Who Invited Them visits well-worn territory, but its novel navigation of these familiar trappings makes for an effectively discomfiting viewing experience.
The Covid pandemic and the resulting quarantine caused a lot of married couples to spend an ungodly amount of time together, which undoubtedly proved as therapeutic as it did destructive. There will certainly be studies in the years ahead detailing its effects, and they will be fascinating. Writer-director Duncan Birmingham’s thriller Who Invited Them has nothing to do with the recent pandemic, but is yet another example of a recent feature that uses the horror template as an excuse for an old-fashioned bout of marriage counseling, following in the footsteps of last year’s Happily and Held. To call such a trend a coincidence would seem rather unlikely, and one assumes we will be getting even more films of this nature in the years ahead, born out of a need to exorcise the demons that forced quality time created.
For its part, Who Invited Them takes a rather novel approach to this particular premise, using the conventions of the home invasion thriller to tackle one married couple’s long-buried resentments and frustrations. As the film opens, bougie thirty-something couple Adam (Ryan Hansen) and Margo (Melissa Tang) are settling into their newly purchased palatial home in the Hollywood Hills with their young son, Dylan (Kalo Moss). He’s a rather smug and self-satisfied corporate shill; she’s a complacent stay-at-home mom who long ago gave up her dreams of becoming a rock star. A housewarming party days later finds the couple surrounded by supposed friends who seem to actively dislike the pair, all of them eager to vacate the premises at their earliest convenience. However, two individuals in particular stick around long after last call, neither of whom look familiar to Adam and Margo. They eventually introduce themselves as their new neighbors, Tom (Timothy Granaderos) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld), a gorgeous and swanky young couple who carry an enviable aura of both exoticism and self-assurance, one that instantly intoxicates Adam and Margo. The two couples proceed to let loose, get drunk, and even do a few lines of cocaine, while Tom and Sasha begin to insidiously pit their new friends against one another through a series of carefully calculated scenarios and what could be best described as Socratic questioning. It’s clear that something is not right with this new pair, yet their true motivations remain clouded, even as punches are thrown and dead hamsters are ingested.
Who Invited Them has a twist up its sleeve, one so obvious that it initially comes across as borderline insulting. But in a rather surprising development, Birmingham uses that apparency to the film’s advantage, creating a mounting sense of tension and dread as the viewer desperately anticipates the other shoe’s inevitable drop. As each new drink is poured, yet another revelation about Adam and Margo’s relationship is revealed; he sees her as jealous of his own success and desperate to clip his wings, while she views him as a controlling and manipulative man-child unable to exert anything resembling authority. That these fucked-up therapy sessions are as unsettling and nerve-wracking as anything after The Big Reveal is a credit to Birmingham, who shows an assured hand in his feature directorial debut. He also reveals a knack for cringe comedy, the kind where feelings of such discomfort are crafted so that the laughs practically stick in the throat; it’s no surprise to discover that he wrote for Marc Maron’s IFC television series a decade earlier, although his thoughts on gun control and ownership here are… perplexing. He gets a big assist from his seasoned cast, all television pros who quite clearly relish the opportunity to participate in some big screen bad behavior, with Hansen — of Veronica Mars and Party Down fame — a particular standout as he continues to find new depths and textures in his never-ending portrayal of smug douche bags. Who Invited Them doesn’t go anywhere particularly surprising, but as a novel deployment of a well-worn subgenre, the film hits it mark, enough so that those suffering from potential marital woes might want to turn down this particular invitation.
You can currently stream Duncan Birmingham’s Who Invited Them on Shudder.