Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Invitation

The Invitation (2015)
Dir. Karyn Kusama
Written by Phil Hay, Matt Manfredini
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Terry Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Emayatzy Corinealdi

THE INVITATION is another in a recent line of serious-minded, talky, psychologically fraught and glacially paced micro-budget horror films, which definitely seem to be in vogue right now. We talked in my EYES OF MY MOTHER review about the recent trend towards arthouse horror, and while I don’t think you could quite pin things like THE BABADOOK, COHERENCE, THE CANAL, THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE, or THE INVITATION as “art” films per say, there’s definitely a kindred spirit between these two trends, an understanding of horror films as fundamentally psychological, reliant on subtle unease and bracing social discomfort, presented with a starkly self-conscious realism. Most of these film have only a very, very light sugar coating of genre elements, and some have almost none at all. A generous reading might allow us to harken back to the days of Val Lewton as inspiration for this recent crop of indie filmmakers, who perhaps identify with his steadfast assurance that psychological horror combined with an intentionally limited use of explicit horror imagery could produce a much more potent kind of fear which occurs in the viewer’s deepest primal imagination. A less generous reading might be that these films are dirt cheap to make and ambitious young indie filmmakers with no real understanding or affection for the horror genre still know that horror fans are undiscerning enough to watch literally anything they plop in front of them, making this a cynically calculated step to get on the radar and move on to “real” movies.

Not that I want to accuse any of the films cited here of such motives (which, honestly, would hardly crack the top ten most disreputable reasons horror movies have been made, even at its most ungenerous reading) -- indeed, I really enjoyed almost all of them. Except, unfortunately, THE INVITATION. It’s definitely trying hard, really struggling to be about things, to explore some issues in a mature, realistic way without resorting to cheap shock tactics and old horror cliches. But unfortunately its drama, while clearly earnestly intended, is pretty rote and superficial. And in fact the best part here is the end, when it finally throws up its hands and takes a decent stab (ha) at offering some of those exact horror cliches it spends most of the runtime avoiding. I guess on some level you sort of have to admire its ambition, but it really lacks the actual substance to back it up, and the result is middling in the extreme. It’s a genuine attempt at slow-burn tension, but sadly there’s not nearly enough actual fuel here to get the “burn” part going. So it’s just slow. That’s a pretty risky strategy, but it might still be salvageable if it wasn’t also kinda empty.

The film tells the gripping tale of a bunch of smarmy LA yuppies who get invited to the posh Hollywood Hills residence of David (Michiel Huisman, BLACK BOOK) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard, BLUE JASMINE) for an awkward social reunion among a group of friends who have become somewhat estranged. This is problematic for two reasons, the first being that Eden is the ex-wife of bearded, angsty Will (Logan Marshall-Green, the boring hunky guy from PROMETHEUS), and their separation came as the result of the accidental death of their young son a few years back. So, awkward. The second is that it quickly becomes apparent that this casual get-together has some sinister undertones that only Will seems to pick up on.

The film gets by for awhile on a simmering unease primarily borne of the uncomfortable social situation, with a bunch of somewhat emotionally fragile people bouncing off each other in an embarrassed, alcohol-fueled off-kilter way, saying the wrong things, picking at each others’ vulnerabilities (sometimes intentionally, sometimes without realizing it). And it gradually gets worse, as their hosts start to push them into off-puttingly intense sharing moments. And then they finally show their hand and play their cult’s recruiting video. Gulp. But at least it didn’t turn out to be a MLM pitch, so, silver lining there.

Unfortunately, the film’s achilles heel is that none of these people are even remotely interesting, they’re just a checklist of stock LA rich hipster douchebags. I’ve read some reviews praising the film for eschewing the traditional horror dramatis personae of sexy teens and making a film completely populated by grown-ups, but this just proves a demographic change can’t make up for actual content. It’s a slightly different demographic, but not, it turns out, a more interesting one. This is exactly the sort of crowd whose idea of appropriate party conversations are limited to their mortgage and how they’re “spiritual” now. So they’ve got very little of interest to contribute, and the film’s sole psychological point (“sometimes when people are sad they join cults and irritate their friends by trying to recruit them, but really they shouldn’t though”) is waaaay too thin and vapid to hang as much of the movie on as director Karyn Kusama (GIRLFIGHT, JENNIFER’S BODY) tries for here. None of the actors instill much inner life in their characters beyond their basic stock type (Marshall-Green is appropriately broody but pretty one dimensional, and some of the other acting feels a little pitchy with the overwritten dialogue) and consequently nearly all the movie is the cinematic equivalent of hanging out at a lame party with a bunch of particularly obsequious Hollywood yuppies. Horrifying, I’ll grant, but probably not in the way which was intended here.

