Karyn Kusama’s plodding paranoid religious cult thriller is an example of more being decidedly less.
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation was a bit horror film festival hit a few years ago, which some come as no surprise. It has all the right elements for a particular type of horror movie fan, the sort who only seem to see genre films at festivals, or when they are picked up by mainstream critics as having some sort of validity outside the standard fare – ‘elevated horror’ in other words. For this crowd, a no-nonsense horror film just won’t cut it, and the more chin-strokingly empty a film is while puporting to be a statement about whatever the issue de jour is, the more they’ll admire it. Sometimes, these films actually do manage to become more than the sum of their parts and combine the best that horror has to offer with a fresh take. Most of the time though, it’s just a cringe-worthy version of the King’s new clothes, a film as contemptuous of the genre it attaches itself to as the people who love it are.
“Who can’t relate to the awkward dinner party at the heart of the film?” ask critics who assume that dinner parties are a standard part of everyone’s lives. These same critics then seem to be genuinely taken aback at the film’s numbingly slow revelations that pretty much anyone who has seen more than a handful of horror films, or thrillers, of just films in general must have seen coming for most of the plodding angst between old friends, ex-partners and oldball strangers who gather together for a party – if you can call anything this tedious a party – in a house on the hills, where there is no phone reception (ooh!) and some guests don’t show and in classic paranoid thriller style, mysterious things start to nag at Will (Logan Marshall-Green) as the hosts, his ex-wife and her husband, revea themselves to be members of some New Age group called The Invitation. Which is definitely not, they tell us, a cult. So we all know where this is going.
The problem is that Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi realise that – again, perhaps because they generally consider this sort of thing to be beneath them – and so take a good seventy-five minutes of simmering tension, if you are being kind, or ambling self-indulgence if you are not, before it even gets going in any sense. Seventy-five minutes! Movies come and go in their entirity in less time, and this is not a long film by current standards – 101 minutes in total. Now, a film taking up most – even all – of its running time building creepiness is all well and good if it has any sense of direction, but The Invitation is just empty and bloated (Kusama actually refers to it as “lean” in the blu-ray extras, which is an extraordinary misrepresentation) – there is nothing here but a plodding progression towards an ending that we all saw coming from about fifteen minutes in. There’s slow burn, and then there’s snail-like crawling.
The shame of it is The Invitation is very good film in some ways – decent performances all round and Kusama does a good job, at least technically – it’s a good looking film, she does her best to keep the limited locations and cast as visually interesting as possible given the material, and when the plot turn finally happens, it’s handled with some dramatic skill. But by then, it’s really too late. I’ve seen the film twice, and it was only slightly less tedious the second time around – and that was probably because I wasn’t trapped in a cinema the second time around, and already knew that it would take forever to go nowhere.