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Tension mounts when Will (Logan Marshall-Green) shows up to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). The estranged divorcees' tragic past haunts an equally eerie present; amid Eden's suspicious behavior and her mysterious house guests, Will becomes convinced that his invitation was extended with a hidden agenda. Unfolding over one dark evening in the Hollywood Hills, The Invitation blurs layers of mounting paranoia, mystery, and horror until Will is unsure what threats are real or imagined. (From Drafthouse’s official synopsis)

 Invitation, The
For some reason, uppercrust dinner parties are becoming a popular arena for suspense and horror. While Karyn Kusama‘s The Invitation has its roots in drawing room mysteries and other single-location plays/movies ( Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sleuth, for example), it follows a recent horror/thriller trend set by Scott Murden’s The Dinner Party (2009), Nick Tomnay’s The Perfect Host (2010), David Guy Levy’s Would You Rather (2012), James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence (2013), and (arguably) E. L. Katz’ Cheap Thrills (2013), among others. One would assume that these films were reactions to the economic and cultural disparities made popular during the Occupy Wall Street movement, but few of these movies implicitly explore social disparity. Apparently, filmmakers are just really into the whole limited-location thing these days.

Kusama’s return to horror is most welcome. Following a big-budget adaptation of Peter Chung’s Æon Flux (2005) that didn’t work out (it’s a bad movie, but not a badly made movie), she made one of the most underrated horror films of the previous decade in Jennifer’s Body (2009). The Invitation is definitely something different, though. Her previous films were punchy, colourful, and almost comic book-like in their tone and imagery, while The Invitation is crisply shot and tersely edited for maximum suspense. She dials back on stylistic extremes for the sake of clarity, which sometimes defuses the tension, but usually helps to set the unnerving tone. The more outrageously disturbing scenes are certainly impactful (if not hampered by wiggly, hand-held camera work), but the sense of impending doom that permeates throughout the comparatively (and purposefully) uneventful first hour is a more impressive feat. Jennifer’s Body fell victim to backlash against star Megan Fox and writer Diablo Cody, and was never really given a proper chance. Hopefully, the director’s classily effective work here will prompt detractors to give her earlier films (specifically Jennifer’s Body) another shot.

 Invitation, The
The Invitation is designed to be particularly dependent on the tautness of its story, so even Kusama’s best work would’ve been in vain had co-writers/co-producers Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi not produced a competent screenplay. Whereas there is reason to expect the best from the director, Hay & Manfredi’s previous work – The Tuxedo (2002), Clash of the Titans (2010), the two Ride Along movies (2014, 2016), and the aforementioned Æon Flux – doesn’t inspire confidence. Fortunately, The Invitation shares almost nothing in common with those unwieldy, effects and star-driven vehicles. The intimate concept serves Kusama’s needs and offers the cast an arena to perform. The characters are believable – sometimes upsettingly so, given all of the judgmental, creepy, and self-centered behavior – even while spouting occasionally tedious and affected expositional dialogue. Despite the definite storytelling quality unveiling of back-story and the juxtaposition of flashbacks, Hay & Matt’s plot lacks originality and this catches up with them by the predictably bloody climax. In addition, The Invitation’s themes do ring ultimately hollow – a realization that takes me back to the second paragraph concerning the lack of social awareness in modern dinner party thrillers. It feels like the filmmakers had something personal and meaningful to say about the mourning process, but they lost themselves in the technical processes of tightening screws and making the audience uncomfortable. It ends up being a respectful thriller that could’ve been much more. The final last minute twist is good fun, though.

Video


This smooth and creamy 2.40:1, 1080p transfer certainly looks like it was shot on a digital HD format, but I don’t actually know if it was. The end credits state that it was filmed ‘in Panavision,’ which makes me think 35mm. But, then, imdb.com only mentions that it was printed only DCP, which makes me thing digital. Regardless of format, the name of the game here is dark & amber. Kusama and cinematographer Bobby Shore do their best to recreate the moody lighting of a romantic evening meal and this can create issues with clarity when the black backgrounds begin to absorb the softer highlights. Fortunately, the fine textures and hard lines usually remain just visible enough to discern everything important. The few times blackness does absorb detail, the effect appears intentional, though the occasionally flat tones (usually faces and clothing shapes) can be sort of off-putting at times. Digital grain – or real grain, I guess, depending on the format used – is evenly distributed and only kicks up a handful of times. The overriding amber, red, and brown palette (the outside tends to be steely blue and flashbacks are blown-out and lavender) is occasionally punched up with greens and purples. These hues are consistent and neatly separated, aside from those aforementioned flat shots.

 Invitation, The

Audio


When I noticed that the box art claimed The Invitation was fitted with a Dolby Digital soundtrack, I assumed that Drafthouse was still in the habit of reusing DVD templates for their Blu-ray releases. But, the actual codec is a lossy DD 5.1 and that’s pretty disappointing for a brand new Blu-ray release (even Drafthouse’s release of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 included a DTS-HD MA track). Still, it is a pretty good track. As the concept implies, this is a largely dialogue-based film, so the stereo-surround arena doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Performances are clear, evenly mixed, and almost exclusively centered alongside soft incidental noises. The other channels are reserved for minor environmental ambience (soft music playing on the in-film sound system, chit-chat from the other room, crickets chirping), Will’s subjective aural hallucinations, super-loud gunshots, and the creepy score. Theodore Shapiro’s dissonant, rhythmic, and dread-soaked music sets the mood wonderfully and is surprisingly playful in terms of its stereo and surround components. Even the simple title cues envelop the viewer in swirling sound.

Extras


  • Commentary with director Karyn Kusama and writers Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi – The writers and director take this track very seriously, especially while describing themes and characters. Discussion also includes technical and artistic choices, as well as the usual supportive words for the rest of the cast & crew. It’s all a bit dry and there are some dips in quality, but is informative, overall.
  • The Invitation: Behind the Scenes (10:00, HD) – A fluffy EPK in which the cast & crew discuss what the film is about and how they went about making it.
  • Music videos for original songs “Baby You’re Gone” by Craig Wedren (1:39, HD) and “O My Child” by Benjamin Newgard (1:49, HD)
  • Trailer and teaser
  • Trailers for other Drafthouse releases


 Invitation, The

Overall


The Invitation is a very well-made, well-acted exploration of paranoia that is just predictable and shallow enough to fall short of genuine greatness. I definitely recommend it, even if it sort of drops the ball in the originality department at the last minute. The Blu-ray video quality is limited by pervasive darkness and the audio is hampered by a compressed Dolby Digital soundtrack, but the results are still quite acceptable. The otherwise brief extras are bolstered by a pretty strong director/co-writers commentary track.

 Invitation, The
 Invitation, The
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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