Saturday, April 9, 2016

Review: The Invitation

Image courtesy of Drafthouse Films. 
Karyn Kusama's "The Invitation" is a perfect example of how horror movies or thrillers that emphasize tension and suspense through character building, mood and atmosphere are significantly more effective than jump scares or other cheap tactics. This low budget picture isn't technically even a horror movie until its final 15 to 20 minutes, but there's a feeling of dread and unease throughout that is masterfully maintained.

The film opens with a man named Will (Logan Marshall-Green) driving through a wealthy, hilly Los Angeles neighborhood with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as they make their way to a dinner party that promises to be a tense affair. The party is being held by Eden (Tammy Blanchard), Will's ex-wife, whom Will hasn't seen for two years following the tragic death of their young son. Eden and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), have returned from a long sojourn in Mexico and are bringing together their old group of friends for a reunion.

As Will and Kira drive through a winding lane, they hit a coyote that Will must then put out of its misery with a tire iron. It's a foreboding piece of foreshadowing for things to come. Once they reach the house, Will reunites with some of his old friends, a multicultural group of pals that includes a gay couple, Asian couple, a single woman, a guy whose wife couldn't make it to the party and, of course, Eden and David, with whom Will is obviously uncomfortable.

Shortly after arriving, Will spots a partially clothed woman peeking out from the corner of a room in the house, which was where Will once lived, and he begins to suspect something is amiss. The group meets Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), two of Eden and David's friends from Mexico, and there's something a little off about them both. Will begins to wonder if something unusual is afoot at the party or whether the trauma from his past coupled with his seeing his ex-wife for the first time in a few years is making him paranoid.

Sure enough, things begin to get stranger. One guest who was supposed to attend is unexplainably missing. In addition, David and Eden announce that they had been involved with a group known as The Invitation during their time in Mexico. They show their guests a video that gives off the impression of being some sort of recruitment tool and ends with a cult-like leader giving a speech about the group as well as a scene in which a woman dies from what appear to be natural causes.

While most of the party's guests are put off a little by the video and one even leaves after a party game gets a little too intense, Will continues to get the sense that something possibly dangerous is taking place. But the more he tries to point this out to the other attendees, the more paranoid and hostile he comes across.

Needless to say, all of this tension eventually explodes during the film's tense finale and the picture ends with a creepy shot that puts the entire story into a wider - and scarier - context. Visually, the film is not showy, relying mostly on shots of people gathered around a living room or dining table. "The Invitation" is a low budget film, but it makes great use of the confined space its characters inhabit.

Although Marshall-Green - as the film's point-of-view - does the heaviest lifting, the rest of the cast is solid as well, especially Blanchard as the possibly sinister earth mother Eden and Lynch, whose Pruitt comes off as the most frightening of the bunch. Kusama kicked off her career with the indie hit "Girlfight" before attempting her hand at studio genre pictures - the misfires "Aeon Flux" and "Jennifer's Body." This film marks her return to independent filmmaking and it's a triumphant one. "The Invitation" is an eerie, nerve wracking thriller.

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