Back after a 6-year hiatus, Karyn Kusama’s latest effort The Invitation is a magnificently weird slice of modern Americana, her first non-major studio film in 15 years,1 and a fantastic return to form overall. Her last theatrical outing, Jennifer’s Body, is one of my favourite horror films of the last decade, a super under-appreciated gem penned by Diablo Cody (a scriptwriter who seems to have, unfortunately, gone out of fashion in recent years), and this film brings the same eye for flair and fun to a tried and tested sub-genre of horror films that we’ve seen attacked countless times before – except we’ve never seen this material dealt with quite like this.
The Invitation centers on Will (Logan Marshall-Green, who looks suspiciously like Every Time I Die’s Keith Buckley here), a man who lost his child two years prior in a tragic accident, as he and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) attend a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), who has been suspiciously absent since their son’s death. The dinner party, held at the house that they used to share, proves to be a traumatic event for Will, reigniting past anxieties as he reminisces about moments shared with his son and memories of happy family life. Eden, too, has been deeply affected by the death of her child; as it turns out, she fled to Mexico in the wake of the incident, befriending some bizarre characters – her new partner David (Michael Huisman), ex-con Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), and ‘flower-child’ wannabe Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) – who are present at the gathering. A number of friends from Eden and Will’s past life – couple Tommy (Mike Doyle) and Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso), party-girl Gina (Michelle Krusiec), and comic relief Ben (Jay Larson) are stand-outs – are also in attendance, seeking to support Will (who has somewhat distanced himself from the group) and reconnect with Eden. From here things get really weird, and the less that is said about plot specifics the better, although it’s worth noting that you’re never quite sure what’s going on even if you’ve picked the plot twist – the film seems as though it could go anywhere: is it supernatural? is everything in the head of our protagonist? who is in cahoots? is what we are seeing the full reality of the situation? There are enough red herrings to keep you on your toes throughout and everything leads to a thrilling finale with a fantastic punchline.
The film is fantastically shot, a rich cinemascopic journey that regularly strays into aesthetically experimental territory. Kusama employs bizarre cinematographic techniques on multiple occasions to replicate emotions like anxiety or stress, and it’s in Kusama’s construction of these set-pieces that the film absolutely thrives. A particular point that stood out depicted a dinner scene shot through a lens of excess and underlying terror, recalling a mushroom trip gone awry. This is what sets Kusama’s Invitation apart from other indie horror films we’ve seen over the past few years – she is not trying to pay homage to cinema of the past,2 nor is she trying to make a straight forward horror flick; she wants to challenge her audience and displace their expectations, and in seeking this goal she has created something that feels truly unique in the current horror climate.
The script, from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi – who are suprisingly credited with penning Kusama’s near universally critically panned Aeon Flux adaptation – is fantastic, showing restraint where necessary and aiming for the jugular when not. There’s wit, there’s originality, and there’s knowledge (and occasional subversion) of genre conventions, and within this they’ve left ample space for Kusama to place her own mark on their work. I’m excited to see more non-Hollywood content from these guys who look to have crafted out careers as guns for hire, writing mainstream fodder like The Tuxedo with Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love-Hewitt, the Clash of the Titans remake, and recent Ice Cube/Kevin Hart vehicle Ride Along.
I sincerely hope that The Invitation sees the recognition it so heavily deserves (it’s early days for the film, having screened at only 3 festivals thus far including Sydney Film Festival), Kusama is a fantastic voice in horror and should be given free reign to make more of the films that she wants to make. It’s not flawless, but it’s definitely a unique experience, one that I am excited to relive again, even if it will lose a bit of lustre the second time round when you know exactly where it’s going. It would be great to see more horror films try something new within a more conventional framework like this that succeed – I anxiously await Kusama’s next outing in the all-female anthology film XX, I have a feeling it’s going to be a winner.