Genre buffs have attended countless dinner parties that wind up tilting into madness, and yet the shivers arrive early and often in “The Invitation,” a teasingly effective thriller that builds a remarkable level of tension over the course of its 99-minute running time. Set during a mysterious reunion among old friends where something is quite palpably not right, this well-acted, beautifully modulated exercise represents director Karyn Kusama’s strongest work in years, revealing an assurance of tone, craft and purpose that haven’t been in evidence since her Sundance prize-winning debut, “Girlfight” (2000). More festivals are likely to extend invitations of their own following the pic’s SXSW premiere, while decent word of mouth should propel this likely modest theatrical performer into solid VOD rotation.
A disquieting prologue finds Will (Logan Marshall-Green, “Prometheus”) and his g.f., Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi, “Middle of Nowhere”), winding their way through the Hollywood Hills one evening, headed to a gathering at the chic, gated manse of David (Michiel Huisman) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard), whom they haven’t seen in at least two years. Upon their arrival, they are greeted warmly if a touch awkwardly by their hosts, as well as by a group of old pals that initially suggests a superficial cross-section of upscale L.A. culture: There’s the friendly, irreverent gay couple (Mike Doyle and Jordi Vilasuso); the Asian-American beauty (Michelle Krusiec); and the lovably plus-sized comic relief (Jay Larson). Some small talk ensues, lubricated by many glasses of red wine, and by Eden and David’s almost too forceful insistence that their guests relax and enjoy themselves.
But the screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (also credited as producers) soon reveals its cunning in the way it gradually doles out the characters’ sad backstory — namely, the fact that Will and Eden were once a loving couple, and that they split up after the tragic death of their son (Aiden Lovekamp). A few flashbacks are woven into the story, some more deftly than others, as Will privately tours the house that he and Eden once shared; despite having been fabulously redecorated (the work of production designer Almitra Corey), it remains a painful repository of sometimes happy, sometimes piercing memories. The death of a child is of course a much-abused plot point even outside the realm of horror filmmaking, but fortunately, the dramatic emphasis here is less on what happened in the past than what’s transpiring in the present, as Will, not sure what to make of Eden’s invitation to begin with, becomes convinced that there’s something deeply sinister afoot.
Marshall-Green is a dead ringer for Tom Hardy (a resemblance accentuated here by his long hair and scraggly beard), and like Hardy, he exudes a gruff charisma in a role that requires him to become increasingly surly and suspicious as the evening progresses. “The Invitation” excels at drawing us into deep identification with Will’s paranoia while simultaneously forcing us to continually question it: Does David keep locking the front door because he’s concerned about security, or because he wants to keep them from leaving? Is it a mere coincidence that no one can get good cell-phone reception in this neighborhood? And why exactly have David and Eden invited strangers like Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), an unhinged young woman who thinks nothing of casually throwing herself at two other party guests, and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, “American Horror Story”), a heavy-set man whose manner is as creepily menacing as it is unfailingly polite?
These questions are all answered in due course, starting with a parlor game in which David and Eden encourage everyone to lose their inhibitions; suffice to say that what follows won’t come as a huge shock to anyone who’s spent time in certain echelons of Los Angeles, a city known for its openness to many different and mysterious forms of self-help therapy. If “The Invitation” isn’t, in the end, a particularly profound film about grief or recovery — Will and Eden’s shared trauma is more or less treated as a MacGuffin — it’s nevertheless a perfectly pitched exercise in psychological dread, one that shows all the smarts and discipline that were noticeably lacking in Kusama’s “Aeon Flux” (2005) and “Jennifer’s Body” (2009).
Everything does go to hell in the end, of course, as it must in any genre movie worth its salt, and “The Invitation” delivers the necessary jolts in satisfyingly visceral fashion without descending into Grand Guignol excess. Still, it’s in the slow-and-steady buildup — as opposed to the attenuated action climax or the slightly eye-rolling denouement — where the film excels, as Kusama (working with editor Plummy Tucker) keeps the tension simmering away beneath the sounds of clinking silverware and polite, nervous laughter. D.p. Bobby Shore’s elegantly skulking camera familiarizes us with virtually every inch of the house to which the action is confined, bathing the interiors in a seductively moody, almost amber glow. Phillip Blackford’s sound design adds to the eerie vibe, ensuring that we register every slammed door, shattered glass and cut-off scream with perfect clarity.
The supporting cast is aces: Blanchard, recently seen as one of Cinderella’s stepsisters in “Into the Woods,” deserves more dramatic showcases of this caliber; an elegant vision in a white dress, she never lets us forget the fragile, brittle woman beneath the imperious, frozen smile and strained good humor. Huisman is terrific as a smooth-talking host whose every attempt to pacify Will makes the latter that much more hostile; Corinealdi, though not given much to do, provides a solid anchor as a voice-of-reason companion. Still, “The Invitation” probably wouldn’t be half as unnerving as it is without Lynch, who, as he demonstrated in David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” can freeze the blood by doing little more than sitting in a chair. He’s the most inexplicable presence in the room and the most galvanizing, even in one scene where he can be detected hulking just offscreen, his arm dangling into the frame like that of some quietly watchful Frankenstein.