Accepting 'The Invitation': Karyn Kusama bucks genre norms with her chilling latest

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The Babadook. Goodnight, Mommy. The Witch. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The last few years have given us something of a Renaissance of thoughtful, intelligent independent horror films that rely more on ideas and artistry than splatter and jump scares. The latest film to enter that pantheon is Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, about a man (Logan Marshall-Green) attending a dinner party hosted at his old house by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband (Michiel Huisman).

Things start out bad—the air is thick with the shared loss that drove Will and Tammy apart in the first place, though their friends and Will’s new girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) try to keep things upbeat—and get worse. The atmosphere suffuses with dread, lensed for maximum anxiety-producing effect by DP Bobby Shore and augmented by a score from Theodore Shapiro, as Will comes to believe that everything is not as it appears. More than that, I can’t say. The Invitation is a film that you really shouldn’t know much about going in. That’s by design, explains Kusama: “We were playing with the idea of multiple outcomes, multiple realities that could seem possible... The audience is sort of asked to participate in what kind of movie it is they’re watching. Are they watching a drama? Are they watching a mystery thriller? Will it become a horror film? Is it supernatural?”

No answers here—you’ll have to watch The Invitation when Drafthouse Films releases it in theatres and on VOD on April 8th—but suffice to say that screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have crafted a story that doesn’t conform to Hollywood’s love of cookie-cutter storytelling, which favors films that don’t buck genre expectations. (Otherwise, how else are you supposed to make a trailer explaining exactly what the movie is in 2:30 or less? See Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, a Gothic horror romance that Universal decided to market as a more palatable haunted house horror thriller.)

Kusama has experience working both inside and outside of the studio system. Her first film, the critically acclaimed (and Sundance award-winning) Girlfight, launched both Kusama’s career and that of star Michelle Rodriguez. From there, Kusama went Hollywood, directing Aeon Flux and the Diablo Cody-penned Jennifer’s Body back-to-back. Neither film got much traction with critics or audiences, though it’s worth noting that in the seven years since its release Jennifer’s Body has begun amassing a cult following. Like many other directors in this golden age of television, Kusama has gravitated to the small screen, directing episodes of “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Billions” and “The Man in the High Castle” in addition to her continued film work, which includes an entry in the upcoming female-based horror anthology XX.

The way The Invitation elides easy description means Kusama doesn’t think she could have made it in the studio system. “The structure of the film is probably too challenging for most studio philosophies, at least as I see them right now,” she explains. “A film like, say, a Something Wild, which 25 years ago started as one genre and then seriously derailed into something else, is something that I don’t really see happening anymore in most studio films… [The Invitation] operates on its own timetable, its own clock, in the sense of how much it’s willing to reveal to the audience. And that requires a single-minded sense of purpose which I think is difficult to maintain in a lot of studio projects, at least the ones that I’ve encountered or the ones that I’ve heard about. I feel like it’s a rare filmmaker that’s allowed to be an artist within that system.”

Drafthouse Films, by contrast, has done an excellent job at “attempting to give the audience a sense of the mystery and mayhem that ensues in the film without really answering the hows and the whys of getting there. And I recognize it’s a huge challenge. But ideally people who love movies and love to see movies in theatres should go into the movie without knowing very much, if they can.”

As someone who admires Kusama’s work and her vocal support of diversity in the film industry (she was one of the filmmakers who contributed to the New York Times’ excellent piece on What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (*If you’re not a straight white man)), I was thrilled to be able to speak with Kusama about one of my favorite subjects: female villains.  Not to say that The Invitation necessarily has a female villain—see above, re: how you really shouldn’t know anything about this movie going in—but it’s hardly spoilery to say that any shady dealings in The Invitation aren’t confined to one particular gender.

“There’s this notion that somehow men own transgression as a narrative tool. That diminishes all of humanity, if that’s how we see the world,” Kusama argues. “Women have to be allowed their vulnerability, their monstrousness, their heroics. They have to have all of those qualities, too.” Everybody loves a good antihero, but while Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle are often glorified for their bad behavior, female characters who struggle with moral dilemmas are rarely afforded the same leeway. A certain (and vocal) segment of Breaking Bad fans may gleefully lap up the misadventures of chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer Walter White week after week, but whoo boy, that Skyler. What a bitch.

Part of the problem, Kusama argues, is that the burden of female representation falls on a relatively small number of characters. “There’s so little to choose from that it feels like we have to police every image of women that gets out there. And yet, we don’t hold men and male characters to the same scrutiny. That strikes me as very problematic.” Taken to its logical conclusion, we get thinkpieces galore dissecting whether the unapologetic and undeniably gendered (hey there, false rape accusations) villainy of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl means the film, or David Fincher, or the original book by Gillian Flynn, is misogynist.

“I actually really loved the fact that that character is undeniably the smartest person in the narrative,” Kusama says. “She’s horrible, but why do we celebrate Hannibal Lecter and agonize over the existence of this woman?” Though speaking about Amazing Amy, Kusama could easily be referring to Jennifer’s Body’s eponymous demonic man-eater (literally), who depending on who you speak to is either a paragon of exploitation or empowerment. “Can’t we just delight in the fact that she is a really bad person and find value in the depiction of a character whose transgressions reach so far and so deep that she inevitably becomes the center of the story? Can’t we just celebrate that?”