‘Who Invited Them’ Review: Dir. Duncan Birmingham [Shudder Saturday]

Director Duncan Birmingham makes the leap from short format to feature-length with Who Invited Them. The story sees a housewarming party take a dark turn when two guests refuse to leave.

Adam (Ryan Hansen) and Margo (Melissa Tang) have recently relocated into the Hollywood Hills. The move has caused some upset between the two with Margo concerned they’re overstretching. Adam on the other hand is delighted with the property (which he got for a steal) and can’t wait to show it off. In a bid to grab the attention of his boss and stroke his own ego, Adam insists on a housewarming party. Early moments between the couple demonstrate a twosome burdened by secrets. Each is unwilling to upset the other, but are both harbouring different stances on their new way of life. It quickly becomes clear that the status of the house has gone to Adam’s head and with Margo so apprehensive, the viewer immediately wonders whether they’ll still be together by the end of the film. 

The party begins well, or it does in Adam’s mind at least. The reality is that Adam and Margo are surrounded by sharks. None of their friends or family appear particularly happy with the couple’s perceived wealth and so there are lots of gritted teeth and catty comments. Adam insists on giving a rousing speech about the new abode, which goes down like a ton of bricks, but he is still oblivious. Margo is more in tune with the feelings of her guest and in an attempt to avoid any awkwardness, spends most of the party hidden in the kitchen. Adam’s egotistical self-centred behaviour, and Margo’s reluctance to join in, are important behaviours in shaping what is to come. 

After their guests all find reasons to excuse themselves, Adam and Margo find themselves alone at last. Keen to capitalise on a night without their son; the pair begin to settle in for the night, but as they do so, they discover that not everybody has left. The guests, Tom (Timothy Granaderos) Sasha (Perry Mattfeld), are not known to Margo or Adam. After some probing, the younger couple reveal themselves to be their new neighbours. Keen to impress, Adam and Margo agree to a drink together that quickly begins the unravelling of their evening. As the quartet begin to bond, it seems that Tom and Sasha might not be as perfect as their initial appearances suggest.

Who Invited Them presents a familiar story, though does so with enough finesse to keep it fresh. Birmingham takes a long time building to the penny-drop. The direction that the film is headed in is clear and yet time is spent constructing relationships, keeping the viewer guessing in the process. Whilst the destination may appear clear, Birmingham, who also wrote the script, has added in enough red herrings to throw some off of the scent. What makes Who Invited Them stand out from the pack of similar stories is that it is intentionally told with a tongue in its cheek. Early conversations between the couples are filled with double meanings, which play on the expectations and knowledge of the audience. This decision helps to keep the mood light and make Who Invited Them an entertaining popcorn thriller. 

The casting is key to creating Birmingham’s tone. Ryan Hansen is an actor best known as playing the comedy relief character in Veronica Mars. Here Hansen doesn’t push his character of Adam too far into comedy, but also isn’t afraid to get a little silly. Opposite him you have Melissa Tang, another actor with a strong history within comedy. Her background means that she isn’t afraid to cut loose and be a little goofish. The pair’s comedic talents allow them to access that ability to please people, which works effectively with Adam and Margo, the older couple desperate to entertain and appear cool. 

Contrasting these performances you have Granaderos and Mattfeld, two actors better known for more dramatic performances. They don’t play it straight here, the influence of Hansen and Tang granting them permission to also let their hair down. The pair are great as the mysterious guests, playing Adam, Margo, and the audience as they construct their web of intrigue. Granaderos is especially good as the charismatic rich businessman Tom, clearly enjoying the opportunity to have some fun after all the doom and gloom of his 13 Reasons Why counterpart. 

The two are excellent at working their hosts; their powers of suggestion and manipulation are a thing of beauty to see in action. Whilst some may be screaming for Adam and Margo to just kick the neighbours out, Sasha and Tom do exude enough charisma for us to understand why this isn’t happening. Adam and Margo are both struggling with ageing and their positions in life. Margo especially is fed up with having been placed permanently on mum mode. Sasha taps into this upset and begins to empower the older woman. Tom meanwhile tries to incept the idea that a woman should be happy in her place, caressing Adam’s ego as he does. The couple are therefore both distracted by their own feelings to properly pay attention to what is happening. They also clearly just want to be young again and are reluctant to have to be the old folks that just want to go to bed. As demonstrated in Who Invited Them, peer pressure can be deadly. 

As playful and entertaining as the ‘afterparty’ is to watch unfold, there are pacing issues within the piece. Some of this comes from simply how long it takes for Birmingham to show his hand, though this is only a slight niggle. The bigger problem comes via a subplot revolving around the relatives who are babysitting Adam and Margo’s son. The boy realises that he has left his favourite toy at home and so one of his carers ventures back to get it. Along the way they encounter their own series of repetitive misfortunes, none of which particularly capture attention. Its shoehorning into the main narrative later on feels forced and one can’t help wondering whether the film would play any differently without it. 

Tense, taut, but always relatable, Who Invited Them plays bait the bear with the viewer. Later events may be sign-posted early on, yet that doesn’t lessen the audience’s enjoyment of watching it all unfold. A home invasion story told in an unconventional manner, Who Invited Them marks a fine first feature for Birmingham.

Who Invited Them is available on Shudder now.

This review first appeared on THN.