had a tough road with two failed projects (Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body) that may have looked good on paper but didn’t pan out for whatever reason, be it audience appetite or problems inherent with the movies themselves.  I certainly don’t think it was due to Kusama’s efforts as the director because she’s always maintained a unique voice at the table, very much in the vein of a Kathryn Bigelow.  However, in Hollywood, if a movie doesn’t take off it’s often the director that shoulders the blame and especially if you’re a female you’re put into a director’s jail even faster.  So Kusama lingered in limbo for a bit before coming back in a big way with The Invitation.

Kusama’s modern horror film is set in the Hollywood hills in the home of Eden and David.  They’re hosting a dinner party for their close friends they haven’t seen in two years.  After meeting in a grief support group, they’ve been away in Mexico and have returned renewed in spirit and eager to share their newfound peace.  Eden (Tammy Blanchard, Into the Woods) has invited her ex-husband Will (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Will, still struggling with his painful history with Eden has accepted the invite more out of curiosity than anything else.  Even so, he knows the house holds troubling memories of their life together and a tragedy that occurred that drove them apart…so he’s feeling out of sorts even before he pulls in the driveway.  With strong support from Kira, they enter the party.  Guests arrive, pleasantries are exchanged, and then things get…weird.

Part of what has helped Eden and David (Michiel Huisman, World War Z) get through these past two years was the Invitation, a spiritual philosophy led by Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss, Halloween) and it’s a practice they have come to believe in and follow with their whole selves.  Of course, their friends have trouble accepting what sounds like a cult and while the night moves forward, it’s not without a little discomfort from all involved. When quirky houseguest Sadie and the hulking Pruitt, both followers of Dr. Joseph, are introduced to the guests and further elements of the group’s history are revealed, Will begins to suspect they’ve all been asked over for something more than a reunion.

Like that one party guest that doesn’t read social signals, The Invitation overstays its welcome a bit with the film getting a bit too cerebral in its mid-section finding Will repeating the same paranoid conversation, albeit with different people, several times.  While the camera work by Bobby Shore makes good use of the mouse-trap design of Eden’s Los Angeles bungalow, there’s a lot of slow moving shots of the friends eating and drinking (or walking upstairs) that seem redundant.  The one great use of slow motion coupled with excellent sound design happens near the end but its centers on a key moment I wouldn’t spoil for you.

Working off a script co-written by her husband, Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi (the trio also worked on 2018’s Nicole Kidman vehicle Destroyer), Kusama’s  film is all atmosphere from the first frame and it’s a nerve jangling experience.  It’s an uncomfortable watch and that’s the point.  Like Will, the audience is supposed to feel slightly out-of-place and trapped – it aids in Will’s growing paranoia and in the dread we feel as a viewer.  Is Will reading too much into Eden and David’s overly friendly demeanor and their pushy insistence on group harmony or does he truly have something to be concerned about? The answers to all the questions posed throughout are held back for a long time, with the script turning you in one direction before leading you down another path.  It’s not as simple a solution as it appears to be…or is it?  It could be…but then again…

I’ve seen The Invitation twice now and both times I was on the edge of my seat, even on the second watch knowing how everything was going to snap into place. The performances are quietly guarded, perfect for the characters that emerge during the course of the film. The horror elements are carefully doled out and it should please those who enjoy a little sophistication in their screams. While not everyone will be glad they accepted The Invitation, it’s the kind of sturdy film that digs itself under your skin like a rogue splinter.  It will definitely make you appreciate your next dinner party that goes off without a hitch…

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