A buried nugget in the Netflix stew, The Invitation is a fairly conventional slow-burn mystery that hits a number of familiar plot-points. We’re trapped in one location for most of the time, as the characters begin to wonder about the motives of their host, as in Festen. We even have the protagonist hit an animal with his car, accidentally, as a way of foreshadowing the bloodletting to come. These are genre tropes, to be sure, but Karyn Kusama’s film has more to offer in terms of tension than most.
Kusama’s career had a couple of potentially catastrophic failures early on with Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body, but The Invitation is very much a back-to-basics horror/thriller. Logan Marshall Green is Will, who unwisely takes his new girlfriend to a weekend retreat (with no phone signal, of course) that his ex Eden (Tammy Blanchard) will be present at. Party games ensue, with a gradual realisation that a cult are in operation, but is Will imagining something worse than just typical LA gamesmanship?
The Invitation takes a good hour before it gets to conventional stalk-and-slash territory, but some of the best material comes from that slow drip of paranoia. When one guest attempts to leave early, Will watches from a window, his view obscured at the vital moment that would tell him that she’s escaped. Similarly, Will’s attempt to confront the group about his missing friend Troy is mis-timed, and his rage is deflated when his friend arrives late; true paranoia is when you doubt everyone’s motives, including your own. Kusama’s cast are game, and even if they lack movie-star presence, it’s an effective pot-boiler that whittles down the numbers to a predicable punch-line.
Kusama’s Nicole Kidman detective vehicle Destroyer didn’t find much awards traction, but I thought it was fairly gripping; at least there’s plenty of recent evidence that she’s shrugged off her big-budget studio disappointments. The Invitation isn’t as imaginative as Coherence, or as dramatic and serious as Festen, but in terms of getting Kusama back on track, it’ll do. And for casual viewers on Netflix, there’s enough meat on the bones to make this worth a watch.