Karyn Kusama Serves Up a Creepy Dinner Party In Her Indie Horror Flick The Invitation

Within the opening five minutes of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, a grim omen signals the impending doom to meet its lead character, Will (Logan Marshall-Green). While driving to a dinner party with his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzi Corinealdi), he badly maims a coyote on the road; with a couple of swift swings of a tire iron, Will bludgeons the animal to death for its own mercy.

The evening proceeds to be even more tense for Will, who carries baggage as heavy as his beard is thick, not least because the site of the party is the house Will inhabited with his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), until the loss of their son, Ty. While Will has been quietly grieving, Eden married an alcoholic named David (Michiel Huisman), and both have been MIA in Mexico for the past two years. In their beautiful midcentury-modern home in the idyllic Hollywood Hills, David and Eden host a triumphant welcome-back party, at which they reveal that they took up with a cult-like spiritual group in Mexico called the Invitation to exorcise their respective traumas and lead them to enlightenment.

Kusama slowly builds up tension through David and Eden’s increasingly peculiar behavior: the windows are barred, the doors are locked, there’s no cell service or a phone landline; Eden is hiding drugs in her nightstand, and their houseguests, Sadie and Pruitt (Lindsay Burdge and John Carroll Lynch), exude sinister creepiness underneath their cheerful dispositions. The other guests sense something is amiss but blow it off in the name of propriety and social decorum, possibily titillated by David and Eden’s cultish forays. Will, however, can’t shake his suspicion or his depression; flashbacks share his painful memories of his lost son.

The Invitation succeeds much more as a character drama than a horror movie. Known for her 2000 indie film Girlfight, Kusama trades the urban streets for Hollywood Gothic and primps it up with hip thirtysomethings and tungsten lighting. The average moviegoer expecting conventional horror-movie jumps and strange men lurking in the dark will be frustrated, as the film draws out its uneasiness slowly, appetizing your sense of alarm with plenty of fakeouts and false leadups, reserving the main course for the last 10 minutes. Kusama’s too smart to play with Hollywood tropes and a standard story arc; her real interest is in this group of people and how their closeness and trust will eventually blindside them in the film’s conclusion (let’s just say it involves the wine).

In one scene, David screens a promotional video for the Invitation, which features the death of an Invitation member caught on video. Dumbfounded, David’s friends express their shock, but Eden and David are all too eager and prepared to change the subject. So, too, are their friends, and the party resumes its carefree manner. This may as well be a masquerade party, as everyone is hiding their true feelings and thoughts from one another.

Indie actor Marshall-Green is a perfect choice for Will, who is a powder keg of emotions. His expressionless face hides Will’s remorse, sorrow and inner turmoil as he struggles to fit in with everyone else. Blanchard’s Eden is also a wonder, swanning around her home and making exaggerated displays of elation; think of her as a cross between Piper Laurie in Carrie and a 1960s Manson follower. Burdge, who turned out a remarkable performance in the indie body-horror film Lace Crater, and Carroll Lynch, who flexed his thriller muscles in Zodiac, are both effectively creepy as their characters describe the Invitation with glazed-over eyes. And Huisman, known for playing Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones, really gets under your skin with gusto.

With this fantastic set of actors, Kusama is able to properly keep you locked into the suspense beneath what should be a joyous occasion. If only writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi had written The Invitation to be a more clearly defined philosophy and not a vague mist of promises and enlightenment, David and Eden’s actions and motives would be better understood. Nevertheless, Kusama builds a solid cinematic feast with the base ingredients Hay and Manfredi provide. Wasn’t it Sartre who wrote, “Hell is other people”? Imagine that Hell being a dinner party held by people who you think are your friends, who ignore your pleas for attention and engage in mindless banter—not even the fortified wine could prepare you for such damnation.

The Invitation was directed by Karyn Kusama; written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; and stars Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman and Emayatzy Corinealdi. At the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org. Opens Fri. Visit the website for show times. Through Thurs., May 19. $7-$10.

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