loader image

Polite horror at a murder party in The Hills – Writer and Director Duncan Birmingham talks about sleek Shudder thriller ‘Who Invited Them?’

Mar 26, 2023 | Feature Films

Shudder thriller ‘Who Invited Them?’

Midnight black souls come alive at night to prey against the glittering sedate backdrop of Los Angeles. Murderers commit their crimes inside the glossed glow of a city bathed in lamplit paint. Coyotes howl and people die. 

And it all seems so cool. 

This is the atmosphere of Duncan Birmingham’s Overlook Festival standout and “polite horror” thriller Who Invited Them? 

Here’s a rundown on the ascending genre label of “polite horror”: Couple exists in their bubble. Couple allows a menace into their space. Couple is too bound by societal normalcies to eject the menace from their space. It’s like the slowly boiling frog that simply will not leave the pot. 

As for the cityscape of Los Angeles, so many have done it well. Heat. Collateral. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In the horror genre, it hasn’t been done enough. Who Invited Them? places the audience in the winding labyrinth of The Hills and tells the characters to make it through the night or bleed out in a secluded driveway outlined against the city glow.     

With the 2023 Overlook Film Fest around the corner, we talked to Writer and Director Duncan Birmingham about his 2022 premiere, and what it was like creating a sleek and dangerous house party in The Hills.

Writer and Director Duncan Birmingham

Writer and Director Duncan Birmingham

On the moment he reflected that he was starting production on a movie that he both wrote and was directing:

DB: “Umm…very scary…It was exciting when I realized that things were going forward, but it was also scary because as much as they were moving forward, there were still always balls up in the air where at any second, it felt like things could fall apart. Until the day we were shooting, it felt like it could all slip away, or at least be pushed a week – everything was very up in the air. Very exciting, but also scary in terms of there just being so much to do in a limited amount of time before we started shooting.”

On the gravitational pull of home invasion movies:

DB: “I really like home invasion movies. I like all kinds of movies – dramas and comedies and horror movies – but for me, the scariest movies are home invasion movies. Some of those are more dramatic but terrifying, like Funny Games. Some of them are more like thrillers, like the old Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman, but anything where a home was being invaded. I just rewatched Cape Fear last night – the scariest parts of those movies is De Niro being able to get inside the house.

Anything with someone being able to get inside your house, inside your domicile, your safe bubble. As an L.A. person, I have my copy of “Helter Skelter” that, even though I’ve read it – it’s still on my nightstand, just to remind me to lock my doors at night.

I would say I have always wanted to make some kind of home invasion movie, try and figure out a twist on that genre. And because I do write a lot of comedy – when I came up for the idea of a party where the host didn’t recognize a couple of the guests, that seemed to be a good premise that was both somewhat funny and somewhat relatable, but also a good seed for this kind of polite horror movie.”

On “polite” home invasion influences and being compared to The Strangers:

DB: “I didn’t see The Strangers until after I wrote the script, but certainly movies like Funny Games, The Invitation, Cheap Thrills. Not all of those are home invasion movies, but those are three movies that kind of informed this movie a lot.

At the Overlook Film Festival, we got a nice compliment. This guy came up to me and he said he really liked the movie, and he was like, “It was kind of like The Strangers, but in The Strangers they never talk, and in your movie, they never shut the fuck up”. I was like, “I love that, I wish we could use that as a poster”.”

The partying aspect of Who Invited Them?, was that based on a particular night of partying, thinking “Oh, I could put this in a movie”, or just knowing the L.A. party scene?

DB: “A lifetime of parties. I think it’s based on a lifetime of parties.”

Near the beginning, you have this wide, sparkling Los Angeles shot of The Hills and you hear a coyote, and as the opening credits start, there are a few more shots of the city. Can you tell me about what you wanted to do in developing a sense of place in the film?

DB: “I love L.A.-set movies. And I love this kind of little subset of “in-the-Hill L.A. movies”. Everything from – I think I mentioned The Invitation – like The Anniversary Party, Hurlyburly – you know, there are lots of fun movies from the 70s – like little parts of Long Goodbye. When I was a kid living on the east coast, not having been to L.A., there was just something about anything with somebody driving through the Hills.

