“There’s something strange going on here and no one is saying anything.”
I may have mentioned once or a thousand times that one of my favorite plot structures is what I’ve dubbed “The Party Out of Bounds”: a story where guests at an initially civil social event stick it out once the party goes awry, held either by force or by free will, despite the very apparent fact that they should just call it a night. There have been a few great examples of Party Out of Bounds films from this year, ranging from the seething personal drama of A Bigger Splash to the go-for-broke absurdist horrors of High-Rise, but the straight-to-Netflix mystery thriller The Invitation feels like it might be the most pure & to-the-point distillation of what makes the formula work I’ve seen all of 2016. Director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Girlfight) & company stage their cruel, eerie mystery at a red wine & old friends dinner party that gets increasingly more disturbing by the minute as the alcohol takes hold & the conversations get morose. The major variation on the traditional Party Out of Bounds story structure in The Invitation is that only one party guest seems to notice the sinister vibes at play as his fellow partiers pass off his terror & concern as mere paranoia. This lends the film a very focused mode of psychological horror sometimes absent from films of its ilk, which makes it a unique watch even if I can boil down its basic premise & gimmick down to a well-worn trope (one that I just happen to be a sucker for).
A man travels with his new girlfriend to an ex’s home for a dinner party with friends he hasn’t seen in two years. As an outsider, his new girlfriend feels the need to overcompensate & break the silence among other party guests, but he remains stoic & pensively surveys a home where he used to live. In his own silent way, our protagonist wrestles with two distinct conflicts: a past trauma that occurred in the home that dissolved his former romance & his past lover’s new life in what appears from the outside to be some kind of sex cult. There’s a hippie niceness to his hosts’ “everything is beautiful” mode of oversexed, dazed gushing that’s eerie in contrast with the darkness their home recalls, made worse by vague platitudes like, “Pain is optional,” and “I am different. I am free. All that useless pain, it’s gone.” The protagonist senses a life-threatening danger disguised as “hospitality”, but stays to see the party through anyway, allowing for dual slow reveals of exactly what past trauma occurred in his host’s home as well as the full scope of the cult-like crowd, known simply as The Invitation, his ex has seemingly become involved with. As the partiers continuously open bottle after bottle of wine & the past gradually seeps in to inform the underlying menace of the present, our audience surrogate struggles to open his fellow guests’ eyes to what he perceives as imminent doom. So much of the satisfaction in these What’s Really Going On Here? plots depends on the strength of the films’ conclusions. The Invitation makes good on the dread of the sex & violence teased & promised throughout, but when & how the hammer falls is up for question for the entire runtime in what feels like a deliberate, sinister ritual carried out by some not-what-they-seem hippies & witnessed only by one observant party guest.
The isolation of the main character’s skepticism makes The Invitation feel just as much like a psychological horror as it does a reverse home invasion thriller (where the victim is invited as a guest to the threatening stranger’s home). With the production value just as cheap as the fictional party’s wine looks expensive, The Invitation has a way of feeling like everything’s happening inside of its protagonist’s head as he works through painful memories in a storied space, as if he’s navigating a nightmare or a session of hypnotherapy. Thankfully, the film goes to a much more interesting & terrifying place than an it-was-all-just-a-dream reveal, but the psychological torment of the film’s nobody-believes-me terror adds a layer of meaning & emotional impact that would be absent without that single-character specificity. Outside a few character actors like Toby Huss & John Carroll Lynch, even the film’s performances can come across a little cheap & artificial, but still function to enhance the way that artificiality informs the film’s psychological torment & nightmare vibes. Details like a focus on the grotesqueries of guests drinking & chewing, the strange talisman of a birthday cake, and the color-coded divisions between the past & present are just as suffocating & confining as the film’s locked doors & barred windows, as they trap in the mind of a guest at a Party Out of Bounds who just. will. not. leave. The Invitation might not be as formally well-crafted as similar confined space thrillers frpm this year like Green Room & 10 Cloverfield Lane, but its seemingly congenial setting & psychological horror leanings make it a much stranger, more singular experience than those films can sometimes be, however cheaply made.