First things first. In case we didn’t know that The Invitation is meant to be a horror film, the very first shot of the film is a large ominous looking mansion, foreboding in the dark, pelted by rain and illuminated by lightning. It’s truly the equivalent of literature’s It was a dark and stormy night… For those unfamiliar with such a line, Writer’s Digest once described it as “the literary poster child for bad story starters”.
Thankfully, The Invitation isn’t bad, per se, it’s just not good.
After a mysterious opening in which a young woman runs through the halls of said creepy mansion and takes her own life, we cross the pond to New York City and meet Evie. Evie, a struggling artist, is grieving the loss of her mother and catering to make ends meet. She decides to take advantage of a free genetic testing kit, curious whether or not she might be lucky enough to have some unknown family out in the world.
This leads her to Oliver, a second cousin from London, who just happens to be in New York City when they connect. He’s thrilled to meet Evie and enthusiastically invites her to England to attend a posh wedding, which will also be attended by several of her relatives. Evie reluctantly takes him up on his offer and is whisked away to a world she has only dreamed about, complete with a mansion, maids, and a handsome Lord of the Manor named Walter Deville. Walter takes an immediate shine to the independent Evie and sparks fly.
But this is a horror, not a romance, so there are some secrets unbeknownst to Evie. Secrets she’ll discover, but only when it’s too late to do anything about them.
It’s easy to see what director Jessica M. Thompson was attempting to do with The Invitation. A pinch of Dracula and a dash of Ready or Not and you get a modern gothic vampire “romance” where the in-laws are affluent, bloodsucking aristocrats that survive off the backs – or necks, ha ha! – of the hired help.
With an isolated, eerie setting, The Invitation is a properly atmospheric homage to gothic horror, at least in terms of visual appeal. The costume design is fantastic and Nathalie Emmanuel is very appealing as Evie, supplying the character with enough strength and vulnerability needed to win over what will no doubt be an exasperated audience.
She pairs well with Thomas Doherty’s Walter, who is mysterious and seductive enough to reel in Evie as soon as she steps foot on the grounds. But Doherty also has a certain detachment in his demeanor, an obvious red flag – one of many – that Evie remains oblivious to.
All that being said, the script itself is a downer. It had the potential to be an engaging modern take on the Brides of Dracula, but it never fully commits. Rather than going for the jugular, The Invitation teases frightful imagery but then settles for tired jump scares. My biggest issue is that Thompson raises the stakes far too late in the game. We spend most of the film watching the set up and then we rush through the climax, leading to a rather unsatisfying movie experience.
Earlier, I said The Invitation wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either and I stand by that. It was mostly fine. I was entertained to an extent, but also left feeling disappointing. So, if you like some bite in your horror, The Invitation is not for you.