I think there was also something scary about The Hills. If you go up there, you can easily lose cell phone reception. There are abundant coyotes up there. It can be kind of like the wilderness and you are pretty high up and it can be hard to wind your way down. And it goes back to Manson and the Helter Skelter thing – it just feels like there can be some bad juju up there.

I liked the idea of Adam and Margo having this house, it’s in The Hills, and L.A. being this city that they can – it’s almost like they’re in the country, and in the country, anything can happen – you can have an In Cold Blood-type massacre. You’re isolated. But the city’s just within reach – they can see it.”

On getting the right sounds to build an environment of impending terror in The Hills:

DB: “We had a great sound designer (Nuno Bento, João Galvão, Roland Vajs, Paul Wells) – all types of crickets and night sounds, and the sounds of the highway far away, really also give the sense of isolation. They’re in this kind of weird netherworld between city and country. They’re almost like this little isolated castle up on a hill.”

Shudder thriller ‘Who Invited Them?’

On the genre labeling of Who Invited Them? as a “polite horror” film:

DB: “I have referred to the movie as a “polite home invasion movie”. And also there’s a term I heard for certain 60s British cinema called “comedy of menace” that I really liked. For me, I just think anything that might be a little talky or that’s involving very civilized, yuppified domestic characters getting involved in horror could probably be lumped under that polite horror umbrella.

It feels like it’s kind of a catch-all term that might include a lot of the – these aren’t horror movies but – thrillers that I grew up loving. The kind of, “yuppie strays and gets in trouble” movies. Everything from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle or Single White Female or something a little more fun like Something Wild. After Hours. Those movies where someone is living their best, contented life and then steps outside their bubble and has to deal with kind of a character that’s not of their world.”

During the writing process, do you enjoy deciding who you’re gonna kill or let live?

DB: “You know, I’m working on another horror script now – there’s comedy in it, too – and one of the reasons I’m doing that and not writing another dramedy or drama or just comedy – is cause once you start killing characters, it’s very hard to stop.”

If you happened to go to any house parties as you were writing this film, were you looking around the room thinking, “Can I draw anything – which couple here is the swinger/murder couple?”

DB: (laughing) “I wasn’t going to too many house parties at the time because we were kind of in the heyday of Covid. Covid might’ve informed the movie a little bit just in terms of all of a sudden socializing and big parties felt a little bit dangerous, a little bit risky. All of a sudden we felt kind of unsocialized and weird and awkward, and that’s when I wrote the movie, so I think that kinda plays out in the movie a little bit that there’s a little bit of risk when you have a big party. This movie illustrated the fact that a stranger can easily slip into your house – I guess it could be seen as a Covid metaphor. If someone wanted to draw that, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.”

How can you watch Who Invited Them?

DB: “Who Invited Them? is on Shudder and AMC+.”

On the horror-driven delightfulness of Shudder:

DB: “I don’t work for Shudder – I will plug shudder anyway because I watch a lot of movies on there. It’s great. Everything’s on there – horror, thrillers, all kinds of fun horror docs. And you can also sign up for Shudder for a week for free. I’m not saying sign up and cancel shudder – just saying you could do that if you want to sign up and watch the movie ten times.”

Proving the murder haters wrong: Who Invited Them? shows there is such thing as a polite home invasion

A few days away from its one-year anniversary of the Overlook premiere, Who Invited Them? has etched a lasting impression in the developing history of “polite horror” and in the canon of films telling stories in Los Angeles. 

Should the film inspire you to throw a house party, it’s prudent to remember that the sexiest people in the room might be out to torment their party hosts, and it’s not your fault if the neighbors end up bound and gagged to a chair. And if your house is framed against the backdrop of L.A.’s glittering glow, remember:

Anything can happen in The Hills. 

Share this article





No spam, we promise! Just the latest on Indie film and Louisiana filmmakers.

Fable House is a video production company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that specializes in production for film, video, commercials, and TV. Our team are experts in physical production, post-production, and VFX. We produce content for major brands, TV networks like Syfy and Lifetime, and provide production services to Louisiana’s never-say-die indie filmmakers.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.