It’s always unnerving to hear from someone you haven’t seen in a long time. While intentions can be true and without agenda, it’s impossible to shake off even a little suspicion. At best, they really do still want to be your friend. At worst, they’re pitching you a pyramid scheme.
What you never want to entertain is recruitment into a cult.
Filmmaker Karyn Kusama has a body of work that reveals a tremendous amount about her instincts as a feminist and artist enamored by flawed protagonists. In 2015, she challenged the social decorum that beautifies Los Angeles and masks the ugliness that lies beneath. And she did it with arguably one of the greatest horror-thrillers of the 2010s, one so understated and sans gimmicks it could just as easily fit on Lifetime in the afternoon as it does midnight screenings.
Kusama’s fourth feature film, the acclaimed indie horror hit The Invitation, is not only a masterclass in tension via spatial awareness but a killer metaphor for a city with a famously weird urban system. It’s a test on the thresholds we hold around social rituals. Even now, five years after its wide release in 2016, The Invitation has much to offer as it reimagines a gothic premise (remember: Dracula was a hospitable host) in Californian modernism.
And The Invitation is the movie you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on July 7. Here’s what you need to know before you start watching.
In The Invitation, Logan Marshall-Green stars as Will, whose “dirty dishrag look” indicates prolonged mourning. He’s invited to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). In another life, Will and Eden lived a happy life with their son, Ty, until a fatal accident killed Ty and led to the couple’s divorce.
Will is now dating Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and Eden’s dinner party is a chance to embed her into their social circle. But no one has heard from Eden in ages. Not until now, when a really formal invitation beckons them to Eden’s comfy home in the Hollywood Hills — a place where memories still haunt Will throughout the evening.
For most of the night, Will is on guard out of defense. Soon it’s out of survival. When the stranger Pruitt (character actor John Carroll Lynch in yet another creepy role) joins the party, along with sexually feral Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), the night turns severe. Though Will’s paranoia initially makes him the evening’s Debbie Downer, it’s not long before Will is vindicated with the truth.
Yes, without giving away too many spoilers: The Invitation is a cult movie. As in, it’s about cults. The specter of the Sharon Tate murders carried out by the Manson’s lurk in the background of Kusama’s picture. While there’s nary a direct mention (certainly not in any way like in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood), it’s impossible to ignore it given the deeply ‘70s design of Eden’s enviable L.A. home that doesn’t lie far from haunted Hollywood history.
But you don’t even need to know about Sharon Tate or Charles Manson to know something is really off all throughout The Invitation. It’s here that Kusama excels as a visual storyteller. In an exercise of spatial awareness worthy of study, so much of the film’s drama lies in who is currently at the party — and who isn’t. At all times, the movie makes it abundantly clear where characters are inside the home, which only makes their inevitable absence loud as hell.
(It is also a testament to Kusama’s understated but fine-tuned filmmaking I did not pick up on this myself but had it pointed out to me by a colleague. I’ve seen Invitation twice and it took insight from another person to allow me to figure out what it was I found so mesmerizing.)
The Invitation evolves past a slasher with dwindling ranks. Most of the movie begins with rampant social faux pas that draw you in more than anything to do with cults. (The cult in question, by the way, is only as defined as it needs to be, an amalgamated thing that evokes everything from Charles Manson to Jim Jones.) When Eden, David, and Pruitt enthusiastically screen a woman’s willing death by the cult, the party is understandably shaken. From our view on our sofas, we’re screaming for them to leave. We like to think we would. But social norms make you do funny things, and no one wants to be the party pooper.
In a 2016 Q&A with the Directors Guild of America, Kusama highlighted her film’s incredibly specific setting of upper-class Los Angeles, saying:
“The anxieties of the film around social decorum, around kind of keeping it together, not getting out of line, not saying the offensive but true thing, feels very particular to Los Angeles. And I want to say, particular to Hollywood. In some respects this is also a bit of a metaphor for me about what it means to feel like people are out to get you, when sometimes they are. And so, for me, this was a cathartic, very cathartic way to handle some of that anxiety. I think this is an industry that breeds it.”
In another 2016 interview with Inverse, Kusama said:
“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.”
When the bodies begin piling up, the movie doesn’t wait long to emphasize the appropriate terror. There is not one out-of-place comic moment. Kusama is a better artist than that, and she’s in top form when armed with a script by people she — almost like the friends in this fateful dinner party — knows well, like creative partner Matt Manfredi and spouse Phil Hay.
The Invitation really is an outstanding movie if only for its restrained approach. Yes, there’s gunfire, knife cuts, and spilled blood. But The Invitation succeeds in its expert craftsmanship to generate tension, with no reliance on modern tactics like jump scares or nightmare-inducing visuals. The Invitation is quite the accessible horror for scaredy cats who can’t handle something more explicit. Perhaps Kusama knows nothing is scarier than someone’s mysterious intentions.
The Invitation is streaming now on Netflix until July 7 in the U.S.