The Invitation

'The Invitation' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Phil Hay; Matt Manfredi

Directed by: Karyn Kusama

Dinner parties tend to get awkward when guests start dropping dead.

Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body; Aeon Flux) invites you inside the strange goings-on of what was supposed to be a casual get-together among longtime friends, friends reuniting after a traumatic event. Paranoia and mistrust run rampant in The Invitation as painful memories from the past are dredged up and inauspicious developments in the present combine to form one of the most tension-rich environments you’re likely to get in a mystery thriller of its ilk.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Kusama’s latest film fairly predictable stuff. Even if you’re only half paying attention you’re likely going to make a good assumption as to how everything wraps up. The disastrous dinner party scenario isn’t played out per se but it is formulaic and there are certain limitations not even the likes of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who share writing duties here, can overcome. Still, writing within limitations doesn’t mean you have to restrict your creativity — if anything it means just the opposite — and this deliciously suspenseful, utterly engaging and nerve-racking story is proof these writers enjoy embracing that challenge. The main beats you can feel coming well in advance but there’s a wealth of material in between that make The Invitation a plump cherry to savor.

The story is about a man returning to his former residence after he’s accepted an invitation to a dinner being thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is on the way over with his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) when his distracted driving results in striking an animal in the middle of the road. So yeah, okay, maybe it’s not the subtlest way of foreshadowing what comes later but the moment succeeds in preempting tension that will rarely excuse itself from the narrative going forward.

That tension sets in in earnest when Will and Kira arrive and are greeted by friends they haven’t seen in some time. Things are definitely awkward, everyone needs a first drink. But everyone also seems a little . . . odd. Maybe that’s just the way Will is perceiving things. Bobby Shore’s camera sticks close by his side as he reacquaints himself with the house he once lived in. He’s quiet and stand-offish, resulting in a number of instances where friends come up to him and ask how he’s doing. Telling him they love him. Maybe it’s just the hosts that are off-putting. After all it can’t be easy listening to your ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) vehemently declaring how intent she is on living a life free of pain and grief now; how she wants a troubled past with Will to be forgotten and moved beyond.

Her husband David (Michiel Huisman) spouts the same gibberish, passionately reciting some bullshit philosophical utterances touted by a “grief support group” the two have recently joined. David even goes so far as to show everyone a video of what goes on during their “sessions.” (Yes, everything is now going to be in mystery quotes.) The contents are “fairly disturbing” to say the least. We continue to ride the night out from Will’s point of view, his mounting discomfort shedding the thin veil of subtlety it had earlier. He’s very suspicious of this David fella and not because he’s the guy his ex is now seeing.

To get everyone’s minds off of the weirdness he just subjected them to, David suggests they participate in an ice-breaking game called ‘I Want,’ a variation on ‘I Have Never,’ and the evening takes another interesting turn when Eden wants to kiss Ben (Jay Larson), the same guy she briefly became hostile towards for making a harmless joke moments ago. This is just one example of the woman’s erratic behavior. At this point we wish we could be Claire, a guest who has become so uncomfortable she just wants to leave, despite the hosts’ protests. Somewhere along the way an unexpected guest has arrived, an imposingly large man named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). He’s from the same support group. Meanwhile, the partiers are still awaiting the arrival of Choi (Karl Yune), a friend who promised to show up early.

A talented cast and crew help Kusama realize the potential in her cult-themed thriller. Marshall-Green brings a quiet intensity to his part as a conflicted Will but aside from him there are no particular standouts; rather, the ensemble of relative unknowns fails to register a false note in their emotional responses. Major spoiler-related actions notwithstanding, people behave in The Invitation as you would expect them to in real life. These aren’t people you ever really like, something that actually works in the film’s favor as it merely compounds the stress. The characters are each their own oddball, constantly demonstrating behavior that could prove to be their own undoing. Best of all, no one character is defined by a singular emotional outburst; they have names, not labels.

Throughout, Kusama’s direction remains disciplined and keenly focused on the biased perception of an unreliable protagonist. (Or is Will the only sane one in the room?) Kusama employs flashbacks that occasionally feel heavy-handed but contrasted against the vagaries of Will’s shifty demeanor they become vital. They help us appreciate why this get-together was never going to feel normal. It’s her work behind the camera that ensures The Invitation remains a consistently rewarding watch, and despite the third act gut-punch losing a bit of its edge due to some blatant foreshadowing earlier, everything winds up in a snap that’s just too good to resist.

Recommendation: Despite its predictability, The Invitation is simply too well-acted and executed to ignore. It’s claustrophobic and intimate and awkward and tense and pretty much everything that makes the formulaic dinner-party mystery thriller great. An able cast helps convince while strong work from behind the camera marks this as a project clearly everyone believed in. A very fun and rewarding watch, highly recommended. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Forgiveness doesn’t have to wait. I’m free to forgive myself and so are you. It’s a beautiful thing. It really is.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: The Shining (1980)

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The first time I had heard this film title, I thought it was referring to something else entirely. And when I finally sat down to watch (whenever that first time was, I wish I could remember. . .) I came into the understanding rather quickly that yes indeed, this would be no comedy. No one would be getting pants-ed. No half-naked actors . .  . well. Not in the way you want them to be naked. *Shudder* That lady in the bathtub — thanks, but no thanks. What’s even more bizarre, in hindsight, is at the time I didn’t know at all what it was that I was getting myself into. Had no idea this film was a classic. Had no idea Jack Nicholson could be like. . .this. 

