A pertinent question that always arises when a movie trailer comes along that spills more beans than a nervous barista is: does a spoilerish ad campaign damage a director’s intentions when building a twist?
A great example of this is Jessica M. Thompson’s derivatively titled, The Invitation, a movie who’s first two acts are bathed in mystery that attempts to radiate a agonisingly tense slow burn, but who’s trailer already gave the game away months ago, which leads to a rather odd paradox. Would this movie have played much better if I had gone in blind and let the movie’s mystery unravel naturally? Alternatively if I didn’t know what the twist was, would I have been interested in the bloody movie in the first place?
Unfortunately, The Invitation ultimately isn’t a good enough movie to justify exploring this conundrum too deeply, but it’s still a slick, if empty genre effort that contains the virus of a cool concept.
Evelyn Jackson is a struggling waitress in New York City who is holding out for her pottery career to take off (good luck with that, Evie), but after randomly sending out her DNA in response to one of those “family tree” websites, she finds out that she’s connected to a large family in England virtually dripping in wealth and privilege. Meeting up with her newly found cousin, Oliver, he excitedly suggests that she take a trip, all expenses paid, to England to meet her extended family and celebrate an upcoming wedding and before you know it – and against some good natured warnings of her best friend Grace – she finds herself staying in a palatial mansion named New Carfax Abbey.
Initially, Evie is overwhelmed by all the refinery and even let’s the stuffy nature of priggish butler, Mr. Field and his stern treatment of the hired maids go thanks to the arrival of overwhelmingly dashing lord of the manor, Walter Deville, but soon, certain things start to strike the young woman as strange.
While one of the maids of honor, the bubbly, puppydogish, Lucy, seems genuinely enthused that Evie is joining the family, the other, the venomously sarcastic Viktoria, delivers a string of barbed comments that hint that something sinister is afoot. Adding to this unsettling feeling is the reoccurring nightmare she’s been having of her great-grandmother killing herself and very real sence that there’s malevolent presence crawling around her bedroom when the sun goes down.
Inevitably, it seems like Walter is hiding quite a sizable red flag (Red? Make that bloody crimson) and Evie finds herself in the midst of a supernatural conspiracy that has it roots in a very famous example of horror literature.
So, in an attempt to not be hypocritical I’ve tried to keep the big twist out of the review up until this point so if you want to go into The Invitation blind you should probably stop here.
Are they gone? Good. Vampires. It’s fucking vampires; and to be more specific than that, it turns out that Thomas Doherty’s impeccably bone structured Walter is actual Count Dracula himself who is on the hunt for a third Bride from a certain bloodline after his previous wife, Evie’s great grandmother, checks out permanently with some innovative use of some piano wire.
It’s a nifty way to give an old school concept a new lick of paint as the movie is essentially Get Out if the elitist, racist white folk had fangs that’s further heightened by the fact that Evie’s great grandmother had an affair with a black footman to birth her offshoot bloodline and it also carries themes of feminism that hinge on the usage of women to unite wealthy families via marriage and even the benefits of women helping women. However, The Invitation suffers in comparison to the incredibly similar and far superior Ready Or Not, which also concerns a young woman surrounded by wealth gained by supernatural means who realises too late that the best day of her life has rapidly shifted over into the worst, and Thomson seems to be unsure of when to finally pull the trigger on the actual horror part of the movie after scene after scene of build up and endless jump scares. In fact, when the horror finally does come, it unfortunately just doesn’t feel horror-y enough and instead goes from trying to milk some adult themes into stumbling into full blown YA territory as the movie cops out at every turn.
Yes, there’s blood, but nothing here that too harrowing; yes the vampires sport gnarled fingers tipped with imposing talons, but the full-blown, Fright Night style facial transformations the film hints at never comes, leaving these particular night stalkers feeling rather dull and disappointingly easy to kill. Further more, the movie, unwisely, seems to be overly dedicated in making sure Evie has the safest ending possible, not only having her survive her ordeal virtually unscathed, but also having her shake off a bout of voluntary vampirism like it’s a 24 hour bug – yes, I realise that taking out a head vampire “cures” anyone who hasn’t been turned for that long but the movie treats her brush with immortality like a convenient burst of half hearted girl power that not only treats her to a glow-up but also sees her hunting down human survivors of the family with her best friend.
It’s frustrating, because the premise has legitimate potential and the leads, while putting in performances that arev sometimes a little paint by numbers, are fairly appealing. Nathalie Emmanuel does well with an American accent as the fresh faced lead (kudos for carrying off a nose ring for the entire movie too) and Thomas Doherty enfuses his dastardly villain with more than a dash of a psychotic Mr. Darcy – but do you really mean to tell me that no one would accept such a too good to be true scenario and not get suspicious when you saw that a gravelly voiced Sean Pertwee was the butler? This ain’t Gotham, people!
Marred by the fact that it seems noticably unsure of what kind of a horror movie it wants to be, The Invitation starts off strong, if a little familiar, but forgets to bring the correct amount of horror when necessary, turning what could have been a blood curdling resurgence for old school vampires into a tweet, gothic adventure that ultimately carries all the social weight of a hastily filmed Tiktok post. In fact it feels more like the kind of film that you’d skim over on a streaming site and how it was never a Netflix original I’ll never know – still, The Invitation is maybe something you’d want to accept in advance, but come the day, you’ll probably be looking for excuses to cancel…