The art of tension in cinema can be a tricky one. Many writers and directors struggle with the attempt to keep audiences at the edge of their seats. Slow-burn horror thrillers have the potential to hit the spot when created successfully. Director Karyn Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have done just that with their SXSW Midnight Selection titled The Invitation. By creating a sense of paranoia in both the main character and the audience, this is a thriller that knows how to manipulate the crowd throughout the duration of the journey.
After receiving an invitation from his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her husband (Michiel Huisman), Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) decide to join the dinner party. A supposed reunion for a group of friends soon turns into something much more sinister as the night continues, but are these suspicions correct, or is Will simply experiencing a sense of paranoia?
Perhaps one of the film's greatest strengths is how it manages to keep us in the dark for so long. Nothing is plainly said in the open. Rather, it's an unnerving experience with obvious signs that not everything is as it seems. The uneasy atmosphere carries through the film, as the dinner continues to get weirder. As the ex-wife and her husband, Eden and David, show their guests a video displaying a woman "letting go," we become increasingly suspicious of what their true intentions are. The only background provided on any of the characters within this reunion is displayed through with the use of quick flashbacks. This is greatly utilized in order to create contrast between how things are, and how they once were. However, it's difficult to get attached to anybody other than Will, as the majority of them are one-dimensional pieces of cardboard.
The Invitation features a theme of fear that greatly acts as a motif. Hosts Eden and David constantly discuss not being afraid anymore, and that it's all nothing but a chemical reaction that can be controlled. Will isn't convinced by their overly-happy exterior, as he believes that they're involved in some sort of cult. The question is simply whether or not he's paranoid. Hay and Manfredi's screenplay is a slow-burn thriller that continues to build upon itself. It doesn't take very long to figure out what's going on, but that doesn't stop the unnerving knot that is sure to develop in your stomach. Kusama creates an outstanding amount of tension, which never wavers, even despite the film's predictability. You'll still be sitting at the edge of your seat, just wondering when things are going to go wrong. The Invitation might be slow-moving, but it's never boring.
It isn't until the third act that the film truly kicks into high gear, but the payoff is grand. A dinner reunion that appears a certain way isn't shown for what it is until the final few minutes. This is a true testament to the director and the screenwriters' ability to establish tension for such a long period of time before offering the big reveal. You'll either be completely engaged, or entirely lost by the picture's various twists and turns. Hay and Manfredi enjoy manipulating the audience through moments of extreme intensity, but some may find them to be a bit too unrealistic. The images found in the finale have stuck with me throughout the festival thus far. Your mileage may vary, but it completely immersed me.
Director Karyn Kusama has accomplished a visual tone that brilliantly creates the atmosphere. The color palette sports various shades of yellows that convey a welcoming tone that also feels extremely alarming. This perfectly reflects the emotion occurring within this environment that seems relaxing on the surface, but really creates feelings of extreme anxiety. The film's score is tremendously eerie and sharp, as it offers an extra dimension to the film that creates a greater sense of terror.
The Invitation is certainly a slow-burn thriller that greatly enjoys manipulating the audience with its various twists and turns. They don't all work, but this is atmospheric cinema that knows how to create tension. The film doesn't do much to reinvent the "dinner party reunion from Hell" category of films, but it certainly resonated with me. Director Karyn Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have crafted a story that is not only creepy, but it has a certain emotional note to it that works in the film's favor. The Invitation is remarkably tense and eerie. Highly recommended!
The Invitation will play at SXSW Film Festival 2015 on March 13th, March 14th, and March 18th.