I first saw Karyn Kusama’s elegant, slow-burn horror film The Invitation at the 2015 Stanley Film Festival. In my opinion, it tied with The Final Girls as the best of the festival. While it is slow-burn, it is never lacking interest, and the slow buildup explodes into violence in the last 20 minutes. Rest assured, there are spoilers ahead.
We are first introduced to Will, who is grief-stricken following the accidental death of his son two years ago. Will and his girlfriend receive a dinner party invitation from Will’s ex, Eden, and her current husband. Despite not feeling social, Will accepts the invitation, and is reunited with several old friends and two mysterious newcomers, Sadie and Pruitt. As the evening progresses, Will can’t shake the suspicion that something is terribly wrong. As in many horror movies, his suspicions are proven valid.
The Invitation has many layers. The first is that the characters are endangered by their own politeness. Will is not the only one to notice something “off,” but the other guests are, for the most part, too polite to say anything. Eden and her new husband David spout hollow rhetoric about how suffering is optional, play an unsettling cult recruitment video for the guests, and introduce a party game designed to break down their guests’ inhibitions. Even more unnerving are their new friends Sadie and Pruitt, who seem to have no filters or sense of appropriate boundaries. One character, a tenured professor, decides to leave during the game and it’s not clear in the film itself whether she manages a safe escape. In the Stanley Film Festival Q&A session, Karyn Kusama stated that the character was both “smart and dead,” that is, she was smart to leave but was indeed murdered offscreen.
The film is a thoughtful depiction of the arrogance and toxicity of cults. In an interview with Vox.com, Kusama states, “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….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.” Indeed, the cult depicted in The Invitation seems generic in many respects. It claim to offer its members a reprieve from suffering and some sort of blissful reunion with loved ones in the afterlife.
The fact it is a suicide cult is the only fringe element, because its tenants appear to be the distillation of society’s most treasured values, the most problematic of which is the glorification of positive thinking. Ultimately, it’s positive thinking that drives the cultists to murder, and positive thinking that causes the victims to endanger their own lives. The former desperately want to stifle their grief in favor of entering a blissful afterlife. The latter choose to ignore obvious signs of trouble, because they want to give their friends the benefit of the doubt.
In contrast, there is Will, who is so consumed by depression and grief that he can’t play these games, or even put up a positive front. In an interview with Nick Allen of rogerebert.com, Kusama posed the question, “What does that mean—not just for him, but for us as a larger society—what does it mean to negate our pain, or to seeing that as useless? What it boils down to for me is that it’s pretty horrifying.” As it turns out, studies indicate that mildly depressed people are more accurate in assessing certain situations, and fear is a vital survival signal, as discussed in Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, but perhaps the most thorough defense of negativity was presented by Thomas Ligotti in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Will is barely tolerated by the rest of the group because of his depression, social anxiety, and paranoia, but these are the things that ultimately save his life. Furthermore, Will’s expression of his pain is authentic, unlike the brainwashed and chemical-induced “happiness” of the cult members. In The Invitation, grief and trauma cannot be rushed or “spiritually bypassed,” but have to be fully felt and processed to eventually heal.