Note: This film contains depictions of animal cruelty. Additionally, this review contains mild spoilers.
Worrying too much about what other people think about you can lead to all kinds of trouble. You might buy a bigger house than you can afford just to impress your friends and coworkers. You might alienate said friends and coworkers by being a plastic approximation of who you think you should be rather than your authentic self. Or you might leave yourself vulnerable to malicious people because you’re too afraid of seeming rude to listen to your self-preservation instincts. In writer-director Duncan Birmingham’s feature debut Who Invited Them, Adam (Ryan Hansen) and Margo (Melissa Tang) do all of the above, learning the hard way that worrying about other people’s opinions can have deadly consequences.
Adam and Margo have just moved into a gorgeous house in the Hollywood Hills, and they throw a housewarming party to celebrate. There’s already tension between the two — Margo isn’t sure they can afford the house, but Adam assures her that their “upward” move is a good thing — and it only gets worse as Adam lords his valuable real estate over their friends’ heads. Due to Adam’s supercilious hosting style, the party breaks up early, leaving only two guests behind: Tom (Timothy Granaderos) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld), a couple who live next door and decide to crash the party. They wrangle an invitation out of Adam to stay and keep the party going, and they steadily drive the wedge between Adam and Margo deeper and deeper. As the night wears on and the party games get increasingly perverse, Adam and Margo begin to question who these uninvited guests really are and what they truly want from them.
If you’re paying the slightest bit of attention, you’ll probably figure out the entire plot of the movie before you’re even a third of the way through it. The suspense comes, not from figuring out Tom and Sasha’s true identities or motives, but from waiting to see what they’ll do to Adam and Margo next. While that deflates a couple of third-act reveals that are likely intended to be shocking rather than frustratingly obvious, there’s a tongue-in-cheek breeziness to the film that helps you ignore its lack of narrative subtlety. The script is often very funny — when Adam and Margo are comparing notes to figure out who the unknown guests are, Margo says they look “like they’re going to a sexy funeral” — but it’s the performances that truly make Who Invited Them transcend its predictable plot.
More than a few guests refer to Adam as a “smug prick,” and they’re not wrong — it’s the kind of ‘lovable jerk’ role Hansen excels at, and he makes the most of Adam’s desperate, unctuous need to be seen as a winner. Tang holds her own against Hansen’s charismatic douchebaggery, making the audience believe that Margo really does love Adam but giving her a fire as she bristles against his obsession with getting ahead. The real scene-stealers, however, are Granaderos and Mattfeld. The mask Tom wears is terrifying; he tries very hard to seem open and friendly, but his face has a carefully controlled blankness that can’t quite hide the intense nothingness behind his eyes.
Sasha allows herself to be more outwardly aggressive than Tom, which, coming from a beautiful woman rather than a man, is likely seen as non-threatening until it’s too late to see her behavior for what it really is. She pokes semi-playfully at holes in Adam and Margo’s relationship, and the way Mattfeld searches and scans with her eyes while trying to seem poised and disinterested is utterly fascinating. She performs some hilarious, if small-scale, physical comedy — gesturing sentimentally toward Adam when he gives his speech at the party about old friends as he looks at her quizzically — but she pulls off a tricky balancing act with her eyes alone, keeping both Margo and the viewer guessing as to what she will do or say next. Granaderos and Mattfeld do far more to maintain the film’s suspense than the script does, with its repeated use of anvil-heavy foreshadowing and over-explaining.
Still, the humorous undercurrent and the film’s light but cutting socioeconomic commentary keep Who Invited Them engaging. Tom and Sasha appear to be the richest people at the party, and the film makes it clear that if they didn’t look or act so sophisticated, Adam wouldn’t have given them the time of day and thus would have avoided the entire unpleasant evening. Though it’s frustrating to watch Adam repeatedly ignore warning signs, it makes sense for his character: he doesn’t pay attention to people he considers beneath him, and he will do anything in the world to impress those he considers above him. Chasing status and sacrificing everything for other people’s approval might be tempting, but they usually have dire consequences. Who Invited Them might not explore those consequences in the most clever or surprising way, but it does so with a twinkle in its eye and a dark sense of humor.