We always keep a sharp eye out for the horror movies that actually get positive reviews, because they are rather few and far between. There is a lot of merit even in (some) of the badly reviewed ones, simply because if a horror movie succeeds, it often does so by shock, by making people uncomfortable, and by showing people things they don’t want to see. The latter is particularly problematic given that we’re talking about movies. And, ratings-wise, a movie that doesn’t so much try to shock with gore or continuous streams of violence, is often met with disinterest at the box office.
And this is the case with this overlooked film by Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body), The Invitation, which is the story of a man, Will, invited to a party with all his old pals, whom he hasn’t seen in two years. The kicker is that the party is at the house where he used to live, and the invitation comes from his ex, Eden, who is living there with a new man. Will and Eden had a son, it seems, who died, and the resultant stress broke the two up.
But Eden ran off to parts south and found inner-peace through the teachings of some guru and now wants to reunite with her coterie, which is an almost stereotypically diverse (but not inaccurate) group of Southern Californians. (I mean, you gotcher black, yer asians, yer gay couple, etc.) Will, lacking enlightenment, is still haunted by memories of his son, and he’s frankly none too sure about this new cult Eden has joined. Besides she and her new man, they’ve also brought back the oddly menacing Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, Fargo, Miracles From Heaven, and one of only three actors I recognized in this) and the seemingly unbalanced Sadie. As the evening wears on, Will becomes increasingly paranoid about Eden and her new pals. And there, in fact, is your movie.
It’s kind of funny: Back in the old days, people were constrained in their behavior by rather exacting rules about, for example, when you could talk to a stranger, whom you could talk to (especially regarding the sexes), and so on. But here, we see that we’re no less constrained, as Will’s growing discomfort about the nature and practices of this cult is something he isn’t really allowed to express. Challenging another’s beliefs, no matter how outré, is Just Not Done in Southern California.
Kusama has cited Rosemary’s Baby as an influence and it really shows here, positively. I knew, of course, that the movie had to end with something really terrible happening, but there are enough head fakes here that you’re not really sure who is going to be the culprit. Are the alarms in Will’s head the product of grief and rage over the loss of his wife and child that could push him over the edge—or is there something sinister (rather than merely kooky) going on?
It’s the sort of movie that couldn’t come out of the ’50s because of course the kooks were sinister (back then).
Professional acting all around, from people (as I’ve said) who all looked vaguely familiar but whom I didn’t actually recognize. (TV actors mostly, I think.) Apart from Lynch, I also recognized Toby Huss as the cult leader, which is about as amusing as Norm Gunderson being a source of menace, since I know Huss mostly from his terrific mugging in Bedazzled and his voice work as Kahn and Cotton on “King of the Hill”. Huss was also a major serious character on the too-soon-canceled “Carnivalé”, but like Lynch and a lot of great character actors, it’s the character that sticks in your mind rather than the actor. I couldn’t pin down Mike Doyle (though he had a big role in Jersey Boys) but, as I said, everyone looked sorta familiar—which works really well for this kind of film.
We all liked it quite a bit. I especially appreciated the stinger, as that’s usually as poorly done as it is mandated, if you know what I mean. (“We gotta have a twist ending!” “Nothing we could do would make sense regarding the previous 90 minutes of film!” “Doesn’t matter! Put something in! Make ’em all…cannibals!”) But The Boy and The Flower both felt it kept them on the edge of their seats.
Full disclosure: I’ve been to this party. Obviously not under these exact circumstances, but I’ve been to a house in the Hollywood Hills at the invitation of a would be spiritual guru. It is a kind of otherworldly experience and one where someone (me, even) might take an axe and start chopping people up. So I’m a little bit biased. (I would bet the director has as well.) The kids, however, have not, and didn’t seem to suffer from that lack of personal history.
Anyway, low-budget but not cheap, professionally done top-to-bottom, and an entertaining thriller that might make you uncomfortable but isn’t going to gross you out.