Today’s food for thought: The Shining

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Causing hotel keepers to go insane since: forever. . .and ever. . .and ever. . .

[DVD]

At the time I also had no idea there were deviations from Stephen King’s novel. Or that Mr. King himself wasn’t much of a fan of the finished film product. Of course I’ve paid no heed to the spirits that haunt this film reel for it is indeed one of the greatest of all time. That kind of high praise has for so long surrounded its director (I don’t know, some guy named Stanley Kubrick) that, to the uninitiated, it’s almost as if the center might collapse at any moment, like a doughnut jam-packed with a bit too much jelly.

At this point The Shining has almost become a mythological creature, existing now as a shrine to the frightening heights of Jack Nicholson’s madness and a podium before which Shelley Duvall may stand and proudly shout her name. I haven’t seen her in anything since nor have been so moved to do so, but in the same way I am not allowed to forget troubled writer Jack Torrance, I can’t scrub the pallid complexion of Wendy, his wife, from my brain. The horror has endured because these characters have, and for 34 years they have been thriving on the off-chance poor saps may make the mistake of revisiting The Overlook Hotel again on Netflix. Or, better yet: for newbies to take their first look around inside.

Me? I have spent the last several years successfully avoiding the interior of that place. It’s more like I’ve been running around in the maze out back, looking for some kind of way out of here. Yet, the imagery (and of course the quotes — “Here’s Johnny!!!”) has remained vivid and complex, mysterious but significant.

In need of extra income, Jack Torrance takes his family and secludes them in the beautiful but remote Overlook Hotel as the staff have been looking for a caretaker for the off-season, wintry months from December through May. This, Jack figured, would be as good a place as any to get focused on his writing. But the distractions soon become numerous and of an ominous variety, the source of which seems to be the Indian burial ground upon which the expansive hotel had been built. Over the coming days and weeks, Jack’s behavior increases in bizarreness and hostility, shrinking what was left of Wendy’s sense of self-preservation into a circle only she could fit into. And the Torrances’ only child is some kind of disturbed visionary who doesn’t ‘approve’ of the new surrounds. If that doesn’t promote cabin fever, what does?

Danny can’t exactly see dead people but he can sense the malevolent presences within this lonely building. His psychic abilities are referred to as ‘shining,’ and are also shared with certain members on staff, including the hotel chef — a man named Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). Danny’s been able to foresee terrible things occurring here, but is he able to prevent them? Unfortunately that’s all out of his little, future blood-stained hands. Dad’s too blinded by his own frustrations as a failing writer (I can relate, dude) and thus is spending more time on his own, away from his wife whom he keeps having violent outbursts towards.

Stanley Kubrick on this occasion built suspense like nobody’s business, while simultaneously implementing some of the most recognizable set pieces you’re likely to find in horror. What we have here may not be everything that is presented in the novel. In fact a lot has changed, apparently. But what is used is also hellishly effective: the torrent of blood escaping the elevators; retro, 70s-style carpeting; hedge mazes, that also double as escape routes, by the way; the fire ax going through a bedroom door.

If blood and guts don’t creep you out, the stifling atmosphere had a better chance of chilling your internal body temperature by a few degrees. The Shining simultaneously dwelled upon and benefitted from the dress of decay. Everything from the abandoned space, to the season in which these disturbing transformations occur helped impress upon us that here is a family with no way of ridding themselves of harm. Of grisly, twisted and unpredictable violence.

If Jack were successful in completing just whatever it was he had committed to writing — a book, a collection of poems, perhaps? — I can only provide speculation as to how his real-life ending might have fit. A little bit bloodier? No doubt. More predictable? Eh, maybe. If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, the more sane of us have been left wondering what this man would be like if left without that typewriter of his. At least here, he was temporarily distracted.

The beauty in Kubrick’s adaptation, accurate or not, has been the ability for audiences to imagine themselves in such a situation and what they would do. The supernatural forces driving former residents mad was a concept abstract and terrifying enough for two different auteurs — one a writer and another a filmmaker — to base stories off of and yet come away with two different experiences, both arguably equally successful. That’s damn impressive and a true testament to the power of well-conceived horror.

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5-0Recommendation: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is — and this is a boring way to put it, I know — a true classic. It not only stands the test of time, it almost becomes scarier each time you revisit it. Something else just keeps popping up, some detail you never noticed before. On that basis alone, if you haven’t still seen this movie I urge you to do so pronto. If you are a horror buff, I think we’re done here. If you’re squeamish, you should watch this anyway. Just so you’re not so squeamish in other, lesser horrors. Thicken that skin!

Rated: R

Running Time: 144 mins.

TBTrivia: A tale of horrifying edits. Apparently the original script was edited so many times it began to irritate Jack. It got to a point where he’d only read the new pages that were added to the script daily. He later cited the role as one of the toughest he’s ever undertaken.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com