I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the future of horror is female. And nothing proves that so perfectly as Karyn Kusama’s 2015 slow-burn horror masterpiece The Invitation (which, by the way, is available to stream on Netflix, for your Halloween fix).
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is heading to the Hollywood Hills with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to attend a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). When they arrive at the home that Will and Eden used to share, Will is immediately struck by the strange shifts in personality of Eden and David. He’s even more troubled at the absence of their good friend Choi, who was supposed to be there early, and the arrival of Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), a friend of David and Eden’s that they met at a retreat in New Mexico. The party gets underway among a small group of old pals, with seething tensions building ever higher as Will begins to suspect that all is not well in the Hills.
The Invitation builds ever-so-slowly to one of the most satisfying horror climaxes in recent years, ramping up the tension on each plot thread until they threaten to snap. This is one of those films that is made or broken by its ending, and thankfully The Invitation delivers, hitting the viewer very hard and suddenly and letting the terror just flow like wine. But it doesn’t go on for too long, providing just enough mayhem to justify its build-up, but not so much as to drag things out. I think that putting too much emphasis on the slow-burn nature of this film does it some disservice, as the dread is very real right from the start, when Will hits a coyote with his car and has to finish it off with a tire iron. Will’s paranoia pushes the film into the territory of questionable perception, which allows for a brilliant shifting of viewer sympathies. Something is certainly wrong, but is it Will, his friends, or something else altogether?
Much of The Invitation‘s power lies in the focalizing through Will and the use of the camera eye that just barely captures things going on at the peripheries of the scene – a car pulling away just out of sight and then stopping, a red lantern being hung in a tree. As Will flashes back to the traumatic event that caused his break-up with Eden, his trauma informs what happens around him, keeping the viewer off kilter. The horror, when it hits, is believable and shocking, but the entire film has prepared us for this moment, drawing out a weird kind of fear in the act of simply eating dinner, or pouring a glass of wine. Kusama has a deft hand and eye, giving us just enough to keep us interested, but not so much that we can figure out all the angles before things go horribly wrong.
Of all the scary movies I’ve seen this Halloween season, The Invitation is by far the most unnerving, because it is also the most believable. It’s that terror of the mundane, the little things that seem just slightly off, the stories that remain half told, that give it its power.