The era of the art-house horror film is upon us, and although many of these movies receive nearly universal praise from the critics, films like The Babadook, It Follows, and this year's box office hit The Witch often leave thrill-seeking audiences wanting more.
Today's fright fans are not accustomed to the slow-burn approach taken by the art-house auteurs, many of whom would have found a home in the cinematic world of the 1970s when horror films regularly moved at a measured pace. Forgotten curiosities like The Other and Sisters, as well as classics like The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, succeed not because they offer a cascading succession of scares, but because their directors believed in ratcheting up the tension until the final, sometimes bloody climax.
When it comes to the recent strain of art-house horror movies, Ti West's 2009 The House of the Devil immediately comes to mind for harkening back to the '70s and early '80s.
Stylistically, The House of the Devil bares more than a similarity to the earlier films, adopting some of the same production touches and narrative beats — not to mention the same temporal setting, something that Ted Geoghegan's We Are Still Here and It Follows do as well, to greater and lesser degrees. In West's tale, a broke college-aged babysitter finds herself in the middle of a Satanic cult's schemes. Even at a scant one hour and 35 minutes, Devil is a markedly measured affair, leading its fans to praise the film's slow-burn while its critics simply call it slow. Either way, the explosion of action, scares, and blood-curdling screams that make up the last act should erase any qualms viewers have about the glacial pace of the preceding 60 minutes or so.
The same can be said of Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, a taut thriller that offers ample amounts of escalating tension over sudden jolts of terror. A grieving man named Will (a very hirsute Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (the beautiful Emayatzy Corinealdi) have accepted an invitation for a dinner party hosted by Will's ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her current beau David (Michiel Huisman of Game of Thrones, Orphan Black).
This setup will strike some viewers as odd — who wants to hang out with their ex under any circumstance — but the dinner party is also a reunion of old friends, making the situation a bit more plausible, if still unlikely. This circle of one-time compadres splintered years ago, with the various parties losing track of one other. At first the reason for the group's split is only hinted at, but it eventually becomes apparent that the death of Will and Eden's son during a previous gathering is the cause of the split, although the details of the incident and the parts that each guest may have in the tragedy are never explicitly spelled out, nor do they need to be.
Needless to say, Will is on edge when he arrives at his ex-wife's hilltop house, and his anxiety only increases as the evening progresses. He senses something is amiss at the party, while his fellow guests are oblivious to the danger that only he perceives. And it's those two opposing dynamics that drive the film as Will begins to unravel — and to do so in a spectacular fashion. In fact, his flame out conjures up memories of Michael Shannon's ill-fated protagonist in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter.
On the surface The Invitation doesn't appear to bear any resemblance to a horror movie, aside from an ominous event that begins the film — in this case a coyote is struck by a car and summarily put out of its misery by a tire iron-wielding Will, but like the 2014 Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass vehicle The One I Love, by the end it's clear that's exactly what it is. Sorry if it spoils it for you for The Invitation or The One I Love.
Still, as well-crafted as Kusama's yarn is, and believe you me, the direction is sharp, particularly in the way that Will's hallucinations are seamlessly incorporated into the narrative, the overall effectiveness of The Invitation is hampered by the very conversations the guests engage in, discussions that seem wacky even in a place as new age-obsessed as the Left Coast. Yes, we've all had moments when we're catching up with old friends when we realize they are trying to sell us something, whether it's an Amway membership, Bernie Sanders' presidential bid, or the Church of Scientology, but there is a way that this occurs naturally. For the life of me, I can't imagine hanging around a dinner party for very long after someone has shown me a snuff film, albeit one of the Dr. Jack Kevorkian-meets-Terri Schiavo variety. It'll take something a helluva lot stronger than expensive wine to keep me around after that.
Be that as it may, Kusama and her screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are able to overcome this suspension-of-disbelief speed bump and steer us back toward The Invitation's central through-line: as weird as David and Eden may be, they are essentially good people who want their friends to find happiness, but first they have to admit how miserable they are. Will, trapped in an out-of-control spiral of grief, is unable to see this truth, and so his anxiety gets the better of him. Ultimately, however, it may be the one thing keeping him alive.
Like I said, in that final act, shit gets really crazy. And bloody.