Have you ever attended a dinner party that, despite the presence of several old friends, made you feel oddly uncomfortable? As if you’ve not only outgrown your old social circle — but you also just don’t seem to like most of them anymore? Or perhaps you’ve been dragged along to a social event that made you want to turn right around and head home — but of course the rules of social propriety would frown on that sort of behavior. And so you suffer through an evening that starts out uncomfortable and then slowly gets worse. We’ve all felt that “weirdly trapped” feeling that occurs at awkward social gatherings, and it’s that sort of disconcerting sensation that runs rampant throughout Karyn Kusama’s subtle, slow-burn horror/thriller The Invitation.
The story is enjoyably simple and straightforward: Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited to a dinner party at an impressive house located way up in the Hollywood hills. The hosts are Will’s estranged ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her husband David (Michiel Huisman), both of whom have been living in Mexico for the past two years. Also on the guest list are a small but eclectic group of Will and Eden’s mutual friends — as well as few newcomers: the oddly free-spirited Sadie (Lindsay Brudge) and the mysteriously intimidating Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). And of course our hosts have an ulterior motive for this low-key yet inevitably unnerving get-together.
It seems that Eden and Will (and Sadie and Pruitt) are members of a collective (don’t call it a cult!) that’s known only as “The Invitation.” Precisely what this group hopes to accomplish is a bit hazy at first, but once David plays a disturbing video in which something tragic occurs, well, that’s when this dinner party goes from mildly uncomfortable to downright bizarre. To say much more would spoil some dark surprises, but let’s just say that The Invitation goes in a few directions you may predict — and then a few you probably won’t.
Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) and screenwriting team Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi (Clash of the Titans, Ride Along) seem to take great delight in stretching out the suspense in a fashion that could be appropriately described at Ti West-esque; The Invitation is in no big rush to get to its third-act payoff of scary mayhem, but it boasts a whole bunch of colorful characters, lots of amusing and engaging banter, and numerous creepy little clues as to what the hell’s going on behind the scenes at this devilish dinner party.
The whole ensemble is quite strong, although of course the central characters get the most to do. Tammy Blanchard is effortlessly off-putting as the hostess with a painfully disingenuous smile plastered across her face; Logan Marshall-Green cleverly modulated performance goes from annoyed to suspicious to infuriated right along with the audience; and John Carroll Lynch (best known as Frances McDormand’s lovable husband in Fargo) is like a dark cloud that hovers over the entire evening before finally exploding in horrific fashion.
The Invitation requires a bit of patience — it’s actually interested in setting up its premise, characters, and payoffs — but it rewards the attentive viewer with a remarkably intense and disturbing series of scares. It works so damn well it may inspire you to skip the next several dinner parties you’re invited to.
4.5 slow-cooked but very intense burritos out of 5
The Invitation is presently in theaters and is also available at various VOD outlets.