Regardless of how much they might suggest otherwise, no one wants to be seen as uncool. Who Invited Them, the new horror comedy from writer-director Duncan Birmingham, understands that. To its credit, the film also understands that a person’s desire to be accepted and welcomed by those they admire can, in certain instances, lead them to ignore their own instincts and perform acts that they wouldn’t normally consider doing.
Consequently, while Who Invited Them never quite reaches the heights it would need to in order to be considered one of this year’s genre gems, it does manage to steal a trick from every great horror movie’s playbook. The film, which premieres exclusively on Shudder this week, weaponizes its characters’ core desires and forces them into a situation that only grows weirder and more distressing the further into its runtime Who Invited Them gets.
In doing so, the film delivers more than its fair share of the kind of “don’t go in there!” moments that the horror genre has become known for over the years. But unlike a lot of mainstream horror movies, Who Invited Them knows that audiences will accept it when a character, say, walks willingly into an obviously dangerous room so long as they understand what drives them to do so.
In the case of Who Invited Them, it’s the yearning Adam (Ryan Hansen) feels to be seen as a legitimate member of the Hollywood Hills elite that leads him and his wife, Margo (Melissa Tang), to so easily welcome a pair of total strangers into their home. After introducing themselves as Margo and Adam’s new next-door neighbors, the strangers in question, Tom (Timothy Granaderos) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld), talk Hansen and Tang’s unsuspecting newcomers into hosting a late-night hang-out session full of alcohol, music, and psychological manipulation.
Building from there, Who Invited Them quickly evolves into a fun, charmingly low-budget spin on the kind of home invasion thrillers that horror fans have become very familiar with over the years. Birmingham’s script helps it become that by making it immediately clear that Tom and Sasha’s reasons for showing up at Adam and Margo’s house aren’t as innocent as they claim. The director does so without also prematurely giving away the purpose of the couple’s visit, which allows Who Invited Them to keep viewers on their back foot for most of the film’s story.
That’s one of Who Invited Them‘s more impressive achievements, but also a necessary one. If Tom and Sasha’s actual intentions were revealed too early, most of the suspense would be removed from their prolonged invasion of Adam and Margo’s lives. Although the film’s climactic revelations about Tom and Sasha are fairly predictable as well, Birmingham does a good job of making viewers feel Adam and Margo’s growing confusion, which prevents the intensity of the conflict between Who Invited Them‘s four leads from ever deflating.
It’s in the film’s opening sequence, which follows Adam and Margo’s young son as a late-night search for his parents gradually turns into a nightmare, that Who Invited Them also feels the most like a straightforward horror story. These first few minutes inject the film with a sense of horror and tension that Birmingham manages to sustain for most of its 80-minute runtime. In fact, as far as prologues go, Who Invited Them’s unnerving first scene might rank as one of the best cold opens of any of this year’s horror films.
Who Invited Them does, of course, move away quite a bit from the dark tone of its opening sequence by quickly adding shades of comedy and absurdity to its story. The performances given by the film’s four leads, in turn, reflect the duality of Who Invited Them’s tone. For their parts, Hansen and Granaderos constantly ham it up in front of the camera as the film’s two primary male figures, turning in performances that feel perfectly suited for Who Invited Them’s funnier moments.
Opposite them, Mattfeld and Tang turn in similarly heightened but more emotionally layered performances as Sasha and Margo. Out of the film’s four leads, Mattfeld, in particular, seems to be the most suited for Who Invited Them’s darkly funny tone. Her tongue-in-cheek, self-aware performance as Sasha is at the center of many of the film’s best scenes, including one private interaction between her and Tang that effectively combines, of all things, a set of golf clubs and a drunken phone call to one of Margo’s former band members.
The performances given by Mattfeld and Co. help root Who Invited Them in one consistent, humorously dark tonal space. That’s especially true in the moments when Birmingham’s script bends over backward to try to maintain the film’s underlying tension by leaving the confines of Margo and Adam’s home in order to follow one of their friends, Teeny (Tipper Newton), on a superfluous search through the darkened streets of the Hollywood Hills.
The fact that Birmingham feels the need to even include a largely inconsequential subplot about one of Adam and Margo’s friends is, unfortunately, emblematic of the slightness of Who Invited Them’s story. The film is ultimately a minor horror effort, one that makes great use of its lead’s all-too-relatable desire for validation but never quite reaches its full potential.
For that reason, Who Invited Them makes a lot of sense as Shudder’s latest straight-to-streaming exclusive. It’s a fun little thriller that should manage to satisfy all the horror fans out there who might find themselves in the mood for something that’s easy to digest this weekend, but it’s not powerful or effective enough to leave a truly lasting impression.
Who Invited Them premieres Thursday, September 1 on Shudder.
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