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A Review of "The Invitation" (2015)

The Invitation was the first - and so far only - horror movie I've watched this October.  If it was any worse, I'd be disappointed that I haven't gotten more thrills out of the season.  Fortunately, it's The Invitation, so it has been enough to sustain a whole month.

It's the kind of movie that's best watched with as little info as possible, which makes it a bit hard to review.  So I'm going to write my post today in increasing chunks of spoilers.  Stop when you feel like you might ruin the experience for yourself.  Or just stop now and go watch it.  It's great.

The Part With No Spoilers At All

The film is about a guy who accepts his ex-wife's invitation to a dinner party, and tension (both expected and unexpected) grows as soon as he gets there.

It's an ensemble movie, which can be hard to pull off if the cast isn't engaging.  Fortunately, the characters all feel realistic and they're likable enough that you can sit down with them for an hour and forty minutes.  The acting is superb throughout - there are no bad players and no bad parts.

The film is a textbook example of "slow burn."  The first twenty or thirty minutes are so plain that you may be convinced you're watching a millennial dramedy instead of a horror movie, and I can see that putting some people off.  In fact, it's the kind of thing that would normally put me off - there's a whole bunch of well-respected horror movies out there that people have called "slow burns" that I found too slow.

But where The Invitation excels and where I feel that those other movies didn't is in the rising tension.  The Invitation goes through a couple of stages of horror; first it's just unnerving, then it's awkward, then it's frantic, and finally it explodes.  The movie you end with is not the movie you sat down with.  That transformation hits hard in the final shot, which is one of the best and most disturbing moments I've ever seen in a horror movie.

The Part Where I Describe the Plot, But Still Technically Without Spoilers

Thematically, The Invitation is very similar to The Babadook, which I totally geeked out about last year.  Both are horror movies about handling loss and how that process can affect you and your relationships with the world.

Will, the protagonist, and Eden, his ex-wife, divorced a couple of years ago after their son died tragically.  In the time since, they've each tried to grieve in their own way.  Will has allowed his despondency to isolate him, and he hasn't seen either Eden or any of their mutual friends for years.  Eden, on the other hand, has joined a cult. She doesn't call it a "cult," of course, because nobody ever does.  In her mind, it's a support group that has allowed her to move past their son's death and embrace a life of love instead.

Now, I know where your brain is going with this - and the movie does, too.  You expect it to be about what the cult is going to do to Will and the other party guests, and that's exactly what Will latches onto as well.  But in his distrust of the cult, Will becomes unhinged and behaves erratically, which leads to a series of increasingly more dramatic, disturbing, and violent outbursts.

Most of the film is about the uncertainty of everybody's motives and the potential firestorm that could be unleashed.  The big question that the film wants you to ask is something of a cliche - "Who's the real villain?"  This would ordinarily be a bad thing because it ends up shoe-horning your movie into a simple binary plot - either the cult is dangerous or Will is, and since you can guess at either conclusion, you feel like you're already one step ahead of the movie.

And this is exactly why I loved The Invitation.  It takes something as cliche as the ol' "is he or isn't he crazy" trope and wrings legitimate paranoia out of it.  Until the movie forces a conclusion in the third act, you really have no idea which way it's heading.  Both conclusions feel inevitable, and both feel equally heart-wrenching.  By the halfway point, you feel the awkward panic of watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Then that third act hits, and holy crap is it good.

The Part Where I Openly Spoil Everything

The Invitation handles its reveal perfectly.  Will freaks out and smashes a bunch of wine glasses, then gets into a fight with one of Eden's fellow cultists.  He inadvertently shoves her head into the edge of a table, and the movie stops dead to tell you that he's turned the corner...

...and then you find out that the cultists are trying to poison all their guests.  It's a well-timed fake-out moment that neither excuses nor forgives Will's paranoia even as it vindicates him.  And from there until the end, the movie is in full-on horror mode as the cultists hunt down the partygoers to take them out in horrific fashion.

It might seem like a betrayal to go from something as grounded as this film is and turn it into a slasher, but I don't think it's a problem at all.  The Invitation earns its horror spree.  It's so much more disturbing to see these characters who you've come to know and empathize with over the last hour turn into cold-blooded murderers than it is to see a masked dude with a knife.

And then, after you think it's over, you find out that the exact same thing is happening at dinner parties all over the city.  It takes something that's already shocking and gut-wrenching and amps it up by many magnitudes.  It's that same helpless, horrified feeling you get when you see a news story about a terrorist bombing: how can so few people cause so much cruelty?

The Invitation is as much a horror movie as any other, but it unnerved me far more than most.  Its threat is plausible and real.  The consequences are around us every day.  And while the specific mechanics may not be real, the process that gets people from Point A to Point B is - and you never know who's going to die along the way.