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The Invitation (2015)


This review is part of a series: 31 Days of Horror Directed by Women.
Karyn Kusama's 2015 social horror The Invitation turned 5 this year. Watching it a second time yesterday deepened my appreciation for and understanding of the film's messages. It helps that the plot has that classic is it really bad or is it all in [protagonist's] head? energy that sucks me in every time. I'm all about a horror narrative that's grounded in a relatable, almost mundane activity, like an i n v i t a t i o n to a dinner party. Kusama adds a little spice to the meal, though. We meet our main man Will (Tom Hardy's possibly hotter but definitely less famous doppelgänger Logan Marshall-Green), and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as they drive toward Will's former home in the Hollywood hills. Will's ex-wife and her new beau have returned from a mysterious stint in Mexico, and are hosting a gathering of old friends for a night of party games, expensive wine, and cake! It sounds really low-stress and fun, especially since there's an incredibly heavy air of TRAUMA and PAIN hovering over the house and under the surface of every single conversation 🥴.

This set up is especially good on repeat viewings. There are so many little details that become Big Clues to the movie's conclusion and themes. I mean, who doesn't love a drama-filled reunion among old friends? Throw in a dead child and a murder confession and...well, this dinner about to be lit af! I think the only thing missing from this narrative is a sexy, yet unsettling choreographed dance scene Ă  la Ex Machina. While movies like The Babadook and Midsommar explore grief through pretty extreme scenes of horror, The Invitation offers a more grounded yet viscerally upsetting view of grief and the path to healing. The Invitation doesn't need a big bad boogie man or out-sized scenes of bloody violence to be scary—though it does utilize both, in its own way. What's truly frightening about Kusama's film is everything under the surface. It's the sunny, carefree demeanor masking a mess of unresolved trauma just waiting to make it's violent debut. It's all of the fears, desires, thoughts, and pain we need so desperately to confess—but don't. It's that itchy fact of life we try so hard to avoid: no matter how much we plan or how many precautions we take, shit can go south in the blink of an eye. Or, in the case of The Invitation: in the crack of a glass.

And yeah, this dinner party goes south. You knew that—it's a horror movie! And what a glorious dissolution of decorum it is. While the entire cast is great, I just need to say that the second Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) shows up to the party, my breath caught in my throat. The pitch perfect doom-energy his hovering presence has is bone-chilling, even if you don't know why. This is a good example of what I mean when I say the movie's horror is visceral, in a grounded way. We've all been to at least one slightly awkward, sorta dramatic gathering of friends. Alcohol and years of shared history are sometimes all a party needs to go awry. When one person's energy seems to shift—or worse, is totally off to begin with—it can send an otherwise even-keeled mix of personalities and temperaments careening into the danger zone. 

The deep, unresolved emotions thundering between Will and his ex, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), are a mood-killer, to be sure. But it's a mood this group of old friends is at least familiar with, and seems more than willing to lovingly navigate. It's the group's newcomers: Pruitt, yes, but also Sadie, a manic pixie wild girl crashing at the couple's house, and Eden's new beau, David (sporting long dark hair and a scruffy beard, just like Will). These grief-connections Eden has made during her time in Mexico have chaotic, malevolent energy masked by a very L.A., new age-y visage. They're all a bit off, sure, but you really want it to work out. Drink the expensive wine and just chill, y'all! Alas, as the true nature of Eden and David's invitation is gradually revealed, we discover this party has no chill, unfortunately.

There are a couple of scenes where Will chats one-on-one with a friend. Each person seems to have a slightly different yet equally impotent approach to showing their support for him and Eden in the aftermath of their trauma. It's in these quieter moments that Kusama neatly illustrates the ways we fail each other by avoiding the dark realities of grief and the rocky path to healing. Instead, we offer platitudes; we give people space without asking if that's what they need; we straight up tell them they're bumming us out. It's a shitty fact of life that, Americans at least, are the worst at feeling our feelings. We love doing anything but. So it's not that surprising to see Eden and her new friends attempt to heal and address their own heavy feelings by heading down some pretty misguided avenues. Sure, it's a bit extreme, but it's incredibly relatable. We need connection with other humans to survive, period. When those connections seem tenuous, or fail us completely, and the pain is great enough, we'll happily take the hand of anyone offering some sort of reprieve. Even if it's deadly. 

Twenty years from now, The Invitation will certainly be considered a horror classic. It's solidly entertaining, genuinely unnerving, and explores some very real, human issues at its core.
All stills via Film Grab