Kansas City theater director helped usher ‘The Invitation’ to screens nationwide

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Around midnight last Halloween at the Alamo Mainstreet, Ryan Davis took the stage to announce the night’s headliner. It was late. Attendees had already cheered along Paul Rudd in his debut feature, Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers; cringed through the black-hole inevitability of home-invasion provocation The Strangers; and tripped on the color-porn fantasia Suspiria in a rare 35mm screening. How do you top that? Proclaiming it his favorite movie of the year, Davis introduced The Invitation—a movie the audience hadn’t even heard of.

But the annual event, “Dismember the Alamo,” is about as cult-like as moviegoing gets. At each of the two-dozen-or-so Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas across the country, the Creative Director programs a top-secret, thematically linked lineup of four horror movies. Patrons enter an eight-hour marathon without knowing what they’re about to see. As with all great cult movies, there’s an energy in the theater impossible to replicate at home.

And in a way, The Invitation might be the ultimate cult movie. It’s a small-scale production, independently financed and set almost entirely in one location. It begins as an off-kilter chamber drama about an agonizingly charged dinner party; but as one unstable guest grows suspicious of his hosts’ serene demeanor, it explodes into an unhinged horror freakout. When Davis first saw it at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier that year, he was sure it belonged in a theater. “My wife and I were blown away, but my brother and his girlfriend hated it—like violently hated it. At that point, I knew it had to be a Drafthouse Film.”

Drafthouse Films, the distribution wing of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, is dedicated to “destroying the barriers between the grindhouse and the art-house.” Its website refers to its catalog as “a curated brand of provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films.” Davis’s approach is a bit more personal. “They’re movies that need a little help finding their way to theaters,” he said. “They kind of embody everything that we’re about and we passionately love them and adore them; but they might turn off the majority of the viewing public so big studios might tend to steer clear of them.” He describes The Invitation as “almost the perfect Drafthouse movie.”

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Also won over at South by Southwest was James Shapiro, Drafthouse Film’s head buyer. Determined to acquire it, Davis and Shapiro approached Drafthouse CEO Tim League with a sales pitch reminiscent of William Castle’s carnival-barker sideshows. Castle made some the schlockiest B-movies of the 1950s, but elevated them with kooky routines: he hired EMTs and hearses to accompany screenings of Macabre and rigged theaters with army surplus gadgets for The Tingler so that, when the title creature wreaks havoc on a movie house in the third act, seats would vibrate.

Davis’s technique would be a little more nuanced: wine would be served to the audience just as the characters share an onscreen toast. A red lantern—a prop with a pivotal role—would hang over the box office. League was impressed and pursued a distribution deal.

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But a few days later, Davis found out that Netflix had beaten them to the punch. That, he believes, would’ve spelled doom for The Invitation. “You have to see [it] in a movie theater,” he said. “You can feel the electricity in the room.  You can feel everybody’s muscle movements as you’re reacting to what’s happening onscreen.”

At the last minute, the deal with Netflix fell apart and The Invitation opens this weekend under the Drafthouse banner. A year after first championing it, Davis remains as enamored of the movie as ever. “I’ve seen it like five times now, and every time it crescendos to that perfect ending, it gets me excited. I love that it’s the type of movie where you can hear an audience audibly gasp. I think that if you watch this on demand…you’re going to miss out on that. It’s a theater experience. It manipulates the audience in the fact that you don’t know if this guy is crazy or if he’s right. The fact that it can keep doing that even after I’ve seen it and I know the answer to that question just makes it brilliant.”

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If The Invitation has the potential to split audiences, Davis isn’t concerned. “It’s kind of like that green-light syndrome—it makes you feel weird. So a lot of people I know that don’t like the movie, it’s because, at the core of it, it made them feel uncomfortable. To me, that’s like a win-win.”

That Kansas City screening last Halloween was the movie’s first outside of South by Southwest. At the show, Davis was able to pull off the wine trick to deliciously nasty effect. Audiences drank it up. And that red lantern is currently hanging at box offices at the theater’s Austin and Kansas City locations. Davis, who feels personally attached to the movie, can’t wait for audiences to experience it in its most effective setting. “I’ve been [there]—where you go to a couple’s friend’s house and they’re fighting and you have no idea what’s going on. There’s this uncomfortable tension going around. But The Invitation takes that [feeling] to the next level…It’s the most uncomfortable dinner party you’ll ever attend.”

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The Invitation opens this weekend at the Alamo Mainstreet.

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