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LOS ANGELES – For the movies, and Los Angelenos, the Hollywood Hills are laced with mythology. Those multi-million dollar homes perched on twisty cliffs that peer down on the endless flatlands while the Hollywood sign looms nearby are both signifiers of glamour and traumas past. From the Hillside Strangler to the Manson murders and even the crushed aspirations of so many dreamers, there's a pervasive uneasiness up above the city.
That's why director Karyn Kusama ("Girlfight," ''Jennifer's Body") knew it was the perfect setting for her unnerving psychological thriller "The Invitation" (out Friday in limited release), which finds a small group of estranged friends gathering in one of those magazine-ready homes for a night of expensive wine, food and social disquiet.
The evening was never going to be an easy one. Will (Logan Marshall-Green), who used to live there with his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), is returning now with his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi). But it's more than just two exes sharing the same space again. There is tragedy in their past, too. And things get even more unsettling as the evening goes on, between the serene calm of Eden and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman) talking about spiritual journeys, and a few weirdos who no one really knows.
As Will says in a moment of distress, "something doesn't feel safe here."
Screenwriter and producer Phil Hay noted that he and his co-writer Matt Manfredi wanted to "explore the true nightmare of what it would be like to be completely alienated from someone you loved. They look like the person and they sound like the person but there is something that doesn't feel like the person."
Hay, who is married to Kusama, said one of their touchstones was "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
But as with any interaction with old friends or lovers, there is always going to be an unknown element — especially when you toss in the eccentric, searching personalities that Los Angeles attracts.
"There's a promise that LA seems to have that you can reinvent yourself. You can start over," Manfredi said. "There's something really dark behind that because it doesn't always play out the way you expect it to and people can take advantage of that and a lot of that has played out in the hills before."
The threat, or promise, of new age religions and cults in particular ignites the imagination of some of the party guests as they wonder what Eden's intentions are.
"You never know if you might actually be in one!" Corinealdi said. "Especially in LA. You can find yourself in a group and you don't know."
Corinealdi had recently read an article about how Michelle Pfeiffer found out she was in a cult when she was starting out in LA.
"When she realized it, she had to get out of the cult. But I thought it was so interesting. It was something that was very helpful and reassuring to her. She was new to LA and then all of a sudden she's following everything that they're doing," Corinealdi said.
"It's built into LA," added Marshall-Green. "They're all dreamers who are no longer dreaming. They need someone to dream for them."
Kusama, who filmed the entire movie in a real house off of Mulholland Drive for a tiny $1 million budget, hopes ultimately that audiences are open to the mystery of "The Invitation."
"I love the idea of creating a movie experience where you have to keep up with it and investigate and engage with it while you're watching," she said. "I wanted to get back to a really engaged movie going experience."
The film does just that, too, keeping you on edge about what exactly is going on, who is overreacting and who is underreacting.
"There is that world of fascination about what is happening up there on Mulholland Drive," Corinealdi said. "They're always wondering, the people below. What's going on in those hills?"
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr