“One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness,” wrote Harold Pinter in his book Various Voices. This has been the modus operandi for a whole host of plays and films which take place in one setting and with just a handful of characters, sometimes called bottle movies or just one-act plays. Who Invited Them is a new horror comedy addition to this fine lineage of dialogue-heavy psychological dramas, though it isn’t exactly scary, and it’s not very funny.
The new Shudder movie could be called a ‘discomfort drama,’ kind of like Todd Solondz or Harmony Korine’s work, but not as wonderful as the former or weird as the latter. There’s about ten minutes of horror in Who Invited Them, and the rest is a playful chamber drama that escalates its uncomfortable tension for a solid hour as uninvited guests crash a housewarming party, befriending the hosts but eventually refusing to leave.
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Wicked Party Crashers in Who Invited Them
Adam and Margo just bought a house nobody thinks they can afford. “We deserve this, we earned this,” Adam tells his wife. “Do we?” she asks, revealing the class-conscious intentions of this domestic discomfort drama. It’s a luxurious, hyper-modern house in the Hollywood Hills that Adam bought for a steal, due to the fact that a husband and wife killed each other in the ‘murder house’ 17 years prior. He hasn’t disclosed all this information to Margo, though, and it’s not the only unspoken secret between them.
It’s clear that this marriage has some realistic issues. Adam is pathetically desperate to impress everybody, always yearning to be seen as cool but unaware that trying to be cool is the least cool thing you could do. Margo seems to have some bitter resentments toward her husband, harboring regrets about the musical career she gave up to start a family with him. They host a housewarming party where she hides in the kitchen and Adam mingles, cracking bad half-jokes and blowing his own horn.
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When the party dies down, they realize that two people haven’t left yet, exiting gracelessly out of the bathroom where they were snorting cocaine. Adam and Margo don’t recognize them whatsoever and try to kick them out before realizing that these are their new neighbors in the Hills, a posh, successful model of the kind of life Adam wants. They exhibit the kind of psychotic confidence only seen in CEOs and politicians, and when they break out the cocaine and whiskey, the party lasts longer than Adam and Margo had planned.
Uncomfortable Conversations and Awful People
These uninvited guests are Tom and Sasha, handsome elitists who toss aside mentions of private doctors and big business deals with disgusting nonchalance. From here, Who Invited Them is essentially a set of conversations stitched together as the four people interact in different combinations.
Tom and Adam drink an Old Fashioned (or three) and discuss business, the house’s murderous history, and the possibility of group sex, while Sasha and Margo do lines of cocaine, talk about Margo’s past, and call up her ex-boyfriend and former band member. It’s clear that Tom and Sasha are quietly manipulating their hosts in a way that will create some discomfort when Adam and Margo reconvene. Tom and Sasha are nasty little people, and Adam and Margo aren’t much better, and Who Invited Them is gleeful about watching them destroy each other. Secrets are revealed, confrontations are had, and Tom and Sasha snicker in the background, pulling the puppet strings.
Writer/director Duncan Burmingham (who wrote for the dramedy series Maron and made the short horror film Exterminator) keeps things tightly claustrophobic despite the wide expanses of the house. The frame is frequently crowded with the four bodies, or filmed in narrow hallways or garages, building the uncomfortable feeling that something is wrong here. As a result, the movie’s visuals are very effective (thanks also to cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung); even if there isn’t much happening on the surface of the film, its aesthetic is definitely appropriate for its discomfort.
The Great Cast of Who Invited Them
The film lives or dies based on its performances, seeing as Who Invited Them is essentially a power play between four people. Perry Mattfield (also excellent in the CW series In the Dark) is great as Sasha, a quietly intimidating woman, and when Tom says, “she can smell weakness,” the audience believes him. Timothy Granaderos (13 Reasons Why) exudes smug malice as Tom, almost too believable as this overconfident creep. These two actors are so good that Who Invited Them sometimes becomes frustrating simply because you hate these people so much and don’t want to see them ‘win,’ whatever winning means in this world.
Melissa Tang (The Kominsky Method) is great as Margo, standing out the most as a believable character whose reserved complacency is shattered by drugs and alcohol, unleashing the years of resentment and anger she’s been harboring. She does not turn into a nice person here but arguably reveals who she really is, which is possibly the whole point of Who Invited Them — the classy veneer of upper-class elites hides painfully mediocre, unhappy, and hypocritical lives beneath its shiny artifice.
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Adam is played by Ryan Hansen, an underrated actor who was perfect as the frat boy idiot in the brilliant and canceled-too-soon Party Down (fortunately receiving a revival). Hansen is handsome, and God bless him, that may be his downfall in Hollywood. They say Owen Wilson was too handsome to get any parts until he broke his nose, and that George Clooney was the same way until he aged past 40.
Hansen is very good here, balancing Adam’s objectively lame personality and insecurities with a man who is beginning to feel genuinely threatened and afraid, deciding how to fight back. While he’s had some great work on television (from Veronica Mars to 2 Broke Girls), hopefully, Hansen will get more leading man opportunities in the future, even if he has to break his nose to do so.
Strong Acting and a Weak Script in New Shudder Movie
Ultimately, Who Invited Them thinks it’s smarter than it really is. It wants to deconstruct the nuclear family and critique social hierarchies and hypocrisy, but it doesn’t really know how; it’s more interested in smiling at the discomfort it unleashes. It’s also extremely obvious about its supposedly shocking twist, which becomes apparent immediately. Of course, a film doesn’t need a Shyamalan-style twist to work in order to be good, but Who Invited Them is one of those films wherein people behave in a way that’s so clearly scripted, making choices or forgetting things unrealistically in order to advance the plot.
Still, though, it’s fun to watch these actors play off each other and to see the power dynamics that are being manipulated and exploited. It’s occasionally infuriating, but you can only really hate a character if they’re well-acted, so the level of contempt the viewer may have for these people is arguably complimentary. The ten minutes of actual horror in the film is pretty good, though again, extremely obvious despite its effective direction and tense editing. Burmingham has a lot of skill as a director, and these actors are great, but its script creates more of a quiet shindig than a raging party. In the end, Who Invited Them is a lot of dialogue in search of a purpose, well-spoken and well-performed but only barely concealing its nakedness.
Who Invited Them will be streaming on Shudder starting Sep. 1st.