There are those of us who find a dinner party an uncomfortable prospect under the best conditions, but even someone predisposed to enjoying small talk and balancing a plate would find the gathering in The Invitation a stressful experience. A woman who disappeared from her friends’ lives for over two years (Tammy Blanchard) has suddenly returned to her home in the Hollywood hills, inviting them all out of the blue for a night of reconnection. The group of old pals includes her ex-husband (Logan Marshall-Green), who is understandably on edge at the idea as he drives in with his new significant other (Emayatzy Corinealdi). It’s awkward from the jump. We slowly learn their separation happened under rather tragic circumstances, but it’s not the only source of eerie tension going on here. The film takes its time quietly grooving on its atmosphere of wariness and distrust barely covering up past pain and future crisis.
There is, of course, the nervous conversation of a group of people who haven’t seen each other in years. There’s also the mystery about what, exactly, the night’s events will involve. Their host is wearing a floor-length white gown as if she stepped out of a Hammer horror film’s Vampire Queen wardrobe, and speaking in the coded language of a cultist, while hand-waving the presence of her new friend, a Manson girl type (Lindsay Burdge) haunting the edges of their party. Something’s not right here. She has a new boyfriend (Michiel Huisman) who, with his lanky limbs and long hair, looks creepily similar to her ex. It turns out they’ve been in Mexico together, and are only too eager to show off their recently discovered New Age ideals, and let another stranger (John Carroll Lynch) turn a game into an impromptu therapy session. Curiouser and curiouser, the screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (much quieter and more refined than their previous efforts, two Ride Alongs and R.I.P.D.) tracking growing discomfort as the night drags on.
What keeps the film’s slow boil unease simmering along for the bulk of its runtime is how convincingly it keeps pulling back its creepiest moments, never allowing any overt horror to happen to get the audience’s guard up. There’s all the above and more too clouding the mind of our protagonist, the ex-husband who is haunted by the end of his relationship and skeptical of the party’s true intentions. He’s the one jumping at shadows and giving the side-eye to strangers, paying close attention to any and every red herring lingering in the corners of his attention. There is clearly Something Very Wrong going on, and the film plays terrifically on the tension between its lead’s doubt and the rest of the cast (including Mike Doyle, Jordi Vilasuso, and Michelle Krusiec) talking him down at every turn. Besides, maybe he’s just rattled because he hit a coyote with his car on the drive up.
Capably directed by Karyn Kusama (whose last feature was 2009’s underappreciated darkly funny teen horror Jennifer’s Body), she gets a lot of mileage out of dim lighting and fluidly uneasy staging, humdrum, but slightly off, dinner party detail drawn out in sneaky reveals – shared experiences, true aims for the night, even the layout of the house are patiently exposed. The biggest shock of the first two-thirds of the runtime is probably that the dining room is on the second floor overlooking the seemingly claustrophobic living room in which we’ve spent most of our time. The actors’ casual chatter and underlying discomfort are so unforced and real that it’s easy to see why they’d dismiss concerns about any sinister undertones. It’s just an awkward dinner party, after all. But one can also see how maybe such dismissal is some tense foreshadowing, dramatic irony wielded with foreboding.
As Kusama pulls back the layers in the nesting doll of trauma that is the source of the lead’s split from his ex, she steadily allows us into the root of his suspicions until it’s too late to do anything. Then the real horror occurs, an inevitable and poison-edged cathartic escalation (our worst fears are true, a relief and a gut-punch in one) and a sudden dip into standard tropes. At least it builds on solid character work. It’s a surprise that doesn’t seem surprising, but in a mostly good way. It is a smart handling of conventional material, making the build up strong and mysterious, the better to crush with shocks naturally sliding into place, confirming our worst suspicions rather than playing like an arbitrary and predictable twist. (I was right this time! Oh, no…) This is a small and contained low-key house of horror where the scares come from how believably the night goes south. It all fits, right up to the final shots, which caught me completely off guard with their completely underplayed expansion of the night’s nasty implications. It makes normal dinner party discomfort seem infinitely more manageable.