It took seven years for Karyn Kusama to follow-up her last feature film with The Invitation. It was worth the wait.
The Invitation (2016)
You look different, Edie.
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When your debut feature is as strong as Girlfight – winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance when it premiered in 2000 – you expect to make a career out of it. For a hot minute, it looked like that’s what writer/director Karyn Kusama was going to have.
Bad-Ass Women Anti-Heroes
Hired in 2005 to helm the highly anticipated live-action adaptation of MTV’s animated sci-fi phenom Aeon Flux, Kusama directed Charlize Theron as a kind of avant-garde super hero (long before Fury Road). Paramount decided to re-edit and retool Kusama’s “art film” into something their target bracket might prefer. It didn’t bother to screen for critics. Aeon Flux opened against the fourth Harry Potter movie. It’s a weirdo of an action movie. The edit is awkward. It flopped.
Shortly after, she was given the reins to Academy Award winner Diablo Cody’s second screenplay Jennifer’s Body. Together, they had Megan Fox playing a teenage succubus who eats boys and Amanda Seyfried speaking the kind of unintelligible but smartass lingo Cody made cool in Juno.
It’s a remarkably good story, and through Kusama’s lens, one of the most visceral, beautiful, feminist horror films ever made (I stand behind that statement 110% – read my review here). The studio, again, chose to market it to the bracket it thought made sense – adolescent to late twenties males. Again, it flopped. Can you imagine why?
And then she disappeared
Post Jennifer, Karyn Kusama went on a seven-year hiatus from feature films. Is that because she wanted to? Doubt it. Is that because her work wasn’t good? Fuck no (just watch ANY of them).
Could it be…. sexism? (Read that in your best Church Lady voice, please)
Even if you can’t get on board the sexism train, it’s still clear that indie filmmakers tend to get that “make-it-or-break-it” moment when they hit the mainstream. Whether the films were critically viable or not is unimportant if they can’t turn a profit. And when you market artistic, feminist films to a heavily male demographic – you can see why the profit might never come.
But all of this history for a reason! I’ve been waiting A GOD DAMN LIFETIME (most of my twenties) for Karyn Kusama to show up and drop the mother. fucking. bomb.
Then, on Tuesday, it arrived. The Invitation showed up nonchalantly in my Netflix “Recently Added” queue. I waited until dark and watched it promptly. It had three of my favorite scary movie things:
- A creepy house
- Missing children
- A cult
Sold. Let’s talk about it:
The House as character
This, to me, is the hallmark of the traditional horror film. If I start back at German Expressionist films like Nosferatu, the ambience is the thing and the derelict stone castle is tantamount to creating the effect. In more modern examples, we get the classic haunted house story (The Haunting), or something slightly more bizarre (Hausu) – but when I talk about a house as a true character in a story, I want to reference perhaps its best instance – The Overlook Hotel from The Shining.
The Overlook is its own entity. It is introduced as a living, breathing thing, capable of entrancing, enticing, and possessing. Although Jack becomes the ultimate villain, it is the Overlook that Danny remains most scared of. The Overlook that traps he and his mother inside. And The Overlook that takes Jack’s life.
In The Invitation, the house is smaller in size but not in character. A mid-century modern in the Hollywood Hills, it is iconic L.A. Camera angles make great use of the spaces between stairs, the sharp turns down hallways, and a brilliantly uneasy landing on the second floor. True of mid-century architecture, the style is minimalist and sparing. Each room is there for a specific purpose. The house reveals the story, and itself, as Will makes his way back through it (he has, after all, lived within its walls before).
What isn’t there
If the house is the most frightening and overwhelming character present in The Invitation, then it’s the child that isn’t there that really sells its presence. We never meet Will’s little boy, but the house allows us glimpses into his existence: his bedroom, visions of a party, something going wrong. It’s as though he’s been sucked into it, lost somewhere inside its winding walls.
Being in the house gives Will a particular sense of unease and distrust, not just because it’s “haunted,” but because it holds secrets for him. Bad memories, and current realities he clearly isn’t ready to face.
That’s a really abstract way of saying that the film revolves around something missing. Children are always scary in horror films. They are maybe scariest when they are supposed to be there, but then aren’t. What? Why? Where? What’s missing invites us to consider every insidious possibility.
“L.A. is affected”
Cults don’t just happen in Los Angeles, but let’s be honest – southern California does have a history with these types. The Invitation exploits that well, immediately suggesting that what’s really wrong at this dinner party is that Will’s ex-wife is maybe, probably, definitely the newest member of a creepy new-age cult.
We also have the house – mid-century, something you’d find on Mulholland Dr. – more than a little suggestive of the places the Manson Family chose for their home invasions in the late sixties. The addition of Sadie, girl who looks, acts, and has a name just like the old Manson girls helps, too.
From the supremely awkward get-to-know-you games to the pristine white-wedding-sort-of dress that Eden (that name!) wears, everything about this group screams “affected.” Changed. Altered. Pretending. As Will makes his way from The Invitation’s start to finish, it’s as though the true nature of the place they’re trapped in reveals itself to him.
Why is that important? Because to those of us who might be reading into Karyn Kusama’s distaste with mainstream Hollywood, it’s a potentially revealing little allegory about how the film industry really works. It sucks you, spits you out, and forces you to deal with that rejection on your own. And also – because it makes a damn good movie.
Every once in a while, you get a film that really shows the brilliance that is well-done sound design. Even less often, you get a director who seems to base everything they do around it. Dario Argento (Suspiria, Opera), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America), David Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, The Grandmother).
Add Karyn Kusama to that list. The best sound moments in The Invitation:
- The water absolutely blaring into the sink. It sent chills up my spine.
- Helicopters and sirens building in proximity and volume across the hills. SEALS THE DEAL on this film.
- Doors sliding and closing. You know those sliding plate glass doors that Hollywood Hills homes make the most of? They make the best slicing noises as they open and shut.
*The Invitation is now on Netflix Instant*
If You Like it, Watch:
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011):
Cults, cults, and more cults. If you like the Manson vibe, continue down this path with Elizabeth Olson and a cringe inducing John Hawkes. It may make you physically ill – but in the best psychological way.
In terms of movies shot in one location – one house, one room – this the ultimate showpiece. Alfred Hitchcock sets up a story with a dead body hidden inside a buffet table, two smarmy jerks who want to get a thrill, and shoots it all in long takes (ten minutes, no cuts). It’s suspenseful, to say the least.
The Strangers (2008):
I’ve reviewed this one before, but it’s worth bringing up again in conversation with The Invitation. If not directly inspired by this work, both films are inherently informed by the Manson-era of cult prone hippies and their bizarre notions of killing in search of freedom. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman play a couple trapped in a house way up in the hills.
Other “Get Out of the House or Else” ideas:
Have you seen The Invitation? What’d you think? Tell me what you thought in the comments.
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