Interview | Karyn Kusama on ‘The Invitation,’ Horror Movies for Adults

Karyn Kusama wants to scare people, not just teenagers. In that respect her new film The Invitation is a remarkable achievement. The story of a man (Logan Marshall-Green) invited back to his ex-wife’s house for a party, still wrestling with the tragic death of their child together, Karyn Kusama’s film already pulls anxiety out of audiences who are mature enough to understand those complicated emotions. Then, as our protagonist scans the room, he notices certain details about the guests and the house that make him scared for his own life. Then again, maybe he’s just projecting. In The Invitation, it could go either way.

I originally spoke to Karyn Kusama about The Invitation at SXSW 2015, but due to the punishing logistics of the festival I hadn’t seen her film yet. Now that I have finally watched The Invitation I was eager to get the filmmaker on the phone to talk about making horror movies for adults in a market that’s over-saturated with teenaged tales, and to relate this new phase in her career to her previous horror feature Jennifer’s Body, which had more to say about our teen years than most other scary movies combined.

The Invitation arrives in select theaters and VOD on April 8, 2016.

Drafthouse Films

Drafthouse Films

Crave: It’s really great to talk to you about this, because a year ago, I interviewed about The Invitation at SXSW, but I hadn’t seen the film yet, and I was so embarrassed. But you were wonderful, and now that I have seen it I can tell you that this movie is amazing.

Karyn Kusama: Oh wow! Thanks!

It’s a fantastic thriller, but like the best thrillers, it’s not about the thrills. It’s a very potent film, I thought, on the topic of grief. Which is something a lot of films shy away from in a real context.

Yeah. Yeah, I mean that’s what attracted me to it was that it felt, at least for me, like I had a way into the material that could feel very real and emotionally satisfying and visceral. And also the emotional context of the film could actually justifiably lead the style and lead the genre of the film, lead the suspense and not root it, in a way. So it’s really nice to be able to make a movie where it feels like it delivers on certain genre tropes but on the other hand, first and foremost, I see it as an emotionally satisfying movie.

You have, from a genre perspective, what I would think of as “plausible deniability.”

[Laughs.] Yes!

Because seriously, about halfway through this movie you could say that there’s no suspense here, this is actually just a serious drama about people dealing with tragedy in different ways, and one of them got paranoid but it could actually turn out okay. You could have gone that route.

You know, it’s interesting because we wanted to keep even that possibility alive, perhaps at the frustration that we may face of some audience members. We wanted it to feel like the night was so perched on an edge that anything felt possible. That it feels like it’s going to fall into something else, but we can’t really identify what that’s going to be.

So I’m glad to hear that in some ways it’s not just a chaotic outcome that you might predict from the movie, but that there is even the teasing possibility that nothing will happen, you know? I think that’s what our brain does to us in states of high anxiety. I think that it plays a bunch of outcomes in front of us and plays tricks on us a little bit, and I wanted to I guess mirror that state of being for the audience in some way.

Drafthouse Films

Drafthouse Films

You say it’s possible that nothing could happen, and yet even if quote-unquote “nothing” happened, it seems like this could still be a satisfying dramatic experience. Oftentimes we look at films that have a twist or a reversal, and if they didn’t have that twist boy would that movie have stunk.

[Laughs.] Right, well I’m glad to hear that. I think the film is not necessarily for everybody. I think some genre lovers kind of want their genre a little bit more defined, and they want their genre tropes earlier. I hold back quite a bit but that’s the movie I wanted to make, so I’m very happy to hear that you responded to it in this way.

I think of something you told me at SXSW last year, where you had mentioned that you had wanted to make a suspenseful film or even a horror film for adults, that mature people could respond to.

Yeah.

I’m in my thirties now. I wonder how I would have responded to this when I was fifteen. Would I have been bored or would I have been ahead of my time?

Yeah, I mean it’s sort of a question I’ve asked myself as well. I think for me, the subject matter and the concerns of the film do feel particularly grown up to me, somehow. I do feel like I had been craving the opportunity to make a film that had a lot of maturity, and not even in that it was looking at the lives of grown-ups and people in their thirties and forties and even fifties, in the case of the film, but also that the craft behind it could have maturity and could have a sense of experience brought to bear on the filmmaking. I’m just so relieved I got the chance to try that, you know, and sort of be the grown up that I actually am. [Laughs.] If that makes sense?

