What I’ll tell you when you ask me about this film at the bar: It’s a thriller that wants to be a horror film, or the other way around. A well-produced indie that merges a few tropes into an interesting standout. Yes, this is that “art horror” you’ve read so much about on the Internet.
If that intrigues you, keep reading.
The not-so-secret secret of classic slasher films is that we are supposed to want most of the hapless camp-goers, teenagers, or townies to get killed off in a way that is worthy of their sins. As charismatic as they may be, we aren’t supposed to like them, really. The Invitation, which I had the chance to see at the MSP International Film Festival, uses this idea as a baseline for the tension underneath its story of a dinner party gone awry: within the first few scenes, it is clear that we aren’t really supposed to get too invested in the guests.
The Invitation isn’t a slasher film, though. It presents as a psychological thriller that follows Will (Logan Marshall-Green) as he navigates the affair thrown by his estranged ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). A tragedy between the former couple is mentioned early in the film, but the scope of that pain is only meted out as Will becomes more and more distrusting of his hosts’ motives for throwing the party. David is part of an “intentional community” called the Invitation, which has a resort location in Mexico. A resort like Jonestown, for example. And he’s invited some of that community’s members to this same dinner party, where part of the evening’s entertainment is watching a video of a member of the Invitation shuffling off the mortal coil. Shortly after, David leads them in a game intended to liberate their deepest desires. Out come the drugs, some kisses are exchanged . . . but then it is off to the dinner itself. That’s when things get really dicey for Will, who is convinced he is being sucked into a cult initiation. Or worse.
Film festivals and other curated venues are a good way to get this film out into the world, because, like other “art horror” pictures, it takes some investment by the audience before it really begins to have its effects. The Invitation begins in a fairly standard way for indie films of the “dinner party” variety, and it wasn’t long before I was wondering if this was another movie with people I didn’t like doing things I didn’t care about. There are plenty of record producers in Los Angeles, which is a great place for them, but that just doesn’t mean much to anyone outside of California who isn’t a musician. Once there was the possibility of them killing each other off in an orgy of wine and blood, however, things got more interesting.
Sadly, “indie film” can be used a pejorative in much the same way as “self-published book” or “I run my own record label,” and there are a lot of incomplete films out there under the indie banner. This is not among them. Cinematographer Bobby Shore, alongside director Karyn Kusama, has crafted a visual story that combines, isolates, and accents as needed. They might not have had an A-list budget, but there is real filmmaking on display here—especially notable considering the stagey potential for this single-location production.
Performances are solid across the board, with a few weak points that hang mostly on dialogue that is perfunctory and could have been removed. The characters are drawn in some detail but not as fully fleshed out as they could have been; plot and suspense stand in for total character work, and some folks are left with little to do but react. Unfortunately, Will’s date, Kira (Emayzatzy Corinealdi), falls into a role very common in the slasher genre mentioned earlier: she spends most of the time wondering what’s happening or comforting Will.
The film’s ending makes it solidly art horror more than anything else. It unfolds in a way that is both entirely of-the-genre and also subverts that genre’s expectations. In other words, the chips—or bodies—fall differently than you’d expect. This is refreshing and made the film worth finishing. The final few seconds add apocalyptic panic to the final framing of the story and are revealed in a solidly cinematic way. Filmgoers who have stayed with the film to the end will find their search for chills fulfilled, and those who didn’t most likely bought the wrong ticket in the first place.