On its surface, the new horror movie The Invitation, playing in theaters and available via video on demand, is in league with The Big Chill and other movies about friends reuniting after a long time apart.
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) receives an invitation to a party thrown by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new lover, David (Michiel Huisman); the couple's aim is to gather Eden's former friend group in one place to reminisce, as well as to find an audience for the good word of the controversial religion they belong to.
The more Eden and David talk, however, the more the group recoils at what it sees as cult-like reprogramming; in the process, they slowly divulge details of the personal tragedy that originally split Eden and Will apart. And then everything goes to hell in a dark, openly terrifying finale.
The Invitation is a tremendously sustained tonal piece, conveying a kind of deeply submerged horror that only bursts forth at the very end, when the truth is revealed. But as it progresses, it becomes clear that screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have thought deeply about the emotional terror present in even the most well-adjusted friend groups.
And that emotional terror is brought to vivid, bloody life by director Karyn Kusama, who broke through with 2000's Girlfight, then struggled to find and produce more work within a Hollywood system that isn't always attuned to her particular brand of woman-centered genre riffs.
Since Girlfight, Kusama has made just two features — 2005's Æon Flux and 2009's Jennifer's Body — and lots and lots of television (her TV résumé includes directing stints on Halt and Catch Fire and The Man in the High Castle).
But The Invitation is her strongest work yet, filled with resonant explorations of grief and loss amid the carnage. It's a great horror film, but it also excels at being what Kusama would call an "emotional horror film," which she believes is different.
I recently spoke with her about the difference between horror and emotional horror, the films that have inspired her work, and why The Invitation is about how all belief systems — not just religious ones — can harm and damage those they claim to protect.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On the history of horror: "I don't see The Invitation as straight horror"
What's the first horror film you saw and thought, "Wow, I really loved that"?
I can think of early horror film experiences where love wasn't the first thing that came to mind, but it was more of a visceral reaction.
In terms of something that made me feel like I needed to just bow down in respect, it was probably when I was about 20 or 19 and saw for the first time in a theater Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which to me, was such a masterpiece of visceral terror. I remain surprised by the artfulness of that film and the patience with which it lets the terror unfold.
Every time I revisit that film, I'm amazed by the rhythms of it, especially when you first see Leatherface. It's so unexpected. Do you have moments like that, ones you look at in awe?
Well, there's a couple scenes. There's a scene where a young woman finds herself in this room filled with feathers and furniture made out of bones. How is this sequence almost like this beautiful dream? How has [Hooper] achieved a sense of such beauty in this incredibly horrifying context?
Later, there's a dinner scene, where the Family — capital F — is sitting around the table having dinner. It's such a send-up of family dynamics and the dysfunction among family members when everyone's roles have gone haywire. You can actually watch that sequence and feel this horrible sense of black humor, when what's happening is also, on another level, genuinely terrifying.
Also the scene where she runs away, thinking she's going to be helped, and then, in the rhythm of a nightmare, you realize, no, she's essentially just run right back to her captors. I just thought, this movie never stops. It's like it's sticking its hands in the collective unconscious of the audience and just mucking with it.
Directors often rewatch other movies they want their films to feel like. What films did you watch before making The Invitation?
I watched Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration again. I loved the notion of approaching The Invitation as emotional horror, like The Celebration is an emotional horror film in a really fresh and wonderful way.
I watched High and Low, the Kurosawa film, because I knew that the staging of actors and the choreography of scenes within a confined space was something I needed to have a tremendous amount of control over. That film always pays multiple dividends to me when I watch it.
In terms of horror or thrillers, I was more attuned to '70s conspiracy films, like The Parallax View or Klute. To a degree, movies like Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion that demand an uncertain relationship with the protagonist.
I didn't really look at straight horror because I guess I don't see The Invitation as straight horror. It's more the genre crossbreeds that I was most interested in.
What makes a good emotional horror film, even if it's not all that scary on the surface?
I think it's really getting to the basics of humans' animal experience. What appealed to me about The Invitation was this sense of investigation into the nature of loss and how monstrous that can become inside of us if we don't engage with it.
When I think about emotional horror, I think about all that goes unsaid, all that goes denied, all that goes shoved under the rug. That can be A Woman Under the Influence, that can be Let the Right One In, that can cover a lot of ground. What you're doing is you're exploring the failures, sometimes, in human interaction, the failures of human connection to answer the really big questions.
As I watch a film that I define as emotional horror, does it elicit in me the sense of, gosh, I guess, the terrible price of being human? Does it really peel the curtain back on that? Because it's not always easy, as we know, to be people.
