Shudder film review: Who Invited Them
Careful building of tension8
Anton Bitel | On 01, Sep 2022
Director: Duncan Birmingham
Cast: Perry Mattfeld, Ryan Hansen, Timothy Granaderos, Melissa Tang, Judy Kain
A little boy’s feet walk through a pink-lit corridor at night, dragging a toy monkey with him, and upstairs to an orange-lit door. “Mum? Dad?”, the boys says, knocking. “Hello? I can hear you. Come on, open up.” As he knocks again, he sees blood pouring from under the door.
If this opening scene of writer/director Duncan Birmingham’s feature debut Who Invited Them announces horror, that is because it is a literal nightmare, from which six-year-old Dylan (Kalo Moss) wakes terrified in his bed. Dylan has just moved with his parents, Margo (Melissa Tang) and Adam (Ryan Hansen), into a luxurious home in the Hollywood Hills, and has been having bad dreams ever since. Whether he is suffering “new house jitters” or picking up on his mother’s anxieties that they may be living way beyond their means, or he’s just taking in the negative vibe of this house with a history, Dylan’s recurrent nightmares – all involving his parents being harmed – cast a long shadow over what follows, as even the most innocuous of exchanges and interactions assume a sinister edge, and as the secrets of this affluent neighbourhood will gradually reveal themselves.
Adam and Margo are loving, but over one testing night as they hold a house-warming party while Dylan is at a sleepover across town, the tensions between them will come to the fore. Ambitious but also insecure and desperate for validation, Adam has invited colleagues and bosses from his workplace rather than actual friends, and is a little too obviously needy in his efforts to impress them, while Margo feels alienated from most of the guests, and can hear what a “smug prick” some of the guests think her husband is. She also has mixed feelings about the wild years and budding musical career that she has had to put behind her to look after Dylan and support Adam in his career. Adam pays no attention to Margo during the party proper, but he does have a wandering eye – and although he has never cheated on his wife, he has not been entirely honest with her about the reason their enviable new home was on the market for so low a price.
Decompressing after the party, Adam and Margo discuss a “super slick couple” who caught both their eyes, not least because, as Margo observes, they “looked like they were going to a sexy funeral”. They are surprised to discover that neither of them had invited, or even knows, this couple, and then are even more surprised when they realise that the two gatecrashers, Tom (Timothy Granaderos) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld), are still in the house, having been doing coke in the bathroom. It is a strange situation, but once Adam learns that the couple are their new next-door neighbours, and that Tom is well-connected with the LA élite, he convinces the reluctant Margo that the four of them should engage in an afterparty. As the drinking continues, it is unclear if smooth-tongued Tom and seductive Sasha are making sport of their new neighbours or want to swing with them, or indeed if their intentions are more malicious, but as they expertly push Adam and Margo’s buttons and pit them against one another, they are also putting them through a twisted kind of couple’s therapy, where confrontations are had and bitter truths come out. This long dark night will bring Adam and Margo closer together, as they come to reevaluate what they have and what they want out of their relationship.
There seem to be two key cinematic influences on Who Invited Them, both similarly set in the Hollywood Hills: Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, with its single-night setting, its traumatising scene of roadkill, and its dinner party gone very, very wrong, and EL Katz’s Cheap Thrills, in which a well-heeled couple messes for fun with two people who want what they have. Certainly, Birmingham is concerned with issues of class aspiration and upward mobility – but as Tom and Sasha play these funny games with their hosts, they are also recreating a past trauma, and revealing the immense fragility of their own (and of any) family. At the beginning of the film, Margo feels that she is being watched in her new home – but by the end it is Adam, on notice and always looking over his shoulder.
This review was originally published during FrightFest 2022