The central gathering of The Invitation is a terrible party, and we suspect by the protagonist's depression beard that he may be causing the evening's bad juju.

Director Karyn Kusama's fourth feature (Girlfight, Æon Flux, Jennifer's Body) fixates on Will (Logan Marshall-Green), a divorced man attending his ex-wife's dinner party in the Hollywood Hills. A thriller ensues about cult proselytization and the faltering of old friendships, as The Invitation lays pure-blooded claim to its psychological genre.

Before the film's opening in Portland, we talked to Kusama about creepy California mansions, filming a coyote murder and what it's like to direct John Carroll Lynch.

WW: You've talked about being a self-exiling partygoer. How does that show up in the film?

Karyn Kusama: Some of the central experiences of your life—like the birth of my son and the deaths of people I've loved very much—completely shape your psyche. When I imagine a world where we remove those depths and say, "All that pain, suffering, struggle—that's actually not necessary," that doesn't sound like an answer to me. A world without that has really lost its meaning.

That makes you a bad candidate for the cult in this film.

It makes me a terrible candidate! I would be the one asking so many questions, and someone would whisper to another person, "Let's just let her go. We're never gonna get her where we need her to be."

Is there something inherently eerie about those large Los Angeles canyon homes?

Yes. Because they're situated on high cliffs, they have to essentially be built like fortresses. You need to be protected on the backside from falling into the abyss. And protected from the front too, so there's a lot of gates and high hedges. That's a very common feeling in the hills, and it's part of what we were trying to poke at. As much as it's attractive, wealth is super-scary because it can shelter you from the world and reality.

In the first two minutes, Will and his girlfriend Kira hit a coyote with their car. So much of the movie hinges on Will's perspective: Why at the crucial moment of the mercy killing did you shoot from inside the car?

One, I don't really want to watch anybody beat anything to death. It's interesting how much more sensitive people are to watching violence to an animal than a person. Second, it would be too expensive [to show that]. Third, when I was rehearsing the scene, the only place I could find an interesting shot from was inside the car. We could be with Kira and hear her breathing. It communicated the terribleness of what he had to do more profoundly than if we were front-and-center with him.

How did the contrast between Will's disturbed point of view and the ensemble cast trying to have a nice time play out on the set?

Everyone got along so well that it was both incredibly gratifying and more than a little bit spooky when we would actually start rolling. It was like, "Oh my God, this is what great actors do. They slip in and out of identities so quickly." World Cup soccer was happening, and Michiel [Huisman] brought in a little TV. There would be dueling competitions to make the best espresso. Men and women both participated in a pull-up contest by the pool. But when we got to shooting, everybody flipped the switch into the anxiety of the night.

John Carroll Lynch is known for playing both good-natured folksiness [Fargo] and being totally terrifying [Zodiac]. How was directing him?

It's a bit like feeling like we've got a hall-of-famer in the house. Because he's just that good. He kept revealing this surprising humanity that, I have to say, I initially wasn't sure where I would find it [for the film]. John brought it to the table. We tried to approach the film with no villains and everyone needed to be allowed their personhood. John takes that philosophy to its furthest execution.

Critic's Grade: B+

SEE IT: The Invitation is not rated. It opens Friday at Kiggins and Laurelhurst.