Once the hammer finally comes down (very, very late into the last act) things improve a little and the film works itself into a respectable, if completely undistinguished, trapped-in-danger thriller. It’s fine, there’s probably an effectively tense moment or two in there, but I also can’t really say it’s worth it, or that it even meaningfully relates to the long slow burn that came before it. In fact, for all its talky pretensions and efforts to mine this fractured group for hidden social anxieties, all it can think to do for a finale is to throw a knife-wielding maniac at us, and it turns out that none of the backstory really matters much in the face of a generic trapped-house slasher scenario. They could probably have achieved exactly the same effect with five minutes of setup instead of 75. So the movie is gonna live or die depending on how effective you find the waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop slow burn which makes up the vast majority of the movie.

Seems like I’m in the minority in finding that part dull and shallow and obvious; critics were pretty kind to the film and particularly offered praise for its long restraint. But I’m also starting to notice that with these well-reviewed indie horror movies, the consensus seems to be that the thing critics like best about them are that they’re mostly not horror movies. They consider it a sign of refinement and maturity that they only begrudging offer up any legit genre goods, and offer a somewhat condescending forgiveness for its unpleasant inevitability. But while I can certainly appreciate a director trying to do something a little different with the genre, this time it didn’t cut it for me; the stuff they replaced the good stuff with isn’t interesting or effective enough to be worth the trade. I don’t require a lot of realism and depth from a generic slasher, but if you’re going to try for unsettling social nuance, you’re going to need more of those things than THE INVITATION is able to muster if you’re going to have much impact. But at least it has a silly twist ending to show its heart is in the right place. If we horror nerds are gonna have to learn to play with these indie cool kids, at least it’s nice to know we have some shared interests, and goofy twist endings are one of them.

yes, they did a series of "character posters" for this movie too. Guys, not every movie needs to be fuckin' CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Give it up. 

Good Kill Hunting

There Is Nothing To Be Afraid Of. Which is kinda the problem, IMHO.
They are all invited to a party, so sure.
Psychological Thriller, Trapped-House Thriller, Slasher
Maybe Logan Marshall-Green? He was in PROMETHEUS, but seems to have had a pretty minor career since then. John Carroll Lynch has also had a pretty distinguished carrer as a character actor in stuff like FACE/OFF, ZODIAC, and SHUTTER ISLAND so it’s nice to see him turn up here.
IIRC there’s a scene early on where we spot on the the guests not wearing pants.
Most definitely
Yeah, at least one of the culties seems legit fuckin’ crazy
Yeah, briefly
Everyone hates a bunch of pretentious Hollywood phonies, but the earnestly for real ones are probably even scarier.

I guess this is competently assembled enough that I can't quite give it two, but in terms of entertainment it's pretty low, think C-. 


  1. I liked it very much, although it was sold to me as Polański-style psycho-drama, with the slasher ending being a very welcome surprise.

    Didn't think it was hollow too - there was something very zeitgeisty about these young, well-off people politely believing in the stability of status quo to the point of missing some pretty obvious signs of impending doom.
    I also liked the unforgiveness of its ideas about grief - like if your whole being isn't destroyed by having your kid killed, you're doing it wrong. Like that's the price of being a human. Pretty cool thought.

    Another thing - I just think that death cults are the bees knees. They just make so much sense! Its just like a natural extension of religious thinking - if death isn't the end, then why not just jump in? There's your cure for nihilism - make death the answer.

    But yeah, I get why this type of movie could be irritating for a horror lover. This shit just begs to be called "original; subversive" by some genre-hating asshole reviewer.

  2. Ha, I think this movie may be an innocent victim of my own prejudice. I just deal with the sort of people in the movie too much and find them personally annoying. On paper I should be into this movie -- I LIKE slow burn horror, and I think cults make great material for movies, as you say, being both inherently scary and a 'natural extension of religious thinking.' But for some reason I just couldn't get on board with this one. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it or something.

  3. Obnoxious LA yuppies are kinda fascinating to me so I might have been a bit biased too :).