'The Invitation' Director Karyn Kusama and the Emotionally Sophisticated Horror Film

We spoke with director Karyn Kusama of 'Aeon Flux' and 'Jennifer's Body' about emotional horror, trauma and 'The Invitation'

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation has received buzz and comparisons to other indie horrors like Let The Right One In, It Follows, and The VVitch. Vulture called it one of the most promising horror films of 2016, and Variety said the film was a tense exercise for genre buffs who wanted to be surprised.

I spoke with Kusama on the phone, hoping to discuss how she thinks The Invitation fits into her directing career, as both a genre-bender and an auteur.

So much of The Invitation is about internal horror, and I see the word “trauma” appearing in its reviews. What role do you think trauma plays here?

So, the notion of trauma being unaddressed or unprocessed is what drew me to this script in the first place. So much of what happens inside our minds has a direct effect on our physical well-being, and to me, there’s something really horrifying about that. We depict grief and sorrow in a few different ways in The Invitation. To be honest, I’m hesitant to say that there are right ways and wrong ways of coping with trauma, because dealing with sorrow is so personal, but it does appear in the film.

There are quite a few things going on between your characters that are left unsaid for too long, right?

Yes. I believe there’s something particularly horrifying about denial. The continued denial of an emotional trauma, or emotional pendulance at all, is its own monster, and can be a destructive force. Cinematically, and in society, denial has this very insidious, warping nature. I thought The Invitation would be an interesting way, through a genre context, to explore this notion of the horror of pain left unresolved.

Your career is full of genre films with surprising twists, or out-of-place details. Aeon Flux was a hard sci-fi, sort of action-packed film, and Jennifer’s Body was a horror comedy, and very sensual and teenage-focused. Can you tell me a bit about the genre tropes going on in The Invitation?

I’ve experienced making The Invitation as, well, “a kind of horror film.” I’ve been calling it “emotional horror,” myself. I define it slightly differently than pure “horror”, because I think our culture tends to define horror in a different way than I might as a filmmaker. People who are expecting, I don’t know, Saw or Friday the 13th or Paranormal Activity, well… I wasn’t intending to check off the boxes that so many horror films seem to. Although it shares a lot with horror, I’d say this movie is attempting something emotionally sophisticated. It does operate like a classic drama for a long amount of time.

I think a lot of viewers want their scares earlier and more extreme and in faster succession, and this movie just doesn’t traffic itself in that particular cinematic language. It’s meant to be a depiction of something that feels unrecognizable at first, something darker.

I see what you’re saying. The horror of doubting yourself, that reminds me of The Babadook.

I’m someone who watches a Michael Haneke film and says, “oh, that’s definitively horror.”

Oh, absolutely. Funny Games is a fantastic horror film.

So, I see The Invitation as a hybrid of emotional horror and actual, visceral horror. It’s partly a domestic drama, but it’s a paranoid thriller, threaded with psychological suspense. Perhaps I’m making too fine a distinction. Knowing what the horror genre has begun to encapsulate, I tread carefully here.

I’ve always admired the way you play with gender in your films. Girlfight felt so nuanced and fresh that way, and I still remember some of the line delivery in Jennifer’s Body because it was so insane to watch some of the nasty things Megan Fox said. Are you playing with gender in this new film? Does that concept have a role again?

I feel it does, but in a “means of production” way. I am the director, and I believe that’s clear watching the film. But I’m also collaborating male writers and our main character is a man. A integral part of directing this film was my attempt to step into, and live the experience of, Will as he figures out what’s happening to him. To me, that work is as feminist an act as, say, writing an interesting and complex portrait of a female character.

There are interesting female characters in The Invitation, none of them are write-offs, and they’re all differentiated. I’m exploring women’s lives on screen by telling stories that include complex and nuanced portraits of them, alongside male characters.

One of the screenwriters on this film is your husband, right? Can you describe what that process is like, collaborating artistically with your romantic partner?

For some people, I guess it might not be an ideal situation, but for me, I just feel like being in my marriage has pushed me to be a better communicator. Not just in working out the aesthetics of a film, and having a shot look a certain way. I’m better at communicating my needs because of my marriage, and I’m better at being emotionally attuned to him, both as my husband and as a partner in filmmaking. Marriage has been good training, for me, at being honest and kind and open. All of those things help me, ultimately, as a filmmaker, too.

It’s been a transformative experience to work with Phil, and Matt as well. We’re all very close, and it really feels like we’re a filmmaking family. I couldn’t feel luckier. The three of us are a really strong creative team. We all make each other better.

You filmed The Invitation in a real house. I read an interview you did when the film was at SXSW last year, and you described how the physical building became a ‘blueprint’ for your horror story. The first thing that made me think of was Nancy Meyers, how there’s always a big physical structure at the heart of her movies, and the house changes as her main character changes.

I use the word “blueprint” because the film takes place, for the most part, inside this one house. As we were rehearsing and filming, we had to get to know it the way you’d know your own house. What’s in every closet, what is each room good for? The structure of it was the lynchpin for the choreography of the whole film.

The house almost had a brain-scape, a mind-scape of its own, and we just tailored our blocking to the needs of our script. We didn’t have the luxury of building or changing much, so we had to think on our feet when setting scenes inside the building we had.

To me, that was great. It really demanded that we embrace the emotional claustrophobia of the story. The interior of the house is so beautiful, but there’s something rotten about keeping people in these small rooms all night. The narrative engine is tied to the way the house is laid out.

It’s also an expression of something that’s been done very well in southern California. It’s a two level, mid-century home that uses a lot of dark wood, and a lot of metal, synthesized into this subdued and elegant feeling. I suppose it’s a very large house by most people’s standards, but it’s not that Bacchanalian, American standard, those McMansion. It has a nesting quality. Each room feels deeply proportioned to the rooms around it. In movie terms, everything felt just a hair too small, which worked for our story.

Who’s your ideal viewer here? Do you think about that, as a storyteller, who you’re hoping will watch the film?

I don’t conceive films while imagining my ideal audience. Other than applying that zany utopian ideal, you know, hoping that your film finds its way into everyone’s living rooms by chance, and be in a perfect environment. Particularly, in my youth, I was so lucky to stumble upon and be surprised by films that way. That’s what I’m hoping for, for others.

I think The Invitation pleases sophisticated genre lovers, and anyone interested in the craft of emotional horror. People who are open to the film will like it, even if they go in thinking they’re getting a straight-forward genre treatment. I hope that a viewer can allow themselve sto be engaged and absorbed by it. I don’t know if it will reach eveyrone, but that’s not its purpose.

I’d love to appeal to viewers who wouldn’t typically find themselves in a theater for a horror film. I just really like the idea of film and art surprising people. I want a viewer who often feels like their world is a fragment bigger, after seeing certain films, and I think The Invitation can do that.

*The Invitation hits theaters and On Demand on April 8.*

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