A low-key, slow-burning suspense-horror item set in the sort of upscale Los Angeles home film industry folk often live in, The Invitation is smartly written (a surprise since the writer-producer team of Phil Hay and Matt Mafredini have a CV studded with the likes of Ride Along, RIPD and the Clash of the Titans remake) and deftly played by an interesting non-star cast. An essay in the occasional dinner-party-goes-hideously-wrong sub-genre of fright film, it gets its charge out of disturbing character interplay — though it’s fairly obvious from early in the proceedings that this evening is going to end very badly indeed.
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new-ish girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) reluctantly turn up for a party in what used to be Will’s Los Angeles home where his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) now lives with her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). The break-up of Will and Eden’s marriage was hastened by the death of their son in an accident, which has had repercussions throughout their social circle – so that all the other old friends at dinner are uncomfortable and nervous. The shabby, angry Will is cautious and paranoid from the first. An ominous touch is that Eden met David at a grief self-help group and they’ve recently joined The Invitation, a commune which sounds a lot like a cult. A couple of fellow believers – jittery ditz Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and menacing Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) — are added to the company, scarcely adding to the conviciality. A round robin game of ‘I want’ turns disturbing as it prompts Pruitt to an admission that the grief the Invitation helped him process was for his late wife – whom he (not entirely accidentally) killed. Will worries about the real purpose of the self-help therapy his ex-wife is besotted with – and fears for a guest who leaves early and one who hasn’t turned up as expected.
This is especially strong on an escalation of social embarrassment into outright horror. The screws are tightened as the protagonist finds himself appearing childish or rude as he makes accusations against polite, reasonable-seeming people who insist they only have his best interests at heart. Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) ventured into gory horror with Jennifer’s Body, but here goes for a subtler approach, relying on ambiguous chat and creepy nuance until the finish, when things escalate and we get a sense of horrors taking place outside the claustrophobic central location.