For a while, at least, I was thinking somebody dropped the ball with this domestic horror “comedy” “Who Invited Them.”
“This is good enough to have played in theaters,” I said to myself, noting how a good cast does well playing two couples who act out manipulations, show widening strains in a marriage and play into a night that just won’t end because one couple won’t go home after the cocktail party’s over.
I mean, sure, the foreshadowing’s so obvious that you’d have to be deaf to not pick up on where writer-director Duncan Birmingham’s debut feature is headed — eventually. But there’s still some mystery about what distractions pop up along the way, how the evening might just “get interesting” after a lot of booze, a little “booger sugar” and pressure to stay up late, do more coke and maybe…swing?
But this short-but-not-particularly-brisk thriller delivers smirks, not laughs and intrigues, not frights. There are structural problems and badly worked-in red herrings that make the final act quite the little letdown.
Still, let’s accentuate the positive first. Ryan Hansen of TV’s “Veronica Mars” and Melissa Tang “The Kominsky Method”) click as a Adam and Margo, a couple with a little boy, a new-to-them house “in The Hills” overlooking LA, and a few issues they’re not really dealing with.
He’s trying to entertain a generally reluctant klatch of colleagues at a not-quite-house-warming, and she’s avoiding all of them by hanging out with her cook-friend in the kitchen.
But as Adam toasts and welcomes one and all “our friends,” he can’t help but notice these two good-looking strangers. Who are they? Friends of Margo? Nope.
As the house empties out, they compare notes on “that super slick couple” who look like they’re “dressed for a sexy funeral” and wonder who they might be.
Why not ask them yourselves? They haven’t left. They were in a bathroom...together.
All the awkwardness that entails is struggled through as we meet Tom (Timothy Granaderos of “13 Reasons Why”) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld of “Shameless” and “In the Dark”). They’re very cool. They’re very pretty. They’re “the neighbors.”
Of course we don’t buy that, even if Margo and Adam do. Kind of.
They manage to finagle a last drink and talk Adam into putting some vinyl on the turntable. And then, either as a foursome — all in the same room — or breaking up into “Let me help you with that” guy-guy/woman-woman pairings, the strangers start tugging at fissures in this marriage, poking at the sore spots. The party hosts fall right into that trap.
That’s the most interesting part of “Who Invited Them,” the relationship dynamics and the ways Margo and Adam are manipulated into going for each other’s throats.
But the Big Clue has been delivered and the story slides, and then stumbles a bit as it makes that turn towards the denouement, where all our suspicions bear fruit and yet nothing all that scary happens.
The violence is unpleasant, with a little added dash of sad and disturbing. It feels both inevitable and shoehorned-in. We believe in the menaced couple, but the ease with which they’re baited keeps us from rooting for them.
And the finale seems like an incomplete cheat.
Still, it’s good enough to at least make one wish all involved the best, “better luck next time” and all that. It’s just that the first hour had one hoping for a lot more than a consolation prize.
Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, profanity and innuendo
Cast: Ryan Hansen, Melissa Tang, Perry Mattfeld and Timothy Granaderos.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Duncan Birmingham. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:21