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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Film Land - The Invitation

Edited by Robert Beach 

This past weekend saw the release of The Invitation, a masterwork of directing and performance that stands as a true triumph of its genre. I was originally planning to review the film, but that’d honestly be doing it something of a disservice. See, I went into The Invitation with literally no knowledge of the film aside from a few vague tweets from critics I followed praising it. That ignorance made the experience infinitely richer and more engaging. 

Cold is honestly the best way to experience this film, so by way of review, allow me to just say it’s an absolute great, an instant classic and a high watermark for a genre that’s been turning out a lot of great entries lately. It’s full of tense moments, engaging surrealism, and a powerful emotional core; All of which is backed up by cinematography and acting in peak performance. I’ll be discussing the film’s content in great detail going forward, including spoilers. If all that appeals to you, I implore you: see The Invitation now and then finish reading this piece later. 

The Invitation is a horror movie, one of the more recent trend of high-end art house horror flicks we’ve been blessed with lately.  Overall, the 2010s have been a great decade for horror with the genres return to the blockbuster scene through big hits like The Conjuring, The Purge, or Insidious and conversely more thoughtful horror like It Follows, Starry Eyes, Babadook, and Witch. The plot of The Invitation is ingeniously deceptive. It plays into the film’s overall skill at keeping the audience off balanced and unsure of its direction and genre overall. 

The main character Will, played by Logan Marshall-Green, has been invited to a dinner party/reunion by his ex-wife 2 years after their marriage disintegrated in the wake of their son’s tragic death.  Will’s ex-wife Eden, played by Tammy Blanchard, has spent the last two years “healing” with her new husband David, played by Michiel Huisman, down in Mexico. From the start, things are awkward and tense given the old wounds opened by the reunion, but as the party goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that someone here isn’t right. 

That subtle offness is where The Invitation really shines and where director Karyn Kusama shows off how incredibly skilled she is at using audience familiarity to foster uncertainty. It’s a movie that knows you’re aware of both horror movie and indie drama conventions and takes great delight in walking the line between the two. It keeps you always on guard about whether the film will shake out to be The Strangers or My Dinner With Andre. This misdirection goes right down to the title, which is itself a clever twist. It’d be easy to think “the invitation” refers to the invitation extended to Will and his new girlfriend Kira, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, to re-enter this world he left behind. That’s not actually it. 

The title is actually in reference to a grief counseling service Eden and David joined in Mexico. That’s like a weird synthesis among The Secret, Scientology, and Jonestown. The slow-burn reveal of what the titular Invitation really is and just how wrong everyone involved with it has become is like a master class in slow revelation and suspense. More over, this is where The Invitation really finds its place in the broader horror consensus that’s come to represent societal anxiety in the 2010s. To get what I mean, it requires a bit of context and elaboration on the role horror movies play in the cultural psyche. 

Ever since horror movies moved away from adapting pre-existing monsters and inventing their own terrors of the night they’ve had to exist as reflection of cultural anxieties of the time. The best example of this comes from the horror films of the ‘50s that replaced Dracula and Frankenstein with horrors of the Atomic Age and inhuman invaders. At the time, the nation was engaged in one of the hotter periods of the Cold War, so all of our cultural bogeymen were either atomic in nature or linked to some invasion, whether it was overt like War of the Worlds or a secret replacement like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

By in large, however, this emphasis on horror monsters as cultural anxieties hasn’t really been in play for the last couple decades. The last major era for this phenomena was the ‘80s in which all our major bogeymen (Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Michael Meyers, etc.) were representative of the poor, disabled, and mentally ill that were sacrificed in the name of supercharging the middle class economy during the Reagan years. Conversely, blockbuster horror in the ‘90s was punctuated by the decade's tendency toward retrospection with the Scream franchise and that’s about it. 

There were good horror films in the ‘90s, most notably the explosion of excellent black horror movies like Candyman or Tales from the Hood. As far as the blockbuster scene, they might as well not exist. This was essentially a reflection of the ease that informed the ‘90s in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It was a time of American cultural hegemony and the blockbuster horror scene, which predominately exists to reflect the cultural fears and anxieties of middle class white people, reflected that. 

Given that set-up, it’d be logical to assume that the 2000s would bring a return to harsher horror in the wake of 9/11 and the realization that America wasn’t as safe as we’d all assumed. That’s not really what happened. In a very strange turn of events, American horror really didn’t adopt a trend or focus in the 2000s.  There was a smattering of new trends, yet the predominance of those came from foreign horror, like the blossoming interest in Japanese horror in the wake of The Ring or the torture porn subgenre that was launched by Australian horror film Saw. Things that would prove to be major trends by the decade's end like found footage or zombie films couldn’t find mainstream relevance in the 2000s. 

I suspect the main reason for this is that the 2000s really didn’t provide the country with easily adaptable bad guys. Terrorism is scary, but difficult to translate into a base monster concept or design without coming off crass, obvious, or insensitive. By 2005, the War in Iraq and the War on Terror were both starting to seem less and less noble or effective. That would certainly explain the prevalence of Final Destination as the largest American success of the 2000s, a film series with the greatest terror is a universe that’s aligned to kill you.

A lot of that has changed in recent years, mainly thanks to the culturally redefining period of 2007-2010. Stuff like the zombie craze and increased prevalence of found footage emerged and where The Invitation’s true bogeyman emerged into the cultural consciousness. While zombies and found footage work as horror reflections of cultural changes brought on by the growing Internet and gadget culture, the bigger socio-economic shift of this era came with the financial crash of 2008. Ideas like zombie banks, the war on the middle class, and the massively increased unemployment rate ended up colonizing the psyche of our culture to the point that people took to the streets in angry protest and occupation.

What does all this have to do with The Invitation?  As it turns out: everything. In fact, it has to do with a lot of the major art house horror hits and some of the mainstream horror of the 2010s. See, the actual villain of The Invitation turns out to essentially be rich white people with more money than sense, and that isn’t an isolated trend. More and more, the horror monsters that we most fear in the 2010s are those of economic luxury dehumanizing those without their same monetary means. 

In a way, it’s become the perfect inversion of the ‘80s slasher scene. Wherein we, the audience, were the ones benefiting from economic marginalization and dehumanization, so our slasher foes were figures of brutal but deserved vengeance. Now, the monsters have become symbols of the economic system that marginalizes the audience or embodiments of the people who directly benefit from the audience’s dehumanization. In addition to The Invitation and its sister film Starry Eyes (film revolving around a satanic Hollywood studio corrupting and destroying a young woman so as to mold her into their idealized form) you have films like It Follows or Attack the Block where the monsters at hand serve as the ravages of poverty itself. 

The best example of this is easily The Purge, one of the biggest horror franchise success of the 2010s. Its chosen villains are the moneyed rich killing the lower classes for fun and to stimulate the economy. It’s a social anxiety that extends across popular blockbusters and thoughtful art house films and even beyond that.  

After all, if any given era of horror can be defined by the monsters of the time that successful ingrain themselves into the popular consciousness, one need look no further than Slender Man to realize how widespread this fear is. Trust me, it’s not a coincidence that the seminal monster of the 2010s wears a business suit. 

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