A Sea Of Red Lanterns: The Invitation Explained
There’s one recurring shade of red helping connect the dots in Karyn Kusama’s 2015 movie The Invitation.
On the drive to what is expected to be an awkward dinner party, protagonist Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) hit a coyote. The animal is in agony. A crimson stream running through his fur, there’s but one humane thing to do: put an end to its sufferings. Will reluctantly proceeds to smash its skull with a pipe, much to Kira’s horror, and off they go.
This prologue sets the tone for the massacre awaiting the protagonists. Will and Kira are heading to a suspiciously timed reunion organized by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman). Will and Eden’s longtime friends Tommy (Mike Doyle), Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso), Ben (Jay Larson), Claire (Marieh Delfino), and Gina (Michelle Krusiec) are there, too, together with two of Eden’s new pals, Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch).
Stepping into what used to be his home, nestled on the Hollywood Hills, is a traumatizing event in itself for Will. Two years prior, the couple’s son Ty died, with a grief-stricken Eden also attempting suicide shortly afterward.
It is soon revealed that Eden, David, and their two friends are all part of a grief group called The Invitation. A cult, that is. Finding peace and relief from one’s earthly sorrows through death is the mission of this circle. A grim prospect, yet not quite as grim as the surprise Eden has in store for her guests.
Eden’s House Is A Prison In ‘The Invitation’
Written by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay, The Invitation is a slow-burning, oppressive anatomy of grief.
Will and Eden are on the opposite side of the grief-processing continuum. He’s aware he won’t be able to let go of this tragedy, perhaps ever. She’s in full denial, a mystical furor in her eyes and a prim demeanor concealing unspeakable thoughts.
The Invitation’s ritual — initiated, unbeknownst to the audience, by David lighting a red lantern in the garden — calls for a sacrifice. The cult’s murder-suicide plot is the pièce de resistance for Eden’s unknowing loved ones. And, much like revenge, this masterplan is a dish best served cold.
Viewers are welcomed into a beautiful house that is, extremely slowly but surely, turning into a cage. Kusama’s movie follows Will as he wanders around this classy prison made of wood and glass, with staircases and a myriad of rooms giving off the impression that the house has always been too big. The protagonist takes a trip down memory lane while grappling with his own pain and a gut instinct: something terrible is about to happen. But when? And are guests even allowed to leave before dessert?
Can We Leave Yet?
Two of the most nerve-racking moments of The Invitation revolve around going in and out of the house.
Will is extremely uneasy at Gina’s boyfriend Choi (Karl Yune) tardiness. As time passes, the protagonist is convinced something terrible must have happened to his friend. Contrary to what one would assume in a similar situation, Will thinks Choi has met a horrible fate inside the house. This belief is reinforced by a voice message from Choi, where he says he was early and undecided about whether or not to go down the hill to buy dessert.
Uncomfortable during a weird game of confessions, Claire wants to leave. Eden tries to make her stay, but Will intervenes to back his friend. Claire manages to go when Pruitt — that has just come out as a recovering alcoholic who beat his wife to death — announces he is parked right behind her car. They both go out, with a concerned Will observing them through the window. It’s a split second and Will, distracted by David, loses sight of Claire. When Pruitt returns to the house, the audience doesn’t know if the woman is still alive.
Finally, Choi shows up. His arrival defuses the tension and lulls Will and the viewer into a false sense of security. But that is the beginning of the end.
Religious Symbolism In ‘The Invitation’
The Invitation ties up all the loose ends in a hectic finale following an unnerving, masterful buildup.
The film is imbued with religious symbolism. Just like the Virgin Mary, Eden (also a biblical name) is grieving the loss of her son. The comparison is uncanny, with Eden’s silky, white gown and her long locks parted in the middle turning her into a Madonna waiting to ascend. But not before having taken everyone down with her.
This third act kicks off with a dinner resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. A silent juxtaposition of disturbing closeups served by an eerie score, this less sacred meal ends up on a bitter note when Eden offers cake with a side of poison.
She slices it to reveal its gooey, red filling, yet another chromatic detail foreshadowing what’s next. The color palette is reinforced by the wine she wants everyone to drink. The gang’s toast is the signal. Will smashes his friends’ glasses but it’s too late: Gina has already downed the poisoned liquor. As Miguel is trying to give her CPR, David shoots him. It’s on.
The Red Lanterns
The last twenty minutes of The Invitation are perfectly executed. Kusama’s movie goes all in for a slasher final act, amping up the claustrophobia.
At the end of this domestic slaughter, Will, Kira, Tommy, and a badly injured Eden survive. While Claire’s fate is somewhat ambiguous, Kusama confirmed she didn’t make it. In a deleted scene, Pruitt shoots Claire, leaving her to die in the bushes outside the house. Including this in the theatrical cut, however, would have made the cultists’ intentions apparent early on, weakening the overall paranoid effect.
As for Eden, she has shot herself in the stomach rather than pulling the trigger on her ex-husband. This final glimpse of humanity allows Will to re-establish a connection with her. Eden, on the other hand, appeals to Will’s compassion by admitting to the grief she had been trying to bottle up for so long. Like the coyote in the prologue, she dies before his eyes, with a mutual understanding and some form of forgiveness.
The movie seems to provide closure but this assumption is immediately challenged by a horrifying discovery. In one of the final shots, the camera stays on Will and Kira holding hands just like Marla and Tyler at the end of Fight Club. This reflection on the devastation both couples have created make both endings far darker than they could have been. The Invitation packs a bleaker punch, if possible.
Standing next to the red lantern David had lit earlier in the movie, Will notices a swarm of flickering crimson lights peppering the hills. This wasn’t an isolated incident, but part of a much bigger, gruesome plan by those in the cult. The faint sound of people screaming from the nearby properties is hard to process and makes The Invitation’s ending one that will haunt you for days.
Stefania Sarrubba is a feminist entertainment writer based in London, UK. Traumatized at an early age by Tim Curry’s Pennywise and Dario Argento’s films, she grew up convinced horror wasn’t her thing. Until she sank her teeth into cannibal movies with a female protagonist. Yum.