I’m real grateful that I won’t be attending a dinner party any time soon.
Let me start by saying that I had heard of The Invitation before. I’d passed by the film, directed by Karyn Kusama, on Netflix multiple times. I’d seen its name on a number of “Best Horror Films to Stream Now” lists. But I never watched it, and I wish I could go back and punch my past self for skipping this absolute DIAMOND of a thriller.
***SPOILERS COMING YOUR WAY***
I’m not a huge fan of thrillers, to be quite honest, which was why I passed this movie up so many times over the last couple years. And, yet, the first ten minutes already had me hooked; you hope for that in every movie, but, let’s be honest, the good stuff doesn’t usually start until at least half an hour in, at least for me.
Viewers first meet main character Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), as they drive to the house of Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new partner, David (Michiel Huisman). The latter are throwing a dinner party for their large, apparently boundary-less group of friends who haven’t seen them for two years after a traumatic event–the death of Will and Eden’s son.
On the drive, Will and Kira hit a dog with their car. From inside the car, the viewer watches Will step into the headless and drag something unseen, then hit it hard as it whines. Tragic, yes, but ultimately better than letting the animal suffer. Still, the entire tone of the movie, and the idea of death as a kind end to suffering, is set in that one moment.
What I loved about this movie was the continuity of that tone as a thread for the viewr to grasp onto. Will is depicted as being in a sensitive headspace. Memories seem to sneak up and attack him as he goes through the house; every now and then, he zones out, worrying the the group of friends who surround him; and, to make matters even more tense, Will seems to feel innately unsafe the moment he steps through the door to meet Eden and David. And, despite being introduced with hints toward his unreliability, he has good reason to feel scared.
Viewers come to find that the always-smiling Eden and David are conspiring with their creepy cult-pals to poison everyone at dinner so that they can all escape their pain and suffering together, even without consent from literally anyone else. But nobody seems to be freaked out by all the little weird happenings except for poor Will. With his long-time friends unwilling to believe the Sad Man because they think he is just Supremely Sad, the tension between who to trust and who to doubt becomes even more taut. Is Will imagining things? Are his friends complacent, obnoxious assholes (except for unlucky Claire)? Do Eden and Dave really need to smile so much?
I think a big part of why I enjoyed this slow-burn thriller more than others of its type is the absolutely artful way that the physical violence developed. Viewers are totally led to believe that Will, who frequently gets lost in thought, is imagining the danger. His friends repeat it over and over–and nothing bad happens until the movie is almost over. What hits the trigger for me is that level of trust between the party; most of those attending the dinner have been friends for years, with the exception of the cult-pals. Many group-sacrifice style movies center on a few friends who are captured by some strangers or end up on a remote farm, but these people knew each other; they loved each other. So, when odd things like a bottle of barbiturates or a reformed-but-not-really murderer pop up, it’s easy to brush them away. Friends don’t kill friends!
Except when they do, and, boy, they do. Somehow, the scene where the killing began in The Invitation genuinely scared me. Like, once Will started slapping (poisoned) drinks out of his friends’ hands, I knew someone would die, but the snowball of death from there really got me sweating. Literally sweating. This is slow burn! This is tasteful horror! When is the last time a simple murder scene has frightened me? I LOVE IT!
If this was an academic paper, I’d have at least three paragraphs detailing the use of color and lighting, but I’ll leave it at this: gentle reds and yellows, warm lighting, and the Cult Crew wearing matching, neutral tan all do a great job of drawing viewers into the supposed safety of this party amongst friends and away from the danger hiding in the unlit corners. It’s awesome.
This movie would have been a solid five stars for me except for the fact that the ending didn’t feel very inspired, I guess. Fights to the death ensue, and all the Cult Crew get their ultimate wish: to die. Standing safely outside of Eden’s house, Will and Kira spot a red lamp in the yard, then scan the hills to find, to their horror, a whole bunch of other houses with red lamps. These mutual death parties are happening all over LA. For our protags, that doesn’t really mean more danger, but it is a horrific revelation. I just think that keeping the story centralized would have better matched the closed, inner-mind narrative, so I can’t say that I love it, but it definitely didn’t ruin the rest of a wonderful film.
While I won’t be too scared to go to the bathroom tonight, The Invitation delivered on some good, solid horror from a talented cast and crew, and I really regret not giving it a chance earlier.