Vampires are the most malleable monsters in cinema. They can shine, skateboard, yell “bat” or do gymnastics, all while doing their blood-sucking duties. In the horror movie The invitationvampires take on their more familiar roles as the rich and powerful of society when an unlucky human guest joins them for the weekend. The invitation comes from director Jessica M. Thompson (The light of the moon), and although it takes inspiration from several recent and successful out-of-place houseguest horror films such as Out and Ready or not, The invitation never manages to be scary, and it hides its vampires behind a lifeless love story.
The invitation follows Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), a hapless and over-the-gig caterer in New York who is tired of her dead-end job, desperate to pursue her passion for ceramics, and still reeling from her mother’s recent death. One day, Evie finds a gift bag from a swanky event she’s hosting and tries out the included DNA testing kit. The test links her to a previously unknown branch of her family that lives in the upper echelons of English society. Before Evie knows it, she is invited to a mysterious wedding at an English country estate, where she meets the enigmatic Walter (Thomas Doherty), the landlord, and soon falls in love.
This sequence of events takes almost the entire 105-minute film length to play. That may surprise viewers who have seen the promotional material for this film, which focuses much more on the vampiric presence of the story. The bait-and-switch of dipping a dubious romance for vampire violence wouldn’t be a big deal if the film was willing to invest in the gothic style and foreboding atmosphere that makes vampire love stories timelessly scary. Instead, Thompson is content with awkward flirting that’s shot as bland as a Netflix teen series that’s only been around for one season.
Even though the story relies almost exclusively on viewers believing that Walter is subtly seducing the worldly and cautious Evie, Emmanuel and Doherty never muster much chemistry other than that they’re both attractive people. The stiff, exhibition-heavy dialogue never fails to make either characters interesting, and it barely leaves room for the actors to add any spark or real emotion to the confusing romance.
Stranger still, the script of the film, from Hell Fest co-writer Blair Butler, does everything he can to convince viewers that Evie is too smart to fall prey to the allurements of old money. A black woman who has lived in the United States all her life and knows what it’s like to be the disrespected server at a rich person’s party (even though she owns a killer New York City apartment), Evie constantly sympathizes with the bad faith of the wedding. ill-fated servants, and swears to her best friend that she will never fall prey to the trappings of wealth and the luxuries that colonialism paid for. Then she does. Immediately. Without any conviction and without any charm from Walter. While her sudden sensibility might suggest something supernatural is at play — something that may have helped sell the romance and given her a meaningful internal struggle — The invitation never indicates that this is the case.
Evie’s only reason to think Walter is anything but a rich playboy with a big house is that he apologizes to her for being rude about his butler. (Yes, it’s the aid’s fault if things go wrong for Evie. No, the filmmakers don’t recognize the irony.) The invitation is desperate to try and replicate Jordan Peele’s clumsy fish-out-of-water terror Outwithout realizing that part of what made that movie so creepy is the implication of a loving, meaningful relationship between the main character and one of the villains, which began long before the movie started.
The annoying flirt in The invitation is occasionally interrupted by scenes that bring the film a little closer to the horror and moodiness that the vampiric premise promises. There are a few scenes of mysterious creatures lurking in the shadows, or locked rooms guarding inappropriate creatures of the night. These short horror scenes are shot in too dark a way, with tacky blue lighting that obscures almost all of the action. But at least they control the tension for a few seconds at a time, and they provide a bit of the foreboding atmosphere that the rest of the film sorely lacks.
Finally, in the last 25 minutes, The invitation turns into the vampire-killing action movie Sony wanted the audience to believe it was for the entire runtime. Over a suitably creepy dinner—the film’s most effective scene, thanks to the ten or so masked vampire cultists—Walter finally explains his full vampiric machinations to Evie. The film looks set to reveal this information as a twist, but since it not only makes up most of the trailer, but is also hinted at in the film’s prologue, Evie’s shock at the reveal feels like the most surprising part. of the scene, especially given the broad hints that something weird and nefarious is happening.
Once the cat is out of the bag, The invitation finally transforms into its best self, a vaguely angry movie about a woman who’s had enough of all these vampires and desperately wants to kill them. The action itself is mostly bland and bloodless, never reaching the dizzying violence or entertaining heights of Ready or notthe film The invitation feels most guilty. At least it’s more exciting than Evie and Walter’s mind-boggling courtship.
Part Outpart Ready or notand too few parts Dracula, The invitation is a pastiche of infinitely better horror stories that it can never match. You can make vampires do almost anything in movies, but The invitation commits the only unforgivable sin: making vampires boring.
The invitation opens in theaters on August 26.