The Invitation is a delightfully demented thriller that plays on the awkward social dynamics of dinner parties, from meeting new people and trying to discern what makes them tick to reuniting with estranged friends and trying to get past what pulled you apart. Of course, this treatment takes things to the extreme, with paranoia and murder on the menu.
Also on the menu is, refreshingly, a black female lead, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi (I like to imagine her nickname is “Yahtzee”), who’s come a LONG way since her early role in Vampz. Perhaps the best thing about The Invitation is knowing that having a terrible turn-of-the-century urban horror movie on your resume doesn’t necessarily doom your career.
Throughout the story, the protagonists’ (Corinealdi and Logan Marshall-Green) status as an interracial couple is never an issue (unlike in, say, Get Out); in fact, the cast is United Colors of Benetton diverse, with a gay couple to boot. Race doesn’t need to be an overt plot point, though, for the film’s portrayal of racial diversity to be put to good use. Corinealdi’s presence alone as the primary heroine is a powerful image that’s too few and far between.
The story goes like this: two years since anyone has heard from them, middle-aged couple David (Michiel Huisman) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard) suddenly reappear on the grid, sending invitations for a dinner party in their Hollywood Hills home to a group of pals. Amongst them is Will (Marshall-Green), Eden’s ex-husband, who is now dating Kira (Corinealdi) and immediately eyes Eden’s seemingly complete recovery from the death of their young son with suspicion. It doesn’t help his mood that the party is being held in the home he used to share with Eden and their son, causing tragic memories to flood back into his mind.
The host couple’s overly cheery attitude doesn’t seem to bother anyone except Will, however, as they cavort through a night of reverie while he sits glumly on the sidelines. Is he merely jealous, or does he have good reason to be leery of David and Eden? When one friend is mysteriously nowhere to be found and another leaves under curious circumstances, Will’s paranoia heightens, and it becomes increasingly unclear if they’re a danger to him or he’s a danger to them.
The Invitation a wonderful return to form for director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), who seems to revel in her emancipation from the studio shackles that no doubt inhibited previous films Æon Flux and Jennifer’s Body. Unlike those movies, it has a discernible indie vibe and a slow-burn pace, with the proverbial shit hitting the fan only in the final 20 minutes. Still, it manages to combat any lethargy and keep us involved with a compelling sense of humanity in an enclosed, single setting that lends the feel of a modern whodunit — or rather, who’s gonna do it.
Kusama does a great job of building the tension and keeping viewers off-kilter, trying to figure out who’s truly the unhinged one, Will or the hosts. Just as the characters play a cat-and-mouse game with each other, so does the filmmaker play cat and mouse with the audience, culminating in a twisty little button of an ending that leaves a deliciously morbid taste in your mouth.