Cults make perfect fodder for horror and thriller movies. Regardless of when you were born, everyone knows about the Manson Family and The Jonestown Massacre. Not surprisingly, Hollywood has exploited our fascination with cults for years. Though its been a few years since its limited release, The Invitation is arguably one of the better illustrations of the use of cults in movies. Quiet and restrained. The Invitation is a current Netflix title worth a look.
Will and his girlfriend, Kira, drive out to Hollywood Hills for a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, Eden. The party is at the house Will once shared with Eden. A few years earlier, the former couple lost their son in a tragic accident. It was this loss that prompted their divorce, driving Will away and Eden into a cult where she met new boyfriend, David. Over the course of the party, Will feels increasingly uneasy. He suspects Eden and David have something planned for their guests. Has the return to his old home and site of his son’s death made Will paranoid? Or has Eden joined a cult that promises more than just enlightenment?
The Invitation is a Master’s Class In Suspense
Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay generates its suspense from one simple hook – Is Will just paranoid? A great deal of care is taken to juxtapose the natural awkwardness of Will’s return to his old house with Eden and David’s strange behaviour. But The Invitation is a study in restraint. Though Eden and David behave oddly, The Invitation never indulges in lazy or familiar thriller tropes. The couple are awkward, they say and do old strange things, but it’s never anything that comes straight from a horror movie. As one character puts it, ‘We’re in California.’
The Invitation is blessed with an intelligent story …
In contrast, The Invitation patiently develops Will’s character, putting the audience in his head. Early on in the movie, Will is the rational character pointing out what feels like standard horror movie foreshadowing. But Hay and Manfredi’s screenplay subverts our expectations. Soon you find yourself questioning Will’s mental state. The Invitation is blessed with an intelligent story that allows its audience to decipher and infer things on their own rather than deliver information in a heavy-handed fashion. We know something tragic happened to Will and Eden’s son, but it’s never explicitly spelled out. Enough is laid out in the movie to cloud our perceptions of Will and question his sanity.
Director Karyn Kusama Films a Beautiful Nightmare
Director Karyn Kusama crafts an eerily beautiful nightmare complimenting an intelligent story. Along with cinematographer Bobby Shore, Kusama uses a variety of techniques to elicit suspense from the movie’s single location. The juxtaposition between foreground and background, saturated colour tones, and long meditative takes all lend a quiet feeling of impending doom to The Invitation.
Kusama exhibits a good understanding of the difference between slow-burn and just plain boring.
Yet what truly sets The Invitation apart from other likeminded thrillers is its brilliant pacing. Kusama exhibits a good understanding of the difference between slow-burn and just plain boring. The Invitation is a slow movie that requires its audience to invest in the characters and story. There are no jump scares or cheap jolts anywhere to be found. Even once the movie kicks into full stride, Kusama never allows things to descend into over-the-top silliness. Everything feels like it could happen. In this regard, The Invitation is more unsettling than outright scary.
No Big Names, But Familiar Faces Add A Sense of Realism
No big names show up for The Invitation’s dinner party, but that only adds to the movie’s grounded feel. Logan Marshall-Green (Upgrade) plays Will in a what’s best described as an emotional but restrained performance. He makes Will feel familiar and ‘lived in’, giving the audience someone with whom to identify. It’s a performance that perfectly conveys a sense of initial awkwardness giving way to paranoia. Marshall-Green’s portrayal is complex and layered, and it anchors the movie.
If you watched The Haunting of Hill House, you’ll recognize cult boyfriend, David. Michael Huisiman, eldest Crain sibling Steven, gives a similarly understated performance. He balances a sense of polite serenity with an underlying menace. There’s always the feeling that David is capable of something truly awful. Veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch is quietly creepy as another cult member. Meanwhile Tammy Blanchard gets to give the more wonderfully manic performance as ex-wife Eden.
The Invitation is a Slow-Burn Masterpiece
For fans of unsettling thrillers, The Invitation is that movie you probably never heard of before seeing it pop up on your Netflix recommendations. It’s that perfect hidden gem for late-night viewing. Without spoiling anything, the movie’s ending is a nihilistic indie thriller gut-punch. Don’t spend all night browsing Netflix for something to watch. Accept this ‘Invitation’.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A