On dealing with religion: "Religious fervor and faith, to me, can take so many forms"
There's an element of religious fervor to this film and an element of digging into non-mainstream religious beliefs. Were there specific movies you watched that fed into that aspect?
A very contemporary film that I found interesting in that regard, because it was so frightening, was Martha Marcy May Marlene. But it's hard also for me not to think of movies like Diary of a Country Priest, where you're watching what the loneliness of faith can be and the isolation of it.
It's interesting because religious fervor and faith, to me, can take so many forms. With Phil and Matt, the writers and producers, when we would talk about the film, while I don't ever use the word "cult," we of course had to recognize the fact that the word looms over the conversation about the movie.
Yet we were also talking about the film in sort of these '70s terms, thinking about Jonestown and Manson, the sense of mayhem of the '70s we grew up in. Of course, as I was making the movie and as I continue to talk about it now, it feels like every day I am reminded of the mayhem of daily life right now.
There is a terrorism of ideals in this movie that affects all the characters. I can't deny that affects us in the world at large, when we allow our supposed beliefs to deform our humanity. I've been thinking a lot about this, and I realize there maybe aren't that many films I've experienced that really tackle the notion of faith.
What do you think of, if you were to ask yourself the question? I'm just curious.
I grew up fundamentalist Christian and left that life behind, so when I saw the movie The Witch, it really reminded me of the faith tradition I grew up in, which is probably a little messed up.
That's a great example. I just saw the movie, so it's almost too present in my mind, but that's another great example of a movie where you feel that belief has overtaken our ability to — I don't want to judge — but to have common sense. Sometimes faith can really derail us.
How did you construct the alternate belief system that drives The Invitation?
The overriding principle was the idea that you can have a belief system in which you can make the decision that you know better than others. You know that you should be determining the fate of others. That's what the movie had been attempting, at its most basic level, to interrogate: the desire for all kinds of movements, all kinds of belief systems, to attempt to make decisions for other people. And is that ever right?
And when I talk about belief systems, I'm not just talking about cults or world religions. I'm talking about capitalism and socialism and the militaristic system. There's so many ways to approach these doctrines for living.
When do they stop just providing order for an individual's life, and when do they start controlling or mandating other people's lives? That is what we were really interested in, thinking about the notion of the group itself as less a fringe cult and more a representation of belief systems when they're out of control in general.
If you're not allowed to just be an individual within the group, people suffer. It's a very hard balance to strike. It's the overriding question of humanity. How can we allow the collective and the individual to live in harmony? And can they?
On filming The Invitation: "I'm starting to face the fact that I'm a pretty serious person"
For the most part, your whole cast is stuck in one house and often a single room for the whole film. How did you film under those challenging conditions?
There were often 12 people onscreen at any given time, and that really required a lot of planning. Which is paradoxical, because I think people assume — and even I might have assumed at the early stages — that it would be easier to work in this "contained" environment. In fact, it's so much harder. You have to choose the perspective with which you want to communicate the story to the audience.
I was lucky in that it was always Will's story, to a degree. He was the protagonist of it, so we could anchor the whole story around his subjective and often unreliable point of view.
I had to make decisions about when the audience could be given the breadth of the room to see the evening unfold from a different perspective. At some points, you needed to actually hang back wide and just see the group for what it was, which oftentimes was this relaxed group of people laughing and getting a little drunk and sharing their stories.
In many respects, that was what made the movie so fun for me and made it so attractive to me, was the crystallizing challenge of it — the nature of close-ups and the nature of perfect and imperfect eyelines and what to do to keep the audience hooked or give the audience a break. I had to think about that stuff quite a bit.
You've had a really varied career. How do you think The Invitation fits into it? And what you want to do going forward?
I'm really starting to face the fact that I'm a pretty serious person. I don't necessarily think that the business of filmmaking makes it easy for pretty serious people. It's really important to sort of stay light and socially adept and charming and all of these things that I often am not in a fundamental way.
What The Invitation allowed me to do was go straight into the heart of the concerns of my nightmares. What does it mean to be human, and what are humans capable of, and where does that sometimes awful expression come from? I get to explore something I'm really scared of and yet I feel really passionate about exploring.
For me, the film represents a grounding in my interests, which is really trying to expose and illuminate the human condition and be, for want of a better word, an artist. I know that's a difficult way to choose to depict oneself in this crazy business, but ultimately, that's what I want to be and what I am trying to get a chance to be.
The Invitation is playing in select theaters and everywhere on demand.