It makes me wonder: you made what I thought was a great high school horror movie, Jennifer’s Body…

Oh, thank you…

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

When you were making that film, were you trying to capture the teenaged mindset or were you approaching it from the perspective of someone who was older, looking back at adolescence?

Oh, that’s such a good question. I mean, I think there’s something inevitably winking about that movie. But one thing I really am fond of about the movie, and had always felt even just reading the script, was that it was imagining a world where teenagers are really smart, actually. They might do dumb things and they might behave horribly to one another but their inner life is actually pretty sophisticated, and that to me felt like a mirror of real life. Like, in the end, even though when I was a teenager I think I felt like there was so much I was clueless about, there were other things I felt like such an expert on!

I think that sense of confidence, somehow, or the sense of willful denial about even just something like aging – just not even letting an idea like that enter your brain – there’s a scary intelligence to that, a kind of survivalist intelligence to that mindset. So I felt like I was able to insert myself from an adult perspective in these kind of smart girls, even though a lot of what I was exploring was about the way girls undermine each other and sabotage each other and frankly hurt each other, which I think is a sort of phenomenon you see starting in high school and one just hopes you graduate out of it. But it doesn’t always happen.

When you look at, for example, the plot of The Invitation – which is less about that burgeoning confidence we feel in high school and more about how lost we are when we are supposed to be mature, controlled adults – are you looking at it from that perspective now? Do you have something to say about it or do you feel as lost as anyone else on these topics?

You know, one of the uncertain pleasures of adulthood for me has really been about confronting how little I know about the world, and how much much completely baffles me about the world and human behavior. So in a funny way it’s like I’ve had some time to gather experience and to grow in some respects as an artist, and just sort of sharpen the knives in my toolbox, so to speak. But part of the experience of doing that has also included really embracing the mysteries of the world. The fact that there’s so much about the world I don’t understand.

So I feel like it actually prepared me better to have taken this time to make other films, and to have a couple movies be more about distinctly young characters. Now I feel ready to be tackling adulthood, in many respects, because I’m really face-to-face with the life and death questions of it, and the terror of it. So it’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I adequately answered it.

Drafthouse Films

Drafthouse Films

You’re fine. It raises a question for me. You’re involved in an upcoming film called XX… it’s my understand that it’s an anthology film in which you created your horror short on your own terms. I’m curious what sort of material you chose to approach, in that context?

Well, that’s very interesting. I actually sort of took what I think has become like horror origin stories – like Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, even to some degree The Exorcist – and I really focused on the mother. I created a story that was really focusing on a mother who has a 17-year-old boy on the verge of turning 18, and quote, “officially entering manhood.” It’s really a short film about being a middle-aged woman looking at your teenaged son and not recognizing yourself in him anymore. What does that mean, and who is that boy? Who is that man now in front of you?

So in many respects, that’s interesting that you ask. I feel like, as somebody who has a nine-year-old son now, myself, being a parent and getting older has definitely informed the anxieties I choose to focus on, for sure.

Obviously XX is a horror movie, but that’s the kind of story you could have done in a very “feel good,” Chris Columbus sort of fashion. What do you think we get out of it by taking the anxiety to its logical conclusion, that kind of fear…?

For me, I guess I feel like the notion of “feel good” entertainment… I’m all for it but I just think you really, really, really have to earn it. I’m not sure I have a lot of movies in me where I see a world that earns it. To me, when I look at The Invitation, even though I think the film goes to what I hope is a pretty terrifying conclusion and ends on an expansively dark note, I hope there’s a sense of… and again, I’m going to put “feel good” yet again in quotes… I hope there’s the “feel good” quality of seeing a satisfying story that might reveal something about us, or might reveal something about humanity.

So for me, it’s so funny. I would love to make lighter entertainments that have you sort of hopping and skipping and jumping out of the theater, but part of me just doesn’t know how much I believe in that, as much as I want to. It may not be my strength to try and conjure visions of that kind of world, you know?

I’m trying to imagine a Karyn Kusama Air Bud movie…

[Laughs.] Yeah! I immediately pictured an alien entering my body and sort of taking over from there. Like, that would be the ultimate Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, is me doing an Air Bud movie.

Top Photo: Tibrina Hobson / Getty Images

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.