2017 has been an exceptional year for horror. Between the incredible box office success of Stephen King’s It, to the near universal critical praise of Get Out, with more divisive but inarguably daring films such as It Comes at Night and mother! thrown in along the way, we appear to be in somewhat of a golden age of modern horror. But this trend is not entirely new, with the past few years delivering on a wide range of fresh and inventive thrillers that push the boundaries of horror, but may have unfortunately been missed by wider audiences. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is an example of such films. While it missed the mark at the box office, The Invitation is a master class of horror through its expert use of tension and release. The film utilizes themes of grief, corrupted nostalgia and desperation, to create a story that gradually raises every hair on the viewer’s body before devastating them with its tragic conclusion.
The Invitation is simple in its premise: Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Keira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), attend a dinner party after receiving an invitation from Will’s several years estranged ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard). What follows is a simmering pot of tension that slowly builds and builds until it boils over into a messy and violent finale. For those who have not seen it, the film is best enjoyed with little to no foreknowledge of this dinner party’s dark secrets. Kusama doles out her mysteries with patience and reserve, and questioning each of the character’s true intentions and motivations is half the fun.
The film is immediately evocative of the type of party you would have rather not attended but did so anyway, either out of politeness or obligation. The very premise of attending an ex’s party would make most sensible people run for the hills. Will himself seems unsure about what draws him to attend, be it a desire to mend a relationship broken by tragedy, or to revisit an emotional wound that won’t seem to heal. The awkward party’s setting serves as an effective way to establish immediate discomfort. Furthermore, the use of a tried and true horror movie trope during the early minutes of the film, also establishes a sense of unease that prevents the viewer from ever becoming comfortable, and also serves as a foreboding warning of what’s to come.
The party’s setting is at once familiar and strange to Will. The house was once his own home, one he shared with Eden but left after the sudden and tragic death of their son tore their marriage apart. Now the home is host to haunting and painful memories. Visions of a happier life taunt him as he explores the once familiar space. The entirety of the film takes place here and is gorgeously shot. The candlelit setting is soaked in shadow, giving this spacious and decadent home a sense of claustrophobia as though the walls are closing in. Terse violins lead the score that punctates quiet moments to build a mounting sense of dread. Each aspect of the film’s setting deftly contributes to the foreboding sense that something here is terribly wrong.
The party’s guests likewise, are comprised of both the familiar and the strange. The majority of attendees are old friends of Will and Eden, with the night’s celebration serving in part as a welcome catch-up. In her quest to manage her grief however, Eden has made several new friends who crash the reunion. Michiel Huisman plays Eden’s new husband, David, who’s forwardly friendly charm is simultaneously disarming and suspicious. Joining them are the immediately imposing Pruitt and manic pixie Sadie, (John Carroll Lynch and Lindsay Burdge), who’s unusual behavior only serves to raise more questions on the nature of this get-together.
What follows is a slow and steady ramp up of paranoia and tension as the film progresses. While the other guests drink wine and socialize, Will wrestles with unease. Kusama deftly communicates tension to the viewer through Will’s growing paranoia, stemming from his discomfort at returning to his old home, and exasperated by these new people in Eden’s life. His friends and girlfriend insist that his mistrust is unearned, assuming that his discomfort likely stems from a turbulent history with Eden, and his hesitation to reopen the relationship. But a series of mysterious actions by the party’s hosts only lead to Will’s mounting suspicions. Why are all the doors locked and the windows barred? Where is the party’s missing guest, Choy? And why does Eden have a stash of powerful sedatives? The slow accumulation of these mounting suspicions lead Will to the brink of snapping, and cause the viewer a growing sense of dread. By the time The Invitation reaches its violent release during the third act, both the party attendees and viewers alike, are on a hair trigger. The film’s patience in slowly establishing an escalating fear and paranoia makes its shocking finale all the more effective.
The success of The Invitation, is achieved not only by its effective use of tension, but also in part, by its mindful meditation on coping with grief. Will and Eden are both struggling to deal with their son’s death, but each take opposite approaches. Will wallows in his grief. He spends much of the party isolating himself from the others, constantly dazed and distant. In his son’s old bedroom, he visualizes memories of times of happiness before his family was broken. Will choses to embrace his pain, but suffers dearly for it.
Eden conversely, has found an alternative way to cope. She has found comfort in a spiritual cult that embraces death as a mercy, as a communion, and at least outwardly, she seems like she has finally found peace. That peace quickly seems unearned and short lived. The conflict between Will’s unflinching decision to confront the truth of his son’s death, and Eden’s decision to obfuscate her feelings through faith, is one of the most powerful aspects of the film. It parallels Will’s constant pursuit of answers to the party’s mysteries as the other guests attempt to dull their suspicions with wine and politeness. This is a personal tale within a horror film that lends an extra layer of emotional depth. Ultimately, Kusama seems to warn of the extreme lengths some will go to to overcome grief, and shows the vulnerability that can lead someone there. This graceful pairing of expertly crafted tension and emotional storytelling, makes The Invitation an experience that resonates long after the film’s final moments.
Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.