Genre Spotlight: The Dinner Party Thriller (a subset of the Bottle Episode)

What did you have for dinner last night? I had Thai food. It was pretty decent, despite it being from Thai Express. Honestly, I’d take Thai Express over some of the sketchy Thai food I’ve gotten from some places in Toronto. What did I have for dinner the night before, you ask? I’m not exactly sure, and I don’t feel like using my limited brain power to figure it out. Point is, it wasn’t very remarkable. So why the dinner party thriller and not the lunch party thriller? Lunch is in the middle of the day, maybe you had a meeting, a first date, a hot dog from the stand outside, at least something vaguely interesting. Or perhaps a breakfast party thriller? Frantic families, Eggo waffles, or maybe you’re a morning person, you like to be adventurous and make yourself something fun. Ooh, how about the brunch party thriller: a bunch of millenials and old folks getting together to have a pleasant meal that consists of not quite breakfast, but – get this – not quite lunch food, either.

So, after that little spiel, did you change your view at all on the meal rankings? Because I sure as hell didn’t. Dinner is where it’s AT, man! You got your fuckin’ pasta, the fuckin’… entire gosh darn chicken, fuckin’… maybe you went all out, all fancy and shit and bought a few steaks to throw on that absolute gift from heaven we call a barbeque. And THAT, my friends, is why filmmakers have chosen the dinner party to be the setting of one of my favourite (albeit extremely specific and limited) genres.

A couple years ago I wouldn’t be able to name a dinner party thriller. In fact, I stayed pretty far away from most horrors and thrillers until It Comes At Night dragged me in, as I said in that review. But now, I’m gonna be telling y’all about three of them: The Invitation, Coherence, and Murder Party. All tonally diverse, all thoroughly entertaining, and most importantly, all on Canadian Netflix. As usual, I highly recommend you go and see all of these before continuing, as I will be dissecting them, spoilers and all. And if you don’t, well, don’t invite me to your next dinner party, haha! Seriously, don’t, we aren’t friends.

While it’s still fresh in my mind, let’s start off with Murder Party. Jeremy Saulnier, one of the newish writer/directors that everyone should be keeping their eye on these days, created this low budget gory thriller comedy all the way back in 2007, and it sure as hell looks it. The first of the Clusterfuck Trilogy (his words, not mine) is clearly a movie made with a single idea at its core: what if the intended murder victim ends up the sole survivor by sheer luck and incompetence on the part of the attempted murderers? And even though the idea reveals itself overtly by the third act, it’s still a helluva lot of fun to see it all come to fruition.

But Murder Party is a dinner party thriller, so we should talk about that. If you’ve seen the movie, I know what you’re thinking. Joey, Murder Party can’t be a dinner party thriller, the pizza they order is clearly a late night snack! First of all, I was almost prepared to include It Comes At Night as a DPT (which is what we’ll be using from now on instead of me having to painstakingly write out “dinner party thriller” every damn time) a few months ago, which would have been far more of a stretch. Second of all, shut up. One mainstay in the DPT subgenre is the fact that they take place, for the most part, in one distinct location. This is also why it’s the perfect type of movie to make on a budget: less locations means a lot less money. It also gives lesser known actors the chance to shine, which is absolutely the case in Murder Party and Coherence. Macon Blair, a Jeremy Saulnier necessity, is always great, even when he has smaller and stranger roles such as this one. Anyway, the location chosen in this particular DPT is nothing too special, just an abandoned warehouse. I was, however, impressed with how well the space was used. I felt like there was no part of the room untouched, whether it was our dumb-luck main character bumbling around in boxes and closets, or a girl getting stuffed into a sketchy large receptacle.

What really sets this DPT apart from the rest is how it successfully blends the absurd violence with wacky but clever comedy. Most notably in the final standoff, where Christopher snatches a convenient chainsaw from the convenient window that happens to be conveniently plugged in, and can conveniently put an end to Bill’s bloodbath. The movie clearly pokes fun at horror tropes, but in the best way possible, in that they make fun of them while also making me believe that the characters would actually do the increasingly silly things they do. When Christopher starts to take a leak as soon as he leaves the warehouse, still being chased by Bill, I was laughing, not screaming at the screen for him to run. And best of all, when he gets home and finally has the aura of authority to get his cat outta his seat, I felt genuinely happy for the guy. I guarantee these next couple movies will not leave you feeling happy for anyone.

Perhaps the most traditional of dinner party thrillers, The Invitation is my least favourite of the three. Not that it’s bad, it’s simply not as interesting and innovative as the others. The third act “twist”, if you can call it that, is that exactly what you expected from the start is what ends up happening. The cult turns out to be a murderous one, as most film cults are. Chaos ensues, nearly everyone dies, but what makes this a worthy entry into this post is the final shot. Assuming you’ve seen the movie, you surely remember that moment of confusion and subsequent understanding of seeing all those houses, all those lights shining bright with the successful purging of those who reject the cult, the sinister invitation. It’s one of those twists that recontextualizes everything that happened in the movie; what we saw was not an isolated incident but part of something much, much larger. In fact, I have to respect Karyn Kusama and the studio for not milking this into a franchise. Oh wait, never mind, the movie made just over 300k on its million dollar budget. Yikes, no wonder we aren’t seeing The Invitation 2: The Squeakuel.

Regardless of its box office woes, it is still worth being looked at under the DPT microscope. This one follows the formula pretty religiously (get it?), and yet that doesn’t take too much away from it. What it lacks, for the most part, is an intriguing main character. While we do root for him, he’s a bit too shy and subdued to be fully invested in. Murder Party’s hilariously inane Christopher is easy to root for because of his ridiculous circumstance. Will is far less of an extreme, being neither completely incompetent or surprisingly resourceful like the main character of You’re Next. I do like how they explain the reason he’s so reluctant to meet up with all these people again, but I feel he could have used some stronger writing. Alternatively, the movie could have focused more on some other characters, shifting the point of view. Just some food for thought, Karyn.

The setting leaves little to talk about since it basically just takes place in a big house; I mean what a boring place to have a dinner party, right? Of course, conveniently, there is no cell service. Are writers allowed to make horror movies with cell service? Is it in the union contract that nobody can find a creative reason for the characters not calling the cops? It especially pisses me off in this movie, since it makes no logical sense for them to not have service. That being said, the sound of sirens at the end going from a beacon of hope to a signal that everything is far worse than anybody thought is pretty fantastic. In all, it’s a mixed bag of decent ideas that comes together decently, and did enough to further my adoration for the dinner party thriller.

Coherence, my favourite of the bunch, also happens to have the lowest budget, having cost around $50000 to make. If you happen to have not seen this one yet, I highly recommend you watch it knowing nothing going in. There’s a certain element that you may notice over the course of the movie that I only found out in my research following, and it made me love the movie even more. While watching the film, I kept admiring how real the conversations were. People would talk over each other while still being clear, they’d come to conclusions logically, and the believability of the characters was crazy impressive. How did they do this, you ask? The whole thing is improvised! They had the main plot points and character goals established for each scene, but let the (very talented) actors do and say whatever they wanted, creating one of the most realistic and intriguing mystery dramas I’ve ever seen.

All this would be for naught if the characters weren’t interesting, but there’s a certain cleverness to all of them that synergises perfectly with the improv and makes them likeable and believable. Our main character’s deterioration from cool-headed to violent feels natural, and gives her the rare certification of “Main Character That Is Actually The Most Interesting Character In The Piece Of Media”, on the shelf next to Alex Moran from Blue Mountain State and Elliot Alderson from Mr. Robot. I’d put Kevin Garvey from the Leftovers up there, but Matt Jamison is just a tad bit more interesting. But then again, there isn’t a single character in that show that comes close to being uninteresting. Watch The Leftovers. Please, watch the Leftovers. Oh yeah, Coherence, that’s what we’re supposed to be talking about.

From a DPT standpoint, Coherence also stays relatively traditional. They start by actually eating dinner, then argue a little, then find an endless loop of alternate versions of themselves, then sit down for dessert. I mean, I’m sure there has to be one dimension where they don’t bother leaving and just have dessert, right? Much in the same vein as The Invitation, what at first seems like an isolated incident ultimately reveals itself to be part of something much bigger. This culminates with our main character, Erin, screwing up so bad that the dimension she ends up in contains two of her. Which makes me wonder, how many realities have two Erins? How many now have none? Is there a reality where there are ten of her? Twenty? Can they make a council of Erins that keeps all the Erins in line? The implications vary from silly (like everything I thought of previously) to pretty freaky. I mean, if there’s an infinite amount of dimensions, there must be one where none of the house guests stay at home adjacent to one where all of them stay at home, meaning it would seem as though the entire party just disappeared overnight. What I like so much about this movie is how even though the actual plot of the film is super interesting, the implications of the other stories that are taking place in tandem with ours is arguably even more fascinating and allows the viewer’s imagination to run wild.

A gorefest/comedy, a horror/thriller, and a psychological mystery. Who would’ve thought they’d all make me so hungry? Excuse me while I make myself some KD.

Damn, I wish I’d bought some Extra Creamy, that wasn’t all that good. Regardless, I still love the subgenre of the dinner party thriller, and hope that filmmakers keep innovating on the idea. Unlike most films, all you need for this one is a good script and good actors. Budget is far less of an issue, making it the perfect genre for up and comers. Honestly, I kinda want to write one. Anyone wanna shoot me some ideas that I can shamelessly steal? I had an idea a while ago that involved prosopagnosia, but scrapped it because… well, it was awful. I’ll tell ya what, you get to keep the prosopagnosia idea if you shoot me a fresh new concept, how ‘bout that? I expect a treatment at the end of